Being high isn’t a requirement to enjoy Squanch Games’ latest offering, High on Life, though it certainly seems like it’d be something that could help elevate the overall experience. Not because the game is bad; in fact, much of it is uniquely enjoyable and surprisingly immersive in its own strange way.
Rather, the atmosphere of the game shines brightest when viewed through the lens of players who enjoy chaotic and oftentimes nonsensical forms of stoner humor. While this slow-baked, yet filling game may not be for everyone, those able to click with it and its signature blend of humor are in for one hell of a great time.
Content warning: Review includes mention of dark subject matter featured in some of the game’s side stories and themes including suicide.
Welcome to space
High on Life’s core premise centers around the alien G3 Cartel invading Earth in search of drugs, which for them come in the form of human beings. Taking on the role of a directionless teenage boy turned bounty hunter, you along with your trusty talking gun and stab-happy knife, will attempt to set things right by completing a variety of jobs largely based around killing aliens.
On the surface, High on Life feels like an alternate universe Rick & Morty-brand adventure packed full of strange humor. Explore a little more and you’ll find a surprising amount of thoughtfulness baked in. In the beginning, High on Life is a game that feels like a lightly structured sandbox set up to play around in rather than a straightforward narrative with a few side paths thrown in as padding.
The narrative opens up as you progress with bits and pieces sprinkled throughout all corners of the game, how deeply you choose to dig into the stories surrounding each character and bounty mission is entirely up to you. Even though you have this freedom, the game does has a way of distinctly rewarding and interacting with players patient (or stubborn) enough to sit through each moment right on through ‘til the end.
One example is during a mission, the player is given an objective to wait one full hour. Obviously there’s another, easier way out immediately available that allows players to reach the next area. However, my curiosity got the better of me here and I decided, you know what, I have some background entertainment and snacks, let’s leave the game on and wait an hour and see what happens.
To my delight, the game responded to this bizarre decision by offering up slivers of bonus content here and there. While the payoff wasn’t substantial — or much of anything, really — I at least got the personal satisfaction of being able to do that if I wanted. Characters will often acknowledge your actions outside of ones tied to objectives as well, such as if you jump around on the shelves in the pawn shop you’ll be mocked and asked if you’re having fun up there.
Another example of High on Life’s thoughtful, deeper than you might think narrative is an NPC you meet fairly on in the game. In a demo I played at PAX West back in September, I ended up killing them and that was that. In this run of High on Life, I decided to crouch down and listen to him insult me until he ran out of dialogue.
As purposefully annoying as this character is, this wait-and-see approach revealed the NPC getting progressively more desperate in antagonizing you until it becomes clear the character’s life is awful and they’re intentionally riling you up to help them end it.
Suicide-related humor and other similar dark subject matter is found everywhere in High on Life, which didn’t bother me as someone who’s struggled with depression for much of my life. It may bother some players though, especially with how pervasive it is throughout much of the game’s story.
Chillin’ with Tammy and the T-Rex
Outside of the game’s main activities, High on Life offers side activities including the ability to watch a real-life 90s film called Tammy and the T-Rex. I’d never seen or heard of the film before, but enjoyed watching it in full while crouching and pretending to sit on the couch. This is another area where the game rewards patience, allowing you to tune into elaborate skits and commercials which for me were among the game’s strongest highlights.
In one mission, I walked past several TV monitors with commercials that unfolded and progressed the farther along I got. The first commercial was for Mothers Against Violence, the second for a similar yet different campaign, Mothers For Violence. Eventually, it reached a point where I was treated to a commercial for Mothers For/Against Violence.
Another area where I got sidetracked from the main game was in learning more about each of the NPCs. One NPC had a friend who communicated in fart noises. Groundbreaking comedy, I know. But interestingly this NPC wants a drum, and if you buy him one from the nearby pawn shop he’ll play it and… he’s pretty good actually.
In a saloon area, there’s an alien who’ll offer to play the trungle-funk for you. He’s not very good at it unfortunately, with the music being mostly recorder squeaks and squeals. I let my character stand around for a minute or two anyway, crouching up and down as if they were dancing. It was fun, for me at least. I love moments like that, and how the game doesn’t expect you to take it seriously.
Unfortunately, there are some glaring issues that hold High on Life back from reaching its highest potential. Among these are woefully lackluster accessibility features. To its credit, the game opens with a seizure warning. However, when I encountered one of the scenes that could trigger a seizure in an early boss battle, its inclusion just didn’t feel necessary.
That portion of the fight could’ve and probably should’ve been changed. Outside of this, while trying to watch TV programs, sometimes the subtitles would be there, and sometimes they wouldn’t. The subtitles weren’t always properly aligned with what was being said either, often disappearing off the screen prematurely. There’s also no option to increase the size of the text.
While I enjoyed much of the humor in the game, it does fall short at times. Some of the NPCs deliver jokes that lean more towards cringe such as an NPC that delights in urinating on himself and proceeds to do so right in front of you. That one didn’t quite stick the landing, though to counter that I loved when NPC construction workers continued to berate me in the background as I platformed my way away from them.
High on Life does feature a few minor performance issues and bugs as well, but these aren’t as intrusive as some of the style choices in the game. Setting aside the visuals which fall flat for me compared to the rest of the game, there are also moments like this one with the main character’s sister choosing to stare blankly at a car door while an alien smoked a whole person right across the street.
Squanch's guide to the galaxy
I wound up liking High on Life far more than I thought I would. It’s bizarre and twisted and unlike anything else I’ve played this year. The game’s humor is definitely going to be hit or miss for many, but nevertheless I do feel High on Life is worth taking a peek at in spite of this. Especially if you enjoy “choose your own adventure” type games.
There’s combat and light puzzle-solving, but at its core, High on Life is a narrative sandbox adventure that requires little more than your time and attention. As someone who’s been feeling a little stressed and seasonally depressed lately, I sincerely appreciated that (and the ability to watch Tammy and the T-Rex, that’s also pretty rad).
This review is based on a PC (Steam) copy of the game supplied by the publisher. High on Life is out now on Xbox One, Series X|S, and PC.
High on Life
- Surprisingly immersive
- Finds new ways to keep you entertained
- Narrative elements reward your patience
- Lets you watch Tammy and the T-Rex
- Solid voice acting, endless lines of character dialogue
- Delightfully stupid from start to finish
- Some genuinely funny moments
- Lacking accessibility features
- Performance issues, minor bugs
- Visuals fail to stick the landing
- Some genuinely cringey moments