High On Life (Xbox Series X) Review

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As someone who doesn’t regularly follow the prolific works of quintuple-threat (animator, voice actor, writer, director and TV show producer) Justin Roiland (of Rick and Morty and Solar Opposites fame), the extent of my experience with Roiland’s absolutely NSFW brand of humor up until recently had been little more than a passing interest in the former show when the “McDonalds Szechuan sauce” meme blew up five years ago. Thankfully, neither a working knowledge of the above shows’ nine combined seasons of lore, nor experience with Roiland’s and Squanch Games’ previous VR collaborations Accounting+ or Trover Saves the Universe are required to enjoy their latest game, High on Life. This is a wonderful thing because High on Life absolutely deserves to be played, provided that you have an open-minded sense of humor broad enough to withstand the sharp edges of its black comedy. 

In High on Life, players are thrust into the sneakers of a young, underachieving teenager with many years of first-person-shooter game experience under his belt who answers the call when planet Earth is invaded by the G3 Cartel, a criminal alien collective that is indiscriminately abducting humans with the intention of smoking them in bongs. Nope, I’m not joking.  

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Narrowly escaping capture from the G3 alongside his sister Lizzie, the protagonist joins forces with Kenny, a sentient, talking gun, and Gene, a dual amputee, down-on-his-luck alien bounty hunter who loans the hero his old suit. Together, they set out to eliminate the elite members of the cartel in the threefold hopes of saving humanity (and by extension, the protag’s parents), freeing as many members of Kenny’s “Gatlian” race as possible from indentured servitude as G3 weapons, and supposedly making Gene a quick buck tor his retirement schemes.  

I won’t beat around the bush here. High on Life isn’t just thoroughly entertaining as comedy, it’s also an exceptionally competent Metroidvania-style game lurking in the guise of a very solid first-person shooter, heavily inspired by conventions and tropes that have been typical of both genres from as far back as the 1990’s right up to the present day. Case in point, each of the six living weapons that players will come across in High on Life feature Primary and Secondary firing modes, as well as a fully intentional, awkwardly named “trick hole” ability that can be used to take out enemies in unorthodox ways, and more importantly, gain access to previously unreachable areas via their unique abilities.  

High on Life isn’t just thoroughly entertaining as comedy, it’s also an exceptionally competent Metroidvania-style game lurking in the guise of a very solid first-person shooter…”

For example, Kenny (voiced by Roiland) normally fires shots of corrosive plasma slime as his primary fire, but his secondary fire is a more concentrated form of slime bullet called a “Glob Shot” that bounces off of surfaces and launches any normal enemies that it hits into the air where they can be juggled for further damage. Naturally, the Glob Shot can also be used to manipulate “splatforms,” which are platforms, doors, barriers, and switches that can be moved back and forth by hitting them with a Glob Shot, a key gameplay mechanic used for solving puzzles or opening passageways to new areas in the game.  

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As players progress and acquire new Gatlians from their dead G3 bosses’ hands, they’ll gain new powers such as the ability to create new platforms on special surfaces, temporarily freeze objects and adversaries in time, use mind-control on enemies and more. Additionally, enhancement mods can be found or purchased that can improve each Gatlian’s efficiency or significantly alter how each gun’s offensive abilities work while in battle. 

What sets High on Life apart from other “Metroidvanias” I’ve played over the years are easily its characters and atmosphere, which along with the game’s rock-solid FPS gameplay are all far better than one would normally presume they have a right to be. Putting it succinctly, when things happen in High on Life, they almost always happen in an unconventional way, and on the rare occasions that they don’t, it’s because Roiland and Squanch games are purposely winking at you as they tear down the fourth wall repeatedly.

“It shouldn’t surprise anyone that High on Life features a star-studded voice cast, but it’s best enjoyed going in blind and not knowing who is voicing who.”

From the atypical way in which the protagonist comes across his first gun and the bizarre means by which he and Lizzie leave earth and wind up in Blim City, to how “trial software components” in Gene’s old bounty hunter suit OS will occasionally litter the player’s HUD with ads that must be closed manually by the player, High on Life never lets players forget that they are participating in a game that is fully self-aware of itself, and that disruption, rather than immersion is the norm. 

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Naturally, the talkative Gatlians are the game’s biggest stars in this regard. At random moments they’ll often remark on how odd, gross and sometimes erotic it is to be held by the player, chastise the player for not using them or their “trick holes” often enough, scream at them for dying without throwing them to safety first, and indirectly pick apart the odd logic of familiar videogame conventions by suggesting that players perform them (e.g. walking up to and talking to random NPCs to gain information or using “Detective Mode”), only to have them play out awkwardly. Sometimes the Gatlians will even name-drop other real-life games that popularized the very mechanics that High on Life is emulating at that very second, or make side-splitting references to modern pop-culture media that they couldn’t possibly know anything about. 

Each of the game’s six Gatlians have their own distinct voice and personality, and they will often chime in on conversations with other NPCs to fill in for the voiceless protagonist, often resulting in different lines of conversation depending on which Gatlian happens to be in the player’s hand at the time. There are even some encounters that have lengthier and more bespoke interactions for certain Gatlians if they are equipped. The voice of each Gatlian is pitch perfect and I found myself swapping between them often just to hear what they would say next. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that High on Life features a star-studded voice cast, but it’s best enjoyed going in blind and not knowing who is voicing who. 

Then there’s the rest of the predominantly alien cast, whose vibrancy is as abundant and colourful as the game’s foul language. Not every NPC that one encounters in the game’s hub world of Blim City and its connected cities and planets will talk to you when approached, but the ones that do will often have a whole lot to say, much of it hysterical, twisted, and dark (but ultimately in a decidedly light-hearted and irreverent tone). The game’s G3 ringleaders are even wackier, often trading lengthy, expletive-laden verbal barbs with the protagonist’s equipped Gatlian as they use their special boss attacks and/or summon waves of minions over the course of multiple combat phases to do our hero in.  

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As mentioned earlier, the atmosphere of High on Life plays a huge role in setting the game apart from other Metroidvanias. The game’s Design Director, Erich Mayr has described it as “Blade Runner meets the Muppets,” and I personally can’t think of a more accurate description, particularly in its city-based levels, where the vividly-coloured, googly-eyed aliens, neon signs, video-panels and futuristic skyscrapers of Blim City are juxtaposed against the filth, grit and sliminess of connected dungeons like The Slums and Dreg Town. It’s a fantastic looking game that I never would have imagined an indie studio like Squanch Games being capable of making based on their previous output, but lo and behold, they’ve set a brand-new bar for themselves that even several of Microsoft’s own internal studios would do well to emulate. 

As for the Metroidvania conceit of hiding desirable upgrades in plain sight, High on Life does a respectable job in this arena as well with its hidden chests, which are actually sentient aliens that players have to murder with a knife to open. The wavy, glowing antennae of these chest aliens make it easy for players to identify even from far across the map, and many of them are dangled mercilessly in front of players throughout the game long before they can obtain the traversal upgrades they’ll need to reach them, just like a true Metroidvania should. Along with other collectibles, chest aliens contain substantial amounts of Pesos, the standard currency in Blim City, which are required to purchase most upgrades from shops. 

“My only complaint with High on Life to be honest lies with a good chunk of the game’s music, as well as its sound design.”

Between lengthy, multiple-phase boss fights and difficult to reach loot hidden in treacherous areas, players can expect to die or fall to their deaths often. Thankfully, the checkpoint autosave system is both frequent and generously forgiving, even in the rare occurrence that the game hard crashes. It always returns players to a stable midpoint in the fight, or a safe place from which to reattempt a challenging jump or other transversal. 

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My only complaint with High on Life to be honest lies with a good chunk of the game’s music, as well as its sound design. Many of its tunes (composed primarily by electronic artist TOBACCO) are repetitive and come down quite heavily on the Lo-Fi beats side, which can prove sleep-inducing during long sessions of exploration. There are some catchy combat and mood tracks that definitely slap though. Environmental sounds are a bit bare however, making the game seem awfully quiet even when the player is exploring jungle habitats or standing among a crowd of aliens.  

I could easily continue heaping on this game for many more paragraphs as there’s so many more aspects of that deserve mentioning, but the bottom line here is that High on Life is exactly the type of dark horse, console-exclusive, IP out of left field that the Xbox platform desperately needs more of right now. It’s also a perfect game for Microsoft to launch Day One into Xbox Game Pass, as its meaty, single-player focused gameplay and genuinely funny narrative combined with the notoriety of its pedigree will ensure that many mature subscribers starving for a new adventure will give the game a try over the holidays.  

Roiland and Squanch have lovingly crafted an action-adventure game of impeccable quality on an indie budget that should not be missed. Just imagine what they could be capable of with an even bigger publisher (your move, Microsoft)! 

Final Thoughts

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