By Jatin Gundara
When looking at the vast universe of video game genres, it seems that for each I have a host of preconceptions and expectations. RPGs should be immersive and captivating, strategy games thought-provoking and engaging, metroidvanias cohesive and logical. However, the most fully formed negative preconception I have about any genre pertains to first person shooters. FPS games have never intrigued me, in large part due to frustrating combat, the persistence of unfortunate visual and narrative sameness between most titles, and my absorption with more captivating games. Still, this may be what makes the decidedly offbeat atmosphere of Squanch Games’ High on Life appeal to my tastes.
High on Life is not your conventional shooter, and as such will certainly not appeal to all fans of the genre. In fact, I would argue that the game’s daring satire and visual style could dissuade many players. But for those who are willing to brave its oddities, High on Life can provide an extensive amount of attachment to its world and characters, especially for a game with such a short playtime (~10 hours).
The plot sees the player cast on an outrageous space odyssey to liberate Earth from a cartel of aliens using humans as living drugs (very unimaginative, I know). What immediately caught me off guard was the prevalence of the guns the player uses not only as weapons but as characters. From the very start, High On Life provides the player with the companionship of a talking gun named Kenny, who will come to be joined by five other talking weapons (called Gatlians), each equipped with unique abilities and personalities.
From the very first moment I heard Kenny speak, I knew that I had either struck video game gold or found myself a persistent thorn in my side. The speed-talking Kenny is actually a weapon that looks a bit like a blue caterpillar and shoots green slime. Each weapon serves to provide a flavor of personality, from a bossy Semi-Automatic Pistol to a wholesome shotgun. It may take some time to get acclimated to the distinct, (yet universally bold) personalities of each weapon–which will certainly persist, clash, and make their mark on the player by the end of the journey.
However, one thing nearly every character, enemy, joke, reference, and detail has in common is its highly explicit nature. Through regular gameplay, unwarranted swear-ridden rants will be unleashed from every gun and nearly every enemy in every situation (down to the excruciating detail). The dialogue devolved to become so crass that I had to keep pausing the game for fear of my 12 year old sister overhearing some filth. Yet even through the treacherous dialogue, I couldn’t help but start to feel attached to the weapons I had journeyed, explored, and fought with. Utilizing the voice talents of the likes of Rick and Morty’s Justin Roiland, actor J.B. Smoove, Sarah Sherman in the upcoming DLC, and a wide array of others, High On Life seems to have a witty commentary (or crass remark) on any situation imaginable, showing just how much time went into writing the amusing dialogue and story.
However, the atmosphere of High On Life is not just a product of impressive voice talents and plot development, but also its distinct visual style, with Rick and Morty being one of the most obvious influences. Bright colors, wacky character designs and a plethora of visual references and details throughout the game’s locales make for a truly distinct feeling.
High On Life takes place across four planets and numerous locations, all with a uniquely alien feel. Inhabiting these environments are enemies whose designs are truly a testament to High On Life’s ever-flourishing visual style. Enemies are all covered in yellow goop (which is revealed to be something inappropriate) which breaks down as they are attacked, revealing a skinny, blue interior. The enemies can also release truly disgusting voice lines, which makes combat that much more distractingly chaotic. The cartoonish aesthetic can create a powerful effect of confusion and overstimulation when undergoing intense combat sequences, as the harmony of dialogue, combat, and visuals can provide a feeling which the game’s title describes perfectly.
Setting aside flashy visuals and talking guns, one of the largest deviations from the traditional shooter setting is the difficulty of gameplay. Even on the highest difficulty setting, High On Life is fairly easy to complete. This, in my opinion, was a design choice which only adds to what the game is about.The lack of overwhelming challenge allows the player to take in the audiovisual aspects which dictate the flow of gameplay, and the way the player perceives the world. While some players may miss a traditional mode that is more punishing, the lack of difficulty is made up for with clever game design choices. Every level includes dozens of secrets for the player to find, accentuated by a prevalence of platforming elements. The game also uses a metroidvania-esque design philosophy to encourage players to explore areas they’ve already visited (which are all quite expansive). To me, melting pot of so many different genres all ensure the player has a captivating gameplay experience.
With every review, I try to contemplate what takeaways the player could have after their experience with a game is finished. In short, what effect does the game have beyond the screen? And through even the smallest consideration, it becomes clear that the sole purpose of High On Life is to give the player the best time possible. The combination of all of the game’s elements provided me a feeling of pure fun, an aspect which many modern games undervalue. My takeaway from High On Life was that letting go of stress and having fun is something we all need to remember to do every once in a while, whether it be in a world of drug-smoking aliens, or in your own life. I learned that sometimes, simple enjoyment trumps all.
Jatin Gundara, who’s based outside Los Angeles, was our Fair Game Writing Challenge winner and is NYVGCC’s West Coast intern.
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