When I sat down to play High on Life, the upcoming shooter from Justin Roiland’s game studio Squanch Games, I was pretty sure I knew what I was getting into. I’ve watched and enjoyed enough Rick and Morty to piece together the tone of the game at least, though I worried that spreading that out over countless hours might be absolutely tiring. The idea of talking weapons seemed charming and making them renowned comedians (like Tim Robinson of I Think You Should Leave fame) upped the ante even more, though once again I worried that overdoing it might spoil the bit. But all I had really pieced together beforehand were parts of a game that shocked me once it all came together. High on Life, according to the hour that I was able to put in, is a lot more than meets the eyes.
The demo I played saw my character taking on a contract to hunt down an alien named Douglas on a desert planet. Armed to the teeth with talking weapons I’d later learn were called Gatliens, I immediately wandered past a sign warning me about sandworms and was killed by…well, a sandworm. But one that opened its maw to reveal a terrifying baby face rather than a bunch of jagged teeth. So you know, it was scarier. This is the kind of gonzo stuff that lines the borders, nooks, and crannies of High on Life’s surprisingly deep levels. As I cut my way through that planet, the zaniness of the game never really let up. At one point, a construction crew verbally berated me the entire time I platformed my way across a canyon they were blocking me from crossing. At another, I used a warp disc to summon a miniature town straight out of Beetlejuice filled with “cuties,” these abominably ugly marble-sized freaks that float on balloons. Then, as is fair, I destroyed the town by merely walking through it. One such cutie appeared before me as a guide who then horrifyingly reacted to my destruction of their home, even pointing out when I wrecked their childhood home in particular. By the time I left, the cutie’s cheery facade had slipped and they essentially begged me to shoot them and spare them the misery of being alone in the world. I obliged, popping them in their weird little face/body, and then quickly moved on. So yes, this game does have the exact tone, pace, and bizarre asides of a Rick and Morty episode.
All of that I expected. What I was admittedly taken aback by was how smoothly it felt in action and how deep that action is. High on Life has this deceptive look to it that prompted me to think it would lean farther into its comedic tone than its shooting mechanics, a notion that was happily disproved over and over during my demo. The biggest deal has been made of the fact that each of your weapons is voiced and talks to the player frequently, but arguably the bigger deal should be made of what a competent shooter they make the game. Think of Doom Eternal as an Adult Swim show and you’ve got the closest approximation of what High on Life is. Every weapon has a personality and tool that lifts the shooter gameplay out of the doldrums it could’ve settled into and transforms the game into something with significant promise. Kenny, a pistol voiced by Roiland, has an alternative fire that launches a ball of goo that flings enemies into the air, where you can fill them with holes and juggle them like you’re playing a fighting game. Gus, a frog and shotgun brought to life by JB Smoove, can suck up enemies to bring them closer for you to blast, and his alt-fire releases a flaming disc that bounds off of enemies. And of course there’s Knifey, who knifes things. And while individually these abilities and weapons play satisfyingly, the real joy will inevitably come from making them work together, like bouncing a Gus disc off of a few enemies and whacking it with a well-timed Knifey melee to keep it going. Even now, I wonder if I can use Sweezy—a Halo needler whose alt fire freezes enemies in a temporal bubble that can be popped for extra damage—to suspend enemies Kenny can knock in the air and subsequently blow up for a cartoonish but rewarding wipe.
Many of these abilities help players discover the game’s seemingly countless secrets and collectibles, because these levels are essentially sprawling sections of a Metroid-style game. That’s where they really fuckin’ got me. Everywhere I looked, there seemed to be some secret route just out of sight that’d take me to some hidden chest—chests which the developers were happy to report had fully sculpted asses. Kenny’s goo could be arc’d to knock loose pathways, which resulted in an accidental bit of sequence-breaking on my behalf, while Sweezy’s time bubble slowed fans that let me crawl through vents or flying cars to use as platforms. Mikey Spano, the game’s art director, was on hand during my demo and filled me in on many of the secrets that’d be accessible when I came back with new guns and abilities, like a jetpack I could use to safely maneuver the sandworms territory or grav-boots that’d let me go up walkways that spanned walls of a city. The more I heard and saw, the more my Metroid-addled brain felt that itch being satisfied by a game that kept revealing pleasant surprises for me.
My time with High on Life came to a close soon after being brought forward to a boss fight against my target Douglas, who loudly declared to the entire city that he has a torture kink earlier in the demo. Once again, very similarly to the recent Doom games, this fight played out like a healthy balance between first-person shooting and 3D platforming that gave me a decent challenge on both ends. Parts of the floor were electrified, prompting me to use my whip to sail to the other side of the room, all the while taking out minions who were actually Douglas’ torture victims and knocking the boss off of pillars he kept darting between. Suffice to say, there was a lot to do, with plenty of chances to use these weapons’ unique abilities to amplify how inane everything about the encounter was.
Despite my praise, this little glimpse of High on Life wasn’t perfect, though its shortcomings felt less significant than its triumphs. The guns do talk a lot, and as someone who appreciates a good bit of quiet as much as a great punchline, I still think it runs the risk of being all too much. I was able to drown out parts of it amidst a lot of the action, but I imagine it will be more difficult for others and may come down to individual levels of tolerance. And while I was able to complete the demo’s platforming sections fine, the actual act of jumping, dashing and mounting felt occasionally wonky and floaty. But really that’s about all the faults I found in my brief time with the game, and more than anything, I’m excited to play more of it.
High on Life is admittedly one of the better surprises I’ve experienced lately. Though the game wasn’t initially on my radar, this preview solidified it as something to look forward to. Between a healthy blend of genres, a comedic touch, and a rock-solid foundation, I think it’s perfectly poised to make a great impression on folks, and considering it’s coming to Game Pass, it’s going to enjoy a sizable amount of attention when it launches on December 13.
Moises Taveras is the assistant games editor for Paste Magazine. He was that one kid who was really excited about Google+ and is still sad about how that turned out.