Back before Rick and Morty was the cartoon that spawned a thousand manbabies crying for their Szechuan Sauce, it was “The Real Animated Adventures of Doc and Mharti,” a crudely drawn (and very NSFW) parody of Back to the Future for Channel 101. Justin Roiland first conceived the idea in 2006 as a way to “‘troll’ a big studio,” but eventually decided that he liked voicing the characters and didn’t want to have to get a cease and desist letter. So, he changed just enough about the title and the spelling of the characters’ names to avoid a lawsuit.
I bring this up because High on Life, the latest game from the Roiland co-founded Squanch Games, feels more like “Doc and Mharti” than Rick and Morty. In many ways, it resembles a first draft of something bigger and better. “What if it’s a first-person shooter, but—get this—the guns can talk?” Sure, dude, in an era of violent video games trying to comment on the violence they ask their players to cause for the sake of entertainment, that’s not a bad idea, but High on Life is more interested in gags than doing anything fundamentally different from the games it’s satirizing. It wants to provoke and critique its source material, but it also doesn’t want to take itself too seriously for fear of being mocked. Sometimes it’s funny, but it’s also immature and downright uncomfortable to consume, and that’s just what the creators intended.
In High on Life, you play as a nameless, voiceless teenager who gets called to action when an alien drug cartel called the G3 invades Earth and rounds up the humans for the purpose of turning them into mind-altering drugs for other extraterrestrials to imbibe. During the invasion, you find Kenny (voiced by Roiland in a very Morty-esque tone), one of the last surviving members of a species called Gatlians that just so happen to be living, breathing guns, and decide to team up to avenge Gatlia and save Earth. To do so, you must become an intergalactic bounty hunter and take down all the top G3 brass.
From the very beginning, High on Life tries not to take itself too seriously, at least narratively. While there’s some genuine humanity on display in Kenny, your homeless bounty hunter mentor Gene, and your sister Lizzie, there’s not much in the way of an actual story. You simply go from mission to mission, killing G3 members, until the game is over. There are a few “revelations,” and a weird side story involving Lizzie and her new alien boyfriend, but they don’t really have a complete beginning, middle, and end. Likewise, the other Gatlians you rescue and subsequently add to your arsenal barely have distinct personalities, despite being voiced by an A-list cast—well, at least “A-list” for comedy fans, with JB Smoove, Betsy Sodaro, and Tim Robinson supplying their considerable and very distinctive talents. Only Robinson really gets to lean into his usual shtick—hapless weirdo—but across the board, the characters you spend the most time with all seem underutilized in terms of basic plot or development.
That doesn’t stop them from endlessly chattering or critiquing your gameplay (or, in some cases, reprimanding you for trying to shooting innocent NPCs), but the comments from the peanut gallery fall a little flat considering the game doesn’t really try to create an emotional connection between you and the Gatlians. There is a moment when you’re three-quarters of the way through slaying the G3 that the story tries to add an emotional beat with the living weaponry, but it’s underdeveloped and, frankly, unbelievable—even for a game that lets you buy alien jizz from a trenchcoated pusher and then gives you an achievement for holding onto said jizz for the rest of the game.
That’s about the level of humor you can expect from High on Life, a game that’s supposed to be most notable for its jokes. If you played Squanch’s previous Trover Saves the Universe, then you know exactly what to expect this time, too. But where that game felt novel in its use of iconoclasm and improvisation, High on Life already comes across as recycled material. It also doesn’t help that the game has that distinct, secondhand look of an indie title that buys a lot of its assets from the Unreal Engine shop. Whether that’s due to the high-contrast lighting, the stiff character animations, some of the generic scenery, or the terrible AI art posters, I don’t know, but it does make some of the game look less distinct and more like a game made specifically to get the attention of a “Let’s Play” YouTuber.
The Gatlians might not work as fully developed characters, but they at least work for their other intended purpose: murdering alien drug dealers. Each has a primary and secondary fire, as well as some kind of passive benefit while aiming down the sights. There are only four weapons throughout the majority of the game (you only unlock Robinson’s Creature halfway through the game), but they all play differently enough that I never was never left wanting for more tools of destruction. Between Kenny’s glob shot, Gus’ ricocheting razor disc, Sweezy’s time bubble, and Creature’s mind-controlling child-bullet (don’t ask), the gameplay stays fresh, if not a little buggy and janky at times.
But High on Life’s action also feels familiar. Though it might make snide comments about other first-person shooters, it sure does love borrowing ideas from them. Squanch adapted the Doom series’ recent glory kill system (where you get health for executing your enemies) for its own purposes, as well as a boost slide straight out of Platinum Games’ underrated Vanquish and a grapple hook system that’s reminiscent of Far Cry. That it somehow manages to integrate all these different gameplay elements into a mostly cohesive whole is pretty impressive, even if the animations attached to all these actions are slightly stilted and uncomfortable.
Is High on Life fun? It can be, but you do need to take it for what it is: a parody of video games more than a complete game itself. This might sound weird, but I kind of wish it was trying less to be a competent shooter and more its own thing. Throughout the game, you can steal warp crystals from enemy warp bases that spawn in to murder you. You can then purchase warp drives with those warp crystals, and spawn in small minigame areas that Squach’s designers came up with during a game jam session. These little warp drive worlds are some of the best and most interesting moments that High on Life has to offer, little gameplay breaks where the passion from the developers are on full display, truly living up to that improvisational spirit that made Roiland so successful on Channel 101 and beyond and translating it to the format of video games.
It’s a shame, and more than a little ironic, that these weirder, more interesting moments only occasionally punctuate what ends up being a fairly bog-standard shooter with a lot of tongue-in-cheek humor and not a lot of heart.
Images: Squanch Games
High on Life continues Squanch Games’ propensity for skewering video game tropes, this time in the form of a first-person shooter. Unfortunately, a lot of the game plays like a first draft, and armor of detached irony doesn’t do enough to protect it from its many, many kinks. Roiland’s personal brand of gross-out parody and “oh, geez” improvisational humor is already starting to feel routine in video game form, but there are a few standout bits. Thankfully, there’s a pretty fun shooter underneath all the alien semen, though stiff animations and some buggy moments can make it look slightly underbaked. If you’re a fan of Rick and Morty (or, more appropriately, “Doc and Mharti”), then High on Life might just be the pickup you need—but it never fully develops any of its really good ideas into a satisfying final draft.
M - Mature
|High on Life is available on Xbox Series X/S, Xbox One, and PC. Primary version played was for Xbox Series X. Product was provided by Squanch Games for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.