Squanch Games must be a dream come true for its founder, Justin Roiland. Here’s a guy who started in acting and voice work for the likes of Adventure Time and Gravity Falls before co-creating the now cultural behemoth that is Rick and Morty, and now he’s got his own video game studio? And not just any video game studio but one whose output has so far largely been games designed to confuse and alarm anyone that plays them – at least that’s my experience so far.
Not to discredit the incredibly hard work that goes into game development but in my head, I imagine Squanch Games looking exactly like that scene in The Simpsons where Bart visits the MAD Magazine office.
Both Trover Saves the Universe, and Accounting before it, have felt largely like the studio experimenting with new ideas and ways to deliver the kinds of writing and acting that Roiland is known for in the medium of video games. Both used VR for example (optionally in Trover), a choice that makes a lot of sense when your objective is to inject pure mayhem directly into the eyeballs of your players, and it certainly worked. I don’t think I’ve ever felt an actual sense of aggression directed toward me from a video game before I touched Squanch’s output.
They’re smart and subversive things, but more than that they invoke emotional reactions that most people simply wouldn’t be used to in their games. It’s a particular brand of comedy, and one that seems to be carrying right through to High On Life.
Rather than a VR physics puzzler or platformer, this time around Squanch Games is diving into the (non-VR) world of first-person shooters. High On Life takes the space-faring, bounty-hunting stylings of something like Metroid Prime and combines it with the absurd notion of an alien cartel that’s come to earth to get high off of one drug in particular; humanity.
As a freshly-educated but unemployed human person, you’ll find yourself wrapped up in the effort to thwart this invasion by traveling through dynamic and changing planets and galactic environments armed with the game’s biggest hook – talking guns. Yep, another game produced almost exclusively to deliver the sounds of Justin Roiland yelling at a near-constant clip.
It really is more than that though, one of the biggest reasons I’ve been keen to get my hands around High On Life since its announcement earlier in the year is that this looked like a legitimately good take on the genre and concepts it pulls from while still leveraging that all-important brand of humour. That’s huge, if you ask me. Few games successfully do comedy and playability in equal measure (Monkey Island and Portal are good examples) so if Squanch can pull off a compelling and entertaining action adventure while still filling it with dick and cum jokes, well I’m all for it.
Good job then that today I finally got my chance to check out roughly 30 minutes of the game for myself with its Gamescom demo and it seems to be nailing the Squanch vibe and shaping up as a solid first person action adventure in its own right.
My demo began with an argument between my human main character’s sister and a three-eyed (one wonky) alien named Gene, who’s taken up residence at our home in exchange for showing me the ways of an intergalactic bounty hunter. That’s about as much context as I get, but it’s enough for me. Gene explains that a treasured possession of his, a knife, has been taken and he wants me to retrieve it from an alien crew run by a clone named 9-Torg that resides in some nearby slums.
As far as I can tell from my session, your home acts as a kind of hub from which to take on new bounty hunting missions – there’s a dedicated terminal that doles out contracts and can teleport you to whatever freaky planet or locale you need to get to. This particular quest was just a few blocks away so I set off on foot to find a knife. Outside, it’s clear that the Squanch penchant for relentless noise is in full force.
It seemed like everyone I looked was an oddball alien character to chat to, a display panel playing ads right out of the Intergalactic Cable episodes of Rick and Morty or just something real fucking weird to look at. There’s a lot of incentive just to take in your surroundings, or there’s a lot of incentive to powerwalk the hell through them, depending on your perspective.
After engaging in some entertaining branching dialogue with a couple security guards, where I had to choose which one I found more attractive in an effort to open either one of their doors leading to the exact same exit, I made my way into the slum area.
It’s here I encountered some of the subversive video game in-jokery that I’ve come to expect from the studio, when an adolescent alien decides to cross my path and threaten me. My talking alien gun (of the Gatlian species) is quick to remind me that you can’t kill kids in video games, and sure enough my crosshair and trigger are disabled while aiming at this particular NPC. I gave it a go regardless, as you do, and sure enough with a couple of attempts the game finally let me commit the heinous deed. I then had to tell the poor kid’s mother. Wouldn’t recommend.
The slums area itself quickly gave way to my first proper combat experiences against waves of 9-Torg’s goons as I moved toward my destination. At this point I only had the one Gatlian weapon so variety wasn’t a factor but the actual feel of combat and shooting is quite impressive. Murdering these ant-like aliens felt punchy and satisfying as they barked inane things at me and vocally questioned why they were being sent out in waves to their deaths.
Kenny has a secondary fire where he lobs a powerful shot that can send enemies flying into the world to be juggled with further shots, as well as be used out of combat to manipulate environmental pieces to aid progression. There are glimpses of adventure game design here where I came across numerous bits of environment or collectibles that I couldn’t yet access until I came back with later gear.
After shooting my way through this area and doing some light platforming, I finally collect my prize. After another chuckle-worthy scene I find myself in possession of Knifey, the foul-mouthed, bloodthirsty Aussie knife seen in High On Life’s marketing. Knifey not only functions as a handy close-quarters combat weapon but can tether onto certain surfaces and aerial objects to help you swing around the joint, which leads me back through some new ground in the slums and onto the 9-Torg boss fight that the studio showed off in the game’s Opening Night Live Spot. You can watch that below:
After this brief taste of High On Life I’m even more convinced than ever that this game is for me. If you buy into the Rick and Morty brand of absurdity and discomfort and you’re also into first-person action-adventure games then this seems to be doing both quite adeptly. I’m very keen to see more.
High On Life releases on December 13 for Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One and PC. It’ll also be launching on Xbox Game Pass.