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Saturday, April 13, 2024

Justin Roiland’s talking gun FPS finally won me over

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When High On Life took the stage at this year’s Gamescom Opening Night Live show, I was reminded that not enough shooters try to make us laugh. They’re so serious, and not even just the competitive multiplayer ones! Whether it’s over-the-top demon murder or “grounded” tactical military murder, rarely do you see a game that plays with the inherent absurdity of dropping bodies by the dozens.

Justin Roiland and the folks at Squanch Games are making a rare comedy FPS that is unmistakably the work of the Rick and Morty creator: your guns are aliens who talk incessantly about their neurotic worries and violent fantasies, often breaking the fourth wall to bluntly deliver a punchline. 

I think that’s a great idea for a game, but I get why it’d make some people cringe. A lot of folks got a bit exhausted with Rick Sanchez’s whole shtick around season 3 of Rick and Morty (the Pickle Rick season), and after the whole Szechuan Sauce incident showed how annoying the show’s fanbase could be, it became fashionable to dislike Rick and Morty. I still like the show, but it has lost some of its charm, and Roiland’s whole thing hasn’t changed much in High On Life, though we’ve yet to see a character who fills the narcissistic nihilist role of Rick Sanchez.

High On Life is similar enough to Rick and Morty that I noticed an immediate negative reaction to the Gamescom trailer on my social feed. Some said it was “painful” to watch. I do think that trailer was too much. Three minutes of the Morty pistol negging the boss you’re fighting was draining, even if he got some funny jabs in like “come on admit it, we’re hurting you!” I wasn’t won over until I watched this 25-minute gameplay demo shared by IGN a few days later.

The longer video shows an abridged version of an early mission. It sounds like the meat of the game is hunting down bounty targets and finding new gun-alien companions along the way. Doom-like arena fights and platforming challenges are broken up by choice-driven dialogue moments in which, for some reason, the Morty pistol does all the talking (maybe he’s translating into alien speak?).

This was the first time that I could really appreciate how nice High On Life looks. The alien designs are delightfully funky and gross—shooting the Morty pistol’s secondary grenade out of his “trick hole” makes the whole gun briefly flop around like a wet noodle. Not to mention that every line coming out of your gun’s mouth is believably animated and lip-synced. A budget game this is not.

Much like Rick and Morty, not every High On Life gag landed for me, but the ones that did are still making me smile a day later. I had a good laugh at the kid who dares you to shoot them. The Morty gun flat-out refuses to shoot when you pull the trigger at first, but eventually gives in: “Wow, I didn’t think we’d be allowed to kill them. Normally killing kids in games isn’t allowed. Are you happy now? A kid is dead. There goes our E for Everyone rating.” Even as it pokes fun at the unkillable children of videogames, High On Life holds back in a way that’s comforting rather than going for full shock humor, and even pulls back later to soften the tone: The self–described “kid” sounds more like an adult doing a kid voice, and if you talk to his mom a bit later, she confirms he was actually 30 (which is still an adolescent for their species, but “not as bad as killing a 5-year-old”).

A few other smaller lines got me pretty good, too. When you suddenly shoot one of the two alien bug guards telling you to beat it, the other one reacts in shock with, “Hey, you just killed Jason!” As I’m mowing down virtual baddies in videogames, I do sometimes think about the implications that these are people with names, careers, and loving families. I appreciate High On Life hitting this note in an absurdist, dark comedy way instead of, say, Last of Us 2’s heavy-handed NPCs that are almost too realistic.

And then there is, of course, the knife that is only interested in cutting things and eating their buttholes. Knifey probably opens his piehole one too many times throughout the mission, but I still chuckled at one of his introductory lines antagonizing the bug guards in the room. “I’m gonna carve out your ass cavity. Gonna make it three times as big. Your shit’s just gonna drop right out of there.”

If this demo turns out to be all of High On Life—get bounty, talk to aliens, shoot other aliens, and fight a boss—I think I’ll be satisfied. The shooting looks pretty slick and there’s just enough Doom 2016 going on with Knifey’s glory kill executions and grapple hook mode that I’m convinced Squanch cares about making a good shooter on top of all the jokes. And unlike so many Gamescom games shown off this week, High On Life is out this year. It’s coming to consoles and PC on December 13.

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