“High on Life’s” guns talk because that’s the game’s main hook. Made by Squanch Games, a studio founded by “Rick and Morty” co-creator Justin Roiland, “High on Life” functions equally as a decent shooter and a technicolor venue for Roiland and a host of other comedians to crack about 10 straight hours of jokes. And, just as the in-game protagonist feels like a vessel for the guns’ talk, this focus on humor means that the player’s involvement in the game’s action comes across as a grudging concession — a necessary evil that allows more jokes to be delivered.
This isn’t to say that “High on Life” is a terrible shooter. It quickly establishes its setup, casting the player as a suburbanite who’s found themselves lost on an alien world where a drug cartel traffics in humans because it’s been discovered that smoking and eating us gets extraterrestrials super high. Armed with the first talking gun they encounter, a gloopy blue pistol voiced by Roiland, “High on Life” throws the player into battle against bipedal ants, hopping frog-things and the most commonly encountered enemies: vaguely person-shaped alien cartel soldiers who look like they’re covered in a thick layer of liquefied Velveeta.
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The shooting benefits from a distinct, rubbery aesthetic that adds a slapstick kineticism to gunfights set in jungles running with nuclear-green rivers, rainbow graffiti-caked shantytowns and shadowy desert canyons. Everything sounds appropriately wet: The thuds, cracks and zaps of gunfire mix with viscous splashes from the pistol’s gunk-spraying alternate firing mode or the muddy squelch of anthropomorphic rounds reloading in a weapon shaped like a grenade launcher. When enemies are defeated, they fall to the ground in loose-limbed piles. The melted cheese that drips from the cartel’s fighters flies off them in globs when shot until their grayish, spindly bodies are uncovered and they fall dead.
All of it is welcomingly cartoonish, but weighty enough to make the gunfights feel substantial — which is important since, apart from navigating levels with launchable platforms, grapple hooks, jetpacks and wall-tethered boots, shooting aliens makes up most of what players do in the game.
Unfortunately, the comedy that forms so much of what else “High on Life” has to offer is a lot more uneven than its action. In addition to the pistol, the player uses a frog-like shotgun voiced by “Curb Your Enthusiasm’s” J.B. Smoove, an energetically rude submachine gun (“Disjointed’s” Betsy Sodaro) and a toadlike, multi-breasted and alien anus-covered launcher that births swarms of childlike offspring (“I Think You Should Leave’s” Tim Robinson). While Roiland’s style of humor fits well with the rapid-fire delivery of jokes that move “High on Life” along, Smoove and Robinson seem uncharacteristically downbeat, aside from a handful of great lines throughout the game.
The rest of the cast fares better and is broad enough to keep the jokes from grating. Though he didn’t receive top billing, “The Kids in the Hall’s” Kevin McDonald is one of the real stars of the game, leaning fully into multiple roles from a helium-voiced boss to a three-eyed, pink-faced store owner. Maria Bamford’s scenes stick out, too, though she doesn’t get enough time to really shine.
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“High on Life” offers a lot of well-delivered, solid jokes, even if the sheer volume of dialogue can numb the player’s ear in the same way that marathoning an entire season of a TV comedy makes it hard to keep laughing. At its best, the constant chatter fades into the background during action scenes, creating an effect kind of like listening to a podcast that happens to be riffing on what’s playing out on screen. When “High on Life” finds this sort of rhythm, a well-timed joke hits hard. A character muttering “Jesus Christ” as the player leaves a conversation, a gun reminding the player to use a special ability that spurts from its “trick hole” or just a foul-mouthed, homicidal comment from one of the guns in the middle of a firefight — the unexpected jokes often make the largest impact.
Whether the style of comedy will work for a player depends greatly, of course, on personal preference. None of the jokes are particularly high brow. The bits are centered mostly on topics like alien masturbation (this, it turns out, is a deep well), offhanded insults and gross-out character work, usually related to a bizarre creature’s bodily functions.
Far less welcome are a series of fourth wall-breaking jokes that pop up at regular intervals. Early on, the ant enemies yell that they think they might be the toughest enemies in the game despite us knowing they’re fodder for an introductory gunfight. A pipe-maneuvering environmental puzzle gets called out as poor design by the Roiland gun before the weapon goes on to worry that the game’s score will suffer when reviewed by gaming sites Kotaku, Polygon and IGN because of it. One boss fight heavily references a memorable sequence from the first “Metal Gear Solid,” and shooting a deceptively young-looking alien in one area prompts the pistol to remark that “High on Life” has just lost any shot at an “E for Everyone” age rating. None of these bits do much to build on their references. They simply point out that other games exist, and that “High on Life” is one of them.
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There’s a whiff of desperation or self-consciousness to these moments, and in general throughout the entire game. Maybe inevitably when so many jokes are delivered at such a relentless pace, “High on Life” gives the feeling that its makers decided to hedge their bets by offering a huge volume of comedy, hoping that something will land. It feels, in this, like someone trying out their tight five on a gagged audience. (The game features a menu toggle to reduce the amount of inessential chatter, but its inclusion comes across not as a solution to an overly busy design concept, but as a blunt and self-conscious band-aid.)
This points to a broader, foundational problem with “High on Life:” Roiland’s brand of seemingly off-the-cuff humor, punctuated by stutters and false starts, doesn’t fit a high production value video game as well as a deceptively cheap-looking cartoon like “Rick and Morty.” “High on Life” is clearly the result of deliberate, careful thought and effort. It’s hard to imagine anyone perceiving it as a product of spontaneity, and spontaneity is what makes Roiland’s comedy work.
This uneven mix of humor and design keeps “High on Life” from ever feeling like a natural combination of video game and traditional comedy, even if there are plenty of moments where glimpses of some better blend of the two elements appears. What’s here is worthwhile for audiences curious about the concept of a comedy shooter, but it’s too uneven and stiflingly desperate to please to recommend beyond that.
Reid McCarter is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared at the AV Club, GQ, Kill Screen, Playboy, The Washington Post, Paste and Vice. He is also a co-editor of books SHOOTER and Okay, Hero, edits Bullet Points Monthly, and tweets @reidmccarter.