The gameplay reel for the upcoming Xbox console exclusive High on Life that aired during Gamescom Opening Night Live is perhaps the worst trailer for a game I’ve ever seen. Filled with weak jokes made worse by awkward timing, I left the show presentation sure it would be one of 2022’s most derided games come December.
I don’t say that to be cruel. I’m saying it to emphasize how much of a 180 I did on the game once I actually got to play it.
During Gamescom, I played a 20-minute demo of High on Life, which culminated in the boss fight showcased during Gamescom Opening Night Live. While some of the concerns I had with the game were still present, I’m feeling much more optimistic about Squanch Games’ upcoming comedy shooter. Not every joke landed, but it got some big laughs out of me – and this is coming from someone who felt secondhand embarrassment when they saw its trailer 12 hours before.
You’ll probably know whether or not you’ll like High on Life just based on who’s involved with it. It’s the brainchild of Squanch Games, a studio founded by Rick and Morty co-creator Justin Roiland. The creator’s sense of humor is all over the project, from its stuttery comedic delivery to its reliance on absurd and often edgy jokes.
If you were turned off by the humor in the Gamescom Opening Night Live trailer, you might be glad to hear that everything that comes before it is much funnier (and more fun). Set in a sci-fi world not so different from Rick and Morty, I took on the role of a bounty hunter out to kill some colorful aliens. Armed with a talking gun that’s basically just a bloodthirsty Morty, I set out to some sludge-filled slums to track down my first target.
Within 20 minutes, I’d hit a few moments that gave me a genuine belly laugh. The biggest one came when I entered the slums and was met by a child who kept taunting me into fighting him. My gun insisted that I couldn’t fight a kid, and I assumed the game wouldn’t let me shoot him if I tried. I was wrong. After shooting him dead and getting scolded for blowing the game’s chance at an E rating, I quickly bump into his mom, who assures me that it’s not that big of a deal since he was 30. That’s young in alien years, but not like shooting a five-year-old, right?
I’m chalking High on Life’s rough Gamescom Opening Night Live showing to a curation miscalculation.
Later I find my second talking weapon, a knife that is desperate to kill. After fulfilling his blood lust, he informs me that he can actually be used as a grappling hook too – and accuses me of being a knife racist for assuming all he thinks about is stabbing. Writing these jokes out doesn’t really do them justice – I’d probably be cringing alongside you had I only read them. A lot of them work because of great line-readings from voice actors who are experienced in comedy. There were still plenty of juvenile clunkers during my demo (a line about tearing someone a new anus probably would have gotten great laughs from 11-year-old me), but it isn’t just reliant on cussing to make you laugh.
Trailers don’t do the game’s gunplay any favors either. In the Gamescom clip, shots looked devoid of impact or power. That’s true of that particular boss fight, but small enemies certainly wouldn’t agree with that assessment. I got plenty of sick satisfaction any time I’d shoot a small bug enemy and they went flying into the air. My gun even encouraged me to try juggling them with more shots while they’re up there, just because he thought it would be cool to see. And it is.
My concerns are now less about the core elements and more about whether they can sustain a full game. There’s a quip every second and that’s always a recipe for disaster for any comedy game. Fortunately, I didn’t bump into any repeat lines during my demo. Also, while I enjoyed the over-exaggerated feel of shooting and stabbing, it didn’t feel like there was much more depth to it with this particular loadout. I’m hoping Squanch Games is planning to stay concise here, delivering a shorter game that gets all the greatest punchlines in – a tight-five, if you will.
I’m chalking High on Life’s rough Gamescom Opening Night Live showing to a curation miscalculation. Had Squanch Games dropped the five minutes leading up to the boss fight as a video instead, I’m confident that it would have gotten a warmer reception. But at least that sets Squanch Games up to catch players off guard with a comedy fundamental: surprise.
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