I went into my High On Life hands-on session with one expectation: its talking alien guns will annoy the heck out of me. But in a surprising turn of events, I left thinking the game was a real highlight of my time in Cologne's multi-hall maze of excellent people and overpriced schnitzel.
And most importantly, the guns didn't annoy me at all! In fact, their craic contributed a great deal to my enjoyment of the strangest FPS I've played in a while - one where I was forever grinning at the screen like an idiot. If you're a fan of Rick And Morty from before it got weird to be a fan of Rick And Morty (or Squanch Games' back catalogue, or general bizarro laughs), this is one for the wishlist.
I got hands-on with roughly 25 minutes of High On Life's earliest levels, where a raggedy alien has made himself comfortable in your regular human home and set up an alien bounty machine next to the TV. Long - and bizarre - conversation short, you're tasked with tracking down a mercenary called 9-Torg, who has stolen a special knife and cemented her presence in Brim City's slums. Despite the presence of odd aliens, the mission your faced with sounds quite familiar, right?
The game's greatest strength lies in how it glues together a linear mission with amusing surprises and silly decisions, taking what you'd think would be a familiar journey off piste in all manner of ways. Where your typical FPS might steer you through a tight knit corridor of close-quarters fights, then thrust you into a set piece battle against the sergeant who betrayed your squadron, High On Life would, I dunno, turn said sergeant into a highly strung gigantic ball of orange flubber who'd bat you over the head with a tentacle shaped like Masahiro Sakurai.
And because High On Life is set in a universe that's a bubbling goop of playdough that anything could writhe out of, it allows the game to morph the simplest interactions with doors or NPCs or levers into a surreal interaction. For instance, the passage to Brim City's slums aren't just your usual swinging gates or revolving doors. Oh no, they're a twin pair of blue and red blobs that pop out of tubes, a bit like M&Ms if you dropped them in a vat of radioactive material and they gained sentience. The blue one sounds like a clumsy mafioso, who asks which of the two we'd ask out if we saw them in a bar. Immediately, I chose the nasally red one who seemed a bit done with his twin's antics. Instantly his spirit lifted, rubbing his victory in his brother's face, revelling in his newfound hotness and opening his gates to us forever.
Not long after skulking through the tunnels to the slums, we encountered a little yellow cyclops fella who shoved me backwards and proclaimed that he's "just a child". Before I knew it, he was giggling and stepping in my way and we couldn't shake the dude. He yelled "go ahead, shoot me!" thinking that we couldn't do anything about it. But I pressed the trigger because, I'm an evil bastard, and was met with a click. My blue gun acknowledged that we probably won't be able to do anything, seeing as killing kids in games isn't normally allowed. When I pressed the trigger again - just to be sure - I zapped the kid in the eyeball, causing him to thud to the floor in a pool of his own blood. And there I was, expelling a great big snort of laughter.
I chatted to some lady a little later, who said, "It finally happened. Someone killed me son". My gun apologised profusely, but she interjected with a "good on us" explaining that her son was in fact a thirty year old man who had it coming. Shortly after that it all kicked off, as we entered a slum filled with 9-Torg's ant cronies and attempted to track the big boss down. I keep saying say "we", because it really does feel like your gun is your companion through it all.
And having a gun-panion isn't as annoying as you might think, because – as far as the demo was concerned, anyway – they never repeated themselves. Their role is less "guns that talk" and more "a storytelling device that happens to be a weapon", which wasn't communicated too well in the game's earliest teasers and trailers. Your character will angle them in a "you're on speaker" way during chats with humanoid ants or tentacle monsters, ensuring that their opinion is heard but, to a great extent, yours too. As a silent protagonist, your weapons are your voice.
The gunplay is strong, too, with snappy movement and punchy shots. Clock a mutant ant with a few zaps and their limbs will snap off and burst like green hosepipes, which makes every shot feel impactful. You can fire big goo balls that not only bring your blue alien gun a bit too much pleasure, but also launch enemies into the air so you can juggle them with your bullets. It was simplistic stuff, but did enough to keep an ardent FPS fan like me satisfied throughout, and I'd hope the game will continue to mix things up with gun abilities over the full runtime.
Once I'd got my hands on Knifey, who's an Aussie who lives for stabbing, I could slice open crates for Pesos (presumably, currency), sate his desire for blood by dicing enemies, and also use his elastic nature to swing off the barbs of flying insects, letting me traverse the slums a bit more easily, and eventually tackle 9-Torg herself. The boss fight was decent, too! A mixture of dodging her potshots, swinging off the rafters as the arena filled with acid, and ensuring that you followed her movements when she cloaked. FPS boss fights are traditionally bullet sponges, but the scrap with 9-Torg eliminates the monotony by becoming a tutorial on using your guns' secondary functions. Make sure to bounce her with the gloop bombs and use Knifey to reposition, basically. Which suggests that boss fights in the future will only get more complex.
It's so easy to judge the game through clips you'll see on the interwebs or Twitter's finest fun-vacuums that say stuff like, "god, what a criminally unfunny game" or "take a look at this and tell me it isn't the most irritating thing you've ever seen". Sure, the humour isn't going to be for everyone, but I think there's a lot of snark for snark's sake. A game that's trying to be funny is an easy target, especially when it's dogpiled by folks determined to sap any ounce of joy from a video game that doesn't take itself seriously and isn't even out yet.
High On Life is a video game, not a show, which means it's comedy that emerges as you explore and interact, perhaps rewarding you for stopping, or recognising how it subverts videogame tropes. And boy did I enjoy the hunt for 9-Torg. It's a rare joy to sink your teeth into an FPS where you can't entirely predict what's coming or sit there, cackling at TV shows while a raggedy alien becomes more and more impatient with you.
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