Highwater Review

March 13, 2024


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Xbox One
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Not to get all political or anything, but people should be way more worried about climate change than they are. Maybe it’s different in some parts of the world, but the weather in the Northern United States and a lot of other places is almost unnatural. Penguins are on the verge of going extinct, Iran and Afghanistan are currently engaged in a small-scale water war, and there have been an awful lot of droughts as of late, all of which are happening because of, well, climate change. I’m not smart enough to tell anyone how we can stop the planet from trying to kill us, however I can tell you that at this point, anyone who thinks things aren’t going to turn to shit sooner rather than later should really do some research about why they will. Or, failing that, they should play Highwater, because for all of its faults, it does a phenomenal job at predicting what the future will probably look like, and that future probably won’t be great.

As its title suggests, in Highwater, you play as Nikos, a teenager who is trying to survive a post-apocalyptic world that’s slightly less weird and slightly more interesting than the one from Waterworld, even though its premise is more-or-less the same. Earth, or at least the parts of it you move through in the game, has completely flooded because of an assortment of preventable environmental disasters, and the people who aren’t dead already are trying to carve out a relatively miserable existence on islands, or are trying to secure passage to Mars to start their existence anew. The protagonist, and his group of quirky but realistic friends, are part of both groups. They’re attempting to make the best of a very bad situation while also travelling to the part of the world that isn’t run by amoral rebels or a dystopian government so they can get off humanity’s marvellous blue orb.

Highwater’s soundtrack is way better than it has any right to be

To do this, they, and by extension you, need to engage with all the typical things that you need to in most post-societal titles. Highwater’s core gameplay involves sailing around in a boat in a quasi-open world, occasionally stopping to secure resources, and even more occasionally getting into turn-based combat sequences that have more in common with puzzlers than they do the likes of Baldur's Gate 3. The first two items on that list aren’t all that interesting, because although it’s enjoyable to float around the water and to chat with eccentric but generally believable NPCs, doing so is pretty standard seeing as Highwater is, if nothing else, an artsy indie game. Its combat though, does set Highwater apart from its contemporaries for better and worse. It’s fun to fight the assorted factions that control its world by using an wide array of character abilities whenever the situation arises with XCOM-esque mechanics, and the fights never last too long to become annoying. It can be frustrating to win them, though, because like a good puzzle, they usually only have a couple of pre-defined ways to win, and if you don’t, you can’t continue progressing in its narrative.

And, truth be told, that storyline isn’t especially interesting, which makes its tougher combat encounters even more frustrating. Highwater’s plot follows the standard “boy tries to survive in a shitty situation, boy tries to escape said shitty situation, boy has to make hard decisions that don’t have a right or wrong answer, boy eventually makes it out of aforementioned shitty situation” formula like a lot of one-off indie darlings. Although its NPCs are usually anything but standard, with each one having distinct personality traits or skills that can be used in its combat, and all of their dialogue strikes the perfect balance between realism and satire, they’re all essentially archetypes that are almost uncannily similar to so many other games with a premise reminiscent of Highwater’s. This isn’t inherently a negative thing, as there’s nothing wrong with copying pre-existing plot structures and the like, but it does mean that Highwater often struggles to be unique, at least when reading through its unvoiced storyline. 

However, the game does comes into its own when you’re off the proverbial beaten path and exploring its world, which does take a lot of design cues from the likes of Waterworld, but is still bloody fantastic. Highwater’s lore isn’t entirely unique, but it does give you a fascinating look at what the world may very well look like if we don’t manage to prevent climate change. Its in-game radio station, the assorted newspaper clippings you can find, and its environmental design add a degree of depth and realism to the title that’s simultaneously satirical and serious. Although it isn’t always fun to fight your way through the world, and the main storyline surrounding it at times derivative, it’s a treat to roam around and uncover bits and pieces of a place that’s gone off the deep end both literally and figuratively.

The chemicals in the water are turning the frogs blue!

And so, at the end of the day and as always, the question is whether or not Highwater is worth buying despite some of its more lacklustre elements. The answer to that is yes, because even though parts of it are heavily influenced by other titles and its combat is hit-or-miss, its portrayal of a post-environmental disaster Earth and the events that led up to that are fascinating and hit a bit close to home. It also has the potential to spark conversations about environmentalism, which given that I’m typing this review outside on my laptop when it’s 17 degrees in March, is one we probably need to have, even if a video game inspires it.

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Although Highwater’s combat is frustrating at times, and its story is a tad derivative, it’s still an incredibly enjoyable and hyper relevant game because of its core messages and lore.‍
Derek Johnson

Somebody once told me the world was going to roll me, and they were right. I love games that let me take good-looking screenshots and ones that make me depressed, so long as the game doesn't overstay its welcome.