May 28, 2024
An aquatic, apocalyptic strategy/explorer, does Highwater do enough to keep its head above water? The Finger Guns review:

I always find it a strange juxtaposition when post-apocalyptic, end of the world games are presented in bright colours. We’re so used to the likes of Fallout, destruction and all, that when something nuanced like Death Stranding and Jusant come out, it’s almost refreshing. Now, we can add Highwater to the “happy [end of] days” style of game.

The world has flooded, resources are low and a small group of survivors are trying to reach a safer, yet walled off, place to hole up in. Along the way, rival looters, insurgents and more get in the way for some of that Fractured But Whole tactics-lite combat.

Is it worth keeping afloat, or is the mishmash of serene exploring and languid combat weighing it down too much? Let’s find out.

Highwater review

We All Float Around Here

Our watery adventure puts us in the flip-flops of Nikos, a young man trying to stay afloat. A catastrophic event has happened, causing the water levels to rise to an insanely high level. Oh yes, Highwater’s quite on the nose as titles go.

Nikos, a young and resourceful survivor, is on a mission to Alphaville. But rather than follow the trope of “looking for a safe haven”, Highwater has its sights set higher. Rather than wallow in watery misery, Alphaville is planning on sending its rich and elite into orbit, presumably so their socks can finally dry out.

Nikos wants on, and it’s through this drive that we steer him and his dingy, the Argo, and whoever’s willing to join him to that goal. Along the way we’ll come across looters, insurgents Alphaville loyalists just to make things that little bit more difficult.

Highwater review

Against The Flow

Gameplay in Highwater is broken up, in generalisation terms, into two areas: exploration and combat. The latter we’ll get into later, as that plays secondary to exploring the flooded ruins of civilization.

Nikos has a trusty, engine-powered boat to get around on. A simple affair, with a sedate pace, traversal is one of the more positive aspects of the games. The map, as such as can be called, is simple enough: yellow dots are main objectives, white are points of interest, scavenging spots, etc.

It’s what I’d compare to the likes of Shadow of the Colossus, Jusant and whatnot. That… games-as-art serenity of taking in the visual appeal. Alongside that, there are radio transmissions playing whimsical indie tracks and uplifting updates on the decline of mankind. It’s quite lovely, really.

Highwater review

Wait, It’s My Turn!

The other part, the “when we get to dry-ish land”, is the on-foot exploration and the combat that usually follows. Exploration isn’t too deep, with players steering Nikos and crew around whatever ruins he docks on. Old markets, destroyed houses, the odd ruin and whatnot. Occasionally there will be some exposition-divulging survivor, sometimes with a plot-forwarding item to give/steal/fight for.

But more often than not, some contrivance will mean a fight for Nikos to keep the story rolling. This plays out in a turn-based, grid-and-tactics affair, much like the lite version seen in South Park: The Fractured But Whole. Nikos and whoever’s with him get a turn each to move, attack (if in range) or heal. Then, whatever number of opponents you’re against will have their go.

Fights are usually won by defeating all enemies, whilst some special circumstance may have to run its course to be able to “win”. An early battle, for an example, has players just hold the fort as it were whilst the boat gets pushed across an obstacle.

There’s some grounded element to all of this, which I appreciated. These are just ordinary survivors and as such, can’t take a massive beating. Some have higher life bars than others, but there’s no spells for defence, no fireballs… just humans trying to get by.

There’s also no apparent levelling system either, so it’s very much a sense of “working with what you’ve got” rather than the normal RPG routine of grinding or advancing gear/stats.

Quite Shallow

Yet whilst I make it sound like a majorly in-depth, Waterworld-esque tactical RPG, Highwater’s content pretty much begins and ends with what I’ve already covered. That’s not to say it’s drastically bare bones, it’s just… I don’t know, outweighed in depth by its whimsy.

The watery bits, pootling about in a boat, are very pleasant. Yet they are occasionally marred with tiny passageways, little isles that jut out and other bits that make traversal a pain. Boats notoriously not famous for being able to reverse on a dime and all.

The combat is pretty lackluster as well. What should be quick battles against a couple of baddies at times is a slog, as waiting for everyone to methodically act out their steps, then their actions, then the turn to end, gets really slow and grating after a while. If you like turn-based fighting, then you may be at home with the pace. But for me, it took too long even for small-scale events to happen.

It’s not that Highwater seems a half-assed title, not by any stretch. But it’s got such a slow pace to it that I didn’t feel like seeing it through.

Down With The Ship

Overall, Highwater didn’t really float my boat. Whilst I was initially hooked by its charming visuals, an Achilles heel of mine if you will, it seems become a chore to feel enthused about it. The peaceful side of things, the aquatic exploration, starts of enticing, but soon becomes a chore with steering the Argo through more contrived spaces.

What didn’t help were the radio voiceovers, which were dulling the senses after a while, and the music. Whimsy quickly fading, just look at those cringeworthy lyrics above. Things like “wearing a Zappa tee and asking you out” are all just hipster checkbox exercises. We’re used to indie-ised versions in adverts and trailers now, but some of these were torturous.

But then, this is me. What I see as tenuous at best may be your jam, and if you like a slow paced, very minimal tactics-based fighter/explorer then this may be for you. It just didn’t do enough to stop me from drowning in the tedium.

Whilst Highwater starts with some rather lovely visuals and whimsical charm, it soon devolves into a tedious, languid affair that failed to launch. If you can endure the droning voices and hackneyed lyrics in here, you may enjoy this turn-based nautically-induced apocalypse adventure.

Highwater is available now on PlayStation 4 & 5 (reviewed on latter), Xbox One and Series S|X, Nintendo Switch and PC via Steam.

Developer: Demagog Studios
Publisher: Rogue Games

Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.

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