Highwater Review | PC

A satisfying exploration of Highwater's landscapes awaits you, with a fantastic radio to tune in to.

By MariDead, Posted 14 Mar 2024

Basing a game around a climate crisis is certainly a bold move considering the current fear around the environment of our world, but the developers of Highwater have found a way to tell a compelling story of the people within that world, not just of the world itself. Setting the game several years into the flooding that has overtaken the world allows Demagog Studio, the developers, to tell a small human story set in a large, scary world. Damagog prides themselves on their rich storytelling and prove that in this addition to their roster.



 

Netflix came on board to publish Highwater as a mobile game, and it is also available on PC, PlayStation, and Xbox current and last-gen consoles. The game blends adventure and strategy elements to make a fun experience bogged down by the normal issues many unused to the genre find with turn-based combat mechanisms. The surrounding story is fun and dynamic, with characters equally so in an unforgiving world.

Highwater tells the story of the world after a massive climate disaster that left the world flooded. Rumour has it that the rich and wealthy living in Alphaville are planning to stop all aid to the poverty-stricken areas around them and leave the planet to head to Mars. While not confirmed, it seems that Highwater is actually a prequel to Demadog’s previous game, Golf Club: Wasteland, which tells the tale of a group of people returning to Earth many years after a climate crisis, playing some mini golf. The matching art style and similar character design add to the theory that these games are, in fact, related.

Our lead character, Nikos, is sick of living in a world of poverty, living off scraps and what he can salvage himself. He takes it upon himself to work his way from the struggling sector of Hightower, where he is from, to the lavish world of Alphaville to see if this is the case.

The world he is traveling through is much like many will be used to if they have seen a lot of apocalyptic media. The world is harsh; environments are picked clean bar the few remaining bits of evidence about the before. These include new clippings, books about the climate crisis that is emerging, and other parts of the world before. The information shows how suddenly the world changed and heavily suggests much of the population was lost early into the flooding, leaving only a few behind.



 

Again, in true apocalypse fiction fashion, the world left is a harsh one. Not only is the environment specifically hostile, with limited resources and a very literally inhospitable environment, but the landscape is also crawling with insurgents who are active antagonists to Nikos and his gang as they move through the environment, often having to be fought off.

The dialogue is shown through text bubbles, and the story is learned mostly from the characters talking to each other, which presents a lot of the context for the rest of the narrative. The exception to this is the Highwater Pirate Radio, which is fully voice-acted and relates even more information, such as the water flooding the earth isn’t drinking water, again adding to the environment's hostility.

The gameplay in Highwater often consists of traveling from remote island to remote island on a small raft that Nikos drives. While the character will comment on his lack of fuel, this is not a resource the player has to manage. The game wants you to look around, explore every island, and go back there as many times as you wish. While this makes fuel issues a huge plot device, and they become awfully convenient to the narrative, it allows the player to have more fun looking around. Ultimately, it was a sacrifice in realism that was worth making.

When traveling to these islands, Nikos will find other inhabitants, hostels, and resources, such as food, that can be used to increase the player's health. As more characters are added to the player crew, finding these items becomes more important as there are obviously more characters the player has to look after.



 

Interacting with these characters involves choosing dialogue options or, in most cases, fighting them. While these dialogue options are fun and allow the player to inject some chaos into their gameplay, they ultimately have very little impact on the gameplay in the earlier sections. If a player is going to come aboard your raft and team up with you, he will, no matter the hostilities you show.

While exploring the islands, Nikos will have to take part in many fetch quests. These are introduced when the player gets to a wedding and George, one of Nikos’ friends, demands you leave and return with a gift. Nikos will grumble about the fetch quest in a fun, tongue-in-cheek acknowledgment of the annoyance many players will feel. These quests are fun, however, as the environment has often changed from the last time you were in the area.

The game is also very clever in many instances, as many of the items can be collected before the player even knows they need them. This means if you happen to explore an area and find some camera film, for example, then travel to, say, a wedding and need to take a photo, you can, rather than having the item hidden until you are told you need it by another player.

The gameplay in these sections is fun. Steering the boat between islands is very easy with both keyboard and gamepad controls, although those playing on mobile have stated that it is difficult on a touch screen. The movement on the island sits somewhere between 2.5 and 3D, which can be a little confusing, but once you have been playing for a while, you will be used to it. During the combat sections, the camera is at a fixed angle and can be used to explore the playing board.



 

Turn-based combat tends to be a bit of a love-it-or-hate-it for most gamers. I was firmly in the team but hated it until recently, with a few games having a good enough narrative to push me through. Turn-based strategy can easily become boring for those used to the hyperpaced fighting of FPS games or even the careful stealth found in horror. That is not to say that turn-based combat is inherently bad; it is just a little slower. In Highwater, however, it is the perfect combat type.

Rather than just having a list of moves the character can use, the combat in Highwater is based specifically on the environment in which it is contained. This is introduced in one of the first encounters, where Nikos has to get a sheep from a butcher to give as a wedding present. The butcher has a large cleaver that does so much damage it is not possible to beat him without using some very clever tactics.

The game demonstrates this in a very clever way. Most players will move up to the butcher, ready to hit him with their oar; Nikos has a very unique fight style and then receives a hit back that will swiftly make them move away. Most will take the opportunity to move to the only bit of cover near them, which is the stand of the awning the butcher is standing under. The option to push said stand and slam the awning shut, trapping the butcher and ending the encounter.

This is a really clever way to introduce the mechanic. You feel as though you discovered it yourself rather than having your hands held as you are taught every aspect of the gameplay. Some parts have to be taught specifically; however, these are presented in ways with varying levels of effectiveness. An example of this is the square grid that indicates where the player can move to. Around the opposition, there will sometimes be a section of red squares. Following the typical logic of “red means no,” I assumed I could not stand on these squares, but the squares were the spaces I could stand in order to attack whoever I was fighting.



 

This could have been explained a lot more effectively. Beyond this thought, the explanations of the combat, as well as the combat itself, are very good. The environmental side of the puzzles is actually far more fun, in my opinion. Being able to push trolleys, through fire barrels, or even knock trees down on a person in order to find more creative ways to complete an encounter. The encounters are also easy to restart, with an option included in the pause menu when in combat. This means you will be able to retry using every available bit of the environment just to see how funny it is when a tree falls on someone’s head.

The art style in Highwater is really fun. The characters are wonderful caricatures that have exaggerated physicality as well as expression. This allows the feelings they have to be expressed clearly and freely. The characters’ lack of voices means their emotions need to be clear by other means. Having exaggerated bodies and faces helps with this a lot. A personal favorite of mine was George, a large, strong man who had a heart of gold. Despite his large size, he can take up a smaller space when he feels beaten down or dejected. The way he moves can also express any excitement he can be feeling.

This impressive art style spreads to the environment as well as much of the game features the player travelling from island to island. Again, the lack of voice lines means the characters don’t tell you directly about each place you go to. The speech bubbles can do this. However, the tone can’t always be expressed with just text. For example, if a character simply has the text “Oh great, here again” above their head, it may not be clear if they are being literal or sarcastic.

Therefore, the tone of such comments needs to be different. The environment and surrounding island need to express this instead. From the general aesthetic of the island, it is easy for the player to understand what kind of area they are entering. As Highwater goes on, you will see places with more personality and a scarier vibe as Nikos approaches Alphaville.



 

The sound and voice acting in Highwater is fantastic. This sounds like a very strange thing to say for a game where much of the speech is depicted through speech bubbles rather than being acted out for the characters to say directly. There is some voice acting, however, that can be found throughout the game. This includes the grunts and panting sounds during the turn-based fighting sections. While just being small moments, this does add to the immersion of the game, as every hit feels like it comes with more weight. You feel more guilty about not prioritizing cover as the characters yell out in pain as they are sliced, shot, or beaten.

However, there are more examples of voice acting with the radio that plays throughout much of the game. Highwater Pirate Radio accompanies the player through the majority of the game, offering perspective and information on the story as it is taking place. When Nikos first tunes into this you may be surprised by the upbeat presenter, not fitting the disheartened tone of the rest of the intro. As you move through the game, however, the tone of this presenter seems to sink into the reality of what is going on.

It is a fantastic way to bring the audience up to speed in the wider world. While having many readable documents around the world is a good way to establish history and is used effectively throughout Highwater, this is also an excellent way as the rest of the game is to be read. The limited voice acting then hits harder as it is allowed to stand out among a world whose inhabitants are far more silent.

There are also many original songs unique to the soundtrack as part of the Highwater Pirate Radio. These are, on the whole, very good, although there are some that loop fairly obviously. The music is a really good backdrop, along with the ambient sound that surrounds it. These include water sounds and the cawing of gulls as you travel through this unique world.



 

Even those who are not fans of turn-based combat should check out Highwater. The combat uses the environment in a way that feels unique and like a puzzle to be solved rather than a strategy to be bogged down in. Exploring the environments is rewarding and fun, with a great radio to listen to as you travel and a very interesting world around you to explore.
 

Mariella Deadman (@MariellaDead)
Editor, NoobFeed

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General Information

Highwater

78/100

Platform(s): PC, PS5, XBSX, PS4, Xbox One, Switch
Publisher(s): Netflix, Rogue Games
Developer(s): Demagog Studio
Genres: Turn-Based Strategy
Themes: Isometric, Puzzle, Exploration, Adventure
Release Date: 2024-03-14

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