Highwater Review – The Future Will Be Waterlogged

Highwater Review

For all the time books, games and movies spend scaring us with a post-nuclear hellscape, relatively little is spent describing a world beset by environmental collapse. It’s more than plausible. Hell, it’s starting to happen. That’s the premise of Highwater, a new action-adventure/tactical RPG game from developer Demagog. It posits a near-ish future that’s not hard to imagine.

A Beautiful Collapse

As the game’s intro text explains, the planet has been destroyed by a series of ecological maladies — presumably man-made — called The Great Climate Catastrophe. Much of the world is flooded. The less fortunate survivors cling to whatever land they can. More fortunate folks live in guarded communities. Again, not hard to imagine.

Highwater’s main protagonist is an older teen named Niko. He’s a good guy. Niko spends a lot of time helping others, puttering around the island waterways, searching for supplies and folks to assist. His main goal is to reach Alphaville (it might as well be called Richtown). Rumors of a planetary escape to Mars are in the air, and Niko wants in. But it’s not all smooth sailing.

The two short paragraphs above summarize Highwater’s three main mechanics. The first is largely on-rails travel by boat. The second is exploration and questing. Finally, there’s turn-based combat.

Off and On the Grid

Highwater’s turn-based tactical combat is nothing original, but it works pretty well. Niko and his allies fight on a grid system. Each turn, they can move and spend limited points on actions like using a weapon or the environment. One of Highwater’s engaging elements is the way objects and the world can be used for cover or attacking enemies. Niko begins the game with nothing more than an oar for a weapon. Over time, his arsenal grows more varied and effective.

Combat can be approached in a few different ways, allowing for some creativity. The game is hardly subtle about the stuff it wants Niko and friends to use. If there’s a useful object, it’s prominent on the grid and glows. Highwater isn’t a long game, but combat grows more interesting throughout. While not everything about Highwater works well, I usually looked forward to combat.

Show, Don’t Tell

Aside from combat, I really liked Highwater’s art style. The color palette is inviting, and the stylized graphics have just enough detail to sell the environment. Although the story conveys a harsh reality, the post-apocalyptic world remains lush. There’s an awkward, missing-a-few-frames quality about character animations but it doesn’t detract from the action.

Since none of the dialogue is voiced, there’s a lot of pressure on music and environmental audio to fill in. The sounds of the world are pretty spare, but well done and effective. For me, the music is a mixed bag. It ranges from folky rock ballads with cringe lyrics to a cappella singing to more ambient, electronic tracks. Generally, the instrumentals are more attractive and blend nicely with exploration. But taste in music is subjective. In this case, it works well to complement the game.

Highwater’s combat and art are almost entirely successful. Where the game really misses the mark is in its writing and storytelling. Nearly everything is expository. Actual speech and well-written dialogue are full of subtext and ambiguity. Highwater’s terse dialogue never sounds like anything more than a way to tell the player character something obvious or push the plot forward. Some of it is skippable, some of it isn’t. And there are spelling errors in the signage. Ouch.

One of Highwater’s failings is that it never trusts the player to figure things out. The “pirate radio” station makes announcements about obvious things like boiling water before drinking (you’d assume years into an apocalypse this would be habitual). Newspaper headlines and signs are often just heavy-handed info dumps. Highwater has a great premise. It’s a shame that it never lets the player make any real discoveries. The game hates ambiguity.

Sail On

Highwater understands its limitations. It’s not a game that tries to do too much and fails. Some aspects work well, like the world-building, premise, and combat. But I wanted to be told less, and discover more. Given a bigger budget and less restrictive, more open-ended gameplay, Highwater could be a standout in a crowded field. Highwater has good intentions, but it needs a team of writers who understand character and dialogue a little better, and that showing is better than telling.

***PS5 code provided by the publisher for review***

The Good

  • Interesting wrinkle on the apocalypse
  • Artistic environments
  • Engaging combat

The Bad

  • Bland writing
  • On rails exploration
  • Sloppy editing
  • Hit or miss soundtrack