Highwater Review

In post-apocalyptic video games, we often see the same settings crop up. Zombie apocalypses are the most common form of this trope as flesh-eating monsters look to wipe out the human population. Conversely, other post-apocalyptic worlds emerge due to war, resulting in nuclear fallouts and/or ravaged wastelands, with overgrown bugs or Deathclaws occupying a cruel world. Highwater attempts something different, as the name implies. Here, land is submerging due to extreme environmental changes. Beyond this aesthetic, Highwater creates strong foundations through its narrative and world-building techniques. While there are minor frustrations with traversal and dialogue, Highwater is, for the most, part a sublime and atmospheric title.

Highwater takes place on a near-submerged Earth – specifically near the fictional Alphaville – some years from now. As such, landscapes are often vast and ocean-like. Seeing this distinctive world for the first time is striking because bleakness settles in swiftly. One quickly realises that civilisation has all but disappeared when exploring Highwater‘s opening areas. Humans are now significantly more likely to be foes rather than friends. Additionally, the world is ravaged by flooding, boats acting as the only safe and consistently available mode of transport.

Travelling on a boat and playing as Nikos (the main character), you’ll often notice landscapes gradually appearing in the distance, and most of the time, these landscapes continue to present a desolate world. Visual design creates an everlasting impact despite its simplicity because of the grey, stone architecture representing the fall of humanity. Characters themselves paint this picture too; I love how most characters’ eyes are never really revealed. This decision helps to further emphasize the feeling of sadness in this world, for some reason.

Trees and lamp posts poke out of the water, while only the upper floors of tall buildings remain. It’s a moving atmosphere, encapsulated further by a lack of other people during large chunks of the game, aside from enemies. Even when you hop off the boat and explore a piece of land, you’ll see moss and rust, emphasising this world has been like this for a while. Highwater ticks more than a few boxes for post-apocalyptic aesthetics. It’s just a shame that using the boat can be mundane, to say the least. Slow and sluggish, there’s little to enjoy about the boat controls. Were it not for the music, dialogue and some of the landscapes, this would be a glaring issue. Fortunately, the previously mentioned aspects make it tolerable…most of the time.

Beyond simply exploring the world, Highwater pulls extra strings to reinforce this bleak atmosphere. Firstly – while exploring in your boat – the radio will often play. This adds atmosphere exponentially due to the music being played, alongside news stories read out by the radio host, creating an all-encompassing and grim world. Newspapers found on land detail war, among other depressing details. Collectibles as a whole feel purposeful to obtain, if for nothing more than for providing context. All these components come together seamlessly!

Funnily enough, Highwater has moments of humour encased within the doom and gloom atmosphere. From some…interesting dancing to comical dialogue and more, I love how despite the circumstances, we see many characters making the best of this situation, finding positives in the bleakness. It’s representative of human nature and helped to lift the mood as I ventured through Highwater, creating a sense of authenticity.

While, for the most part, dialogue isn’t too bad, it’s certainly one of the weaker elements of Highwater. Aside from one or two characters, dialogue didn’t feel as though it differentiated characters all that much. There are exceptions, of course; main character Nikos’ dialogue is decent enough. All in all, though – aside from moves in battle – plenty of characters become ultimately forgettable. Perhaps voice acting could’ve added some additional personality to our characters?

Narrative and aesthetic go hand-in-hand in Highwater. Due to how the Earth has been significantly changed to be almost unhabitable for humans, Highwater‘s narrative is about seeking a better life and taking risks to do so. As the player, you look forward to taking Nikos on this journey, to see a world beyond desperation, conflict, and impending doom. It’s admirable seeing our characters bravely leap into combat to secure a better life, protecting their own people and ideals.

Character differentiation is less of an issue in combat at least! Highwater makes the fascinating decision to implement turn-based combat to great success. Straightforward is the best way to describe Highwater‘s combat mechanics: Each character has a couple of attacks and the option to use items. No mechanics in combat are frustrating in Highwater, but that’s partially because nothing innovative is embedded into the format. Plus, at no point did it feel dull. In other words – and this is true of Highwater as a whole – combat doesn’t outstay its welcome. Unfortunately, with certain characters, I couldn’t equip any further weapons, whereas others had free reign to use any weapon I picked up. Also – and to be fair, Rogue Games are aware of this – there’s a certain character that becomes extremely overpowered.

Highwater is a charming world, nailing aesthetics and atmosphere to a tee. Demagog Studio have created an indie hit detailing in a post-apocalyptic possibility not often covered by gaming, film, or television. There are lots of experiences worth having in Highwater, if only to pass a few hours and immerse yourself in a simple story. Minor issues of course, appear, but they’re nowhere near enough to hamper what is a solid gaming experience!

Developer: Demagog Studio

Publishers: Netflix, Rogue Games

Platforms: PlayStation 5, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Android, Microsoft Windows, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S

Release Date: 14th March 2024

Gaming Respawn’s copy of Highwater was provided by the publisher.

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