Highwater Review

Blondie comes to mind when thinking of this Demagog Studio outing – after all the tide is high, but can Highwater hold its head above the narrative storytelling waters as a promising new indie hit, or is it merely a puddle-sized and watered down offering?

Highwater evocatively reinforces through gentle ambient song lyrics that “the world ended on a sunny day,” a line echoing cheery apocalyptic sentiments despite the remnants of Hightower being submerged by the big drink and surrounded by bundled bags of trash and compact pockets of civilization. Sun or no sun, the apocalypse is here and it’s not settling down, in fact authorities are planning a planet-hopping evacuation to Mars, where humanity can settle down and leave the problems of the old world behind. 

The set-up is ripe with possibilities to immerse players by seeing and experiencing an ailing world before it completely sinks. Newspapers and other collectible items demonstrate there is a backbone to the intrigue of Hightower and its prosperous neighbouring Alphaville, along with the local radio station piping in with current news affairs and soft music to keep you abreast of the context regarding the inherent steamy conflicts boiling up between the insurgents and the so called “Alphavillains,” and you happen to be stuck in this conflict like a few measly strands of sorrowful-looking bacon in this bothersome war sandwich.  

During this oceanic end-of-days doomsday, you’ll be witnessing the story as a young whippersnapper called Nickos and his band of friends as they attempt to reach High Tower and ultimately escort Nickos to the rocket that’ll blast him off into Mars.

To give a glimpse at the state of affairs, you meet a hopeful arsonist named Mark, who wants to burn Alphaville to the ground but decides instead to turn the heat up on his own body instead, forcing you to save him, after which he’ll link up with you to join your cause. It’s through this display kindness and friendship that underpins Highwater if you can overlook all the supply-swiping and combat encounters, though the characters and motivations are too flat and plain to leave a lasting impression.

Part of the problem with the way Highwater tells its story is that you’re often provided loose and unengaging context for why you’re rafting from one area to the next. Nothing eventful seems to occur on the islands you visit besides the occasional photo-op and engaging in turn-based skirmishes. Highwater certainly could’ve used a greater sense of urgency and importance to the locations you stop by, but alas they’re typically too busy ensnaring you in sparse conversations and a scarceness of meaningful activity.  

Navigating the vast waters of Highwater is all about following yellow and white dots on the map with your dinghy that expand as you approach them. Yellow dots indicate your main objectives and the white ones are entirely optional, but still worthwhile if you want to explore every inch of the game world and find all the collectibles. The raft’s handling is somewhat lamentable as it’s not as easy to maneuver and can be a bit clumsy when trying to turn and face the direction you want to go, but thankfully it’s far from the sensation of turning a trolley in a cement river-as in it works serviceably if not convincingly.   

 Journeying through Highwater is far from a coastally breeze, as the dinky islands you visit are fraught with menacing brutes attempting to blight your way towards salvation, so it’s your task to clear out the zones of scum and villainy.

Neatly, these blighters bring us onto the protein of the Highwater experience – the turn-based strategy gameplay. The battle system used here is of the grid-based variety, which means players are granted a limited number of squares for which to move across the battlefield. Nickos and his party members possess varied abilities, such as Nickos’ fishing rod which can drag and plummet enemies from ledges into the cold hard ground, and he can also distract the enemies by shouting at them. One of Nickos’ pals, Laura, is a ninja-type who can vault into the air and gain additional manoeuvrability on the grid, she also sports some flashy combo kicks and punches that can bamboozle her foes. Your burly construction-worker lookalike buddy George can utilize his unbridled raw strength to tip over statuesque objects, like signposts that can crush the enemies who are unlucky to be standing idly by when it’s your turn to strike.  

While the combat moves and turn-based necessities are all well and good, the actions menu is finnicky, small, lacking in colour, and generally isn’t ideal for turn-based combat. The white-on-black scheme and the general lack of options shows a dearth of creative flare, which is a shame because the combat attacks are solid.

Another gripe pertains to the Highwater‘s disproportionate damage distribution. Sometimes these goons can damage you very easily with basic offensive attacks, but when you do the exact same thing only a couple of bars on the health bar will disappear instead of a big seismic chunk. This issue doesn’t stymie the pleasure of participation, but it can be noticeable.   

Sometimes there are scenarios that require you to repel the influx of insurgents for a particular purpose such as aiding a team member attempting to shove the raft past all the commotion without incurring damage. In these instances you’ll need to keep the offense high and do all you can ensure you partner’s safety, but it’s nothing you can’t handle, especially seeing as checkpoint reloading zips you back to the start of the encounter you failed to try again.

Though some pieces of Highwater are underdeveloped, the visual style is pristine, and it looks sparkling much like those foreboding end-of-world waters. The minimalist aesthetic works pleasantly for the story being told, and thus is a modest-looking game that does a nice job of conveying its stories and themes in a meaningful way.

The music complements the visuals and storytelling as well with tunes that are both relaxing and sorrowful in equal measure, providing sufficient room for rumination and wondering what life was like in Hightower before these disastrous floods engulfed it beyond recognition. The radio station is a good touch to keep us informed of what’s going on in the world, but the presenter does kinda sound like an automated A.I voice, which can be a bit distracting. 


As a brief but well-crafted Netflix indie title, Highwater hits the mark with its sense of worldbuilding, the interesting flourishes of its combat, and the underlying themes that give it a richness that’s worth exploring. Highwater is held back by stodgy writing, character interaction and a frustrating menu system, but for a few hours of apocalyptic storytelling amidst a flooded world, where you can discover new islands and yank cigar-chomping big men to their doom, Highwater is worth a shot and is buoyant enough to stay afloat despite the threat of capsizing. 

This game was reviewed based on Xbox S|X review code, using an Xbox S|X console. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version. Game provided by publisher.

Want to keep up to date with the latest Xt reviews, Xt opinions and Xt content? Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.

  • A nice apocalyptic setting
  • Some good turn-based gameplay ideas
  • Touring in a raft is relaxing
  • The writing and lack of activity is disappointing
  • The battle system menu is finnicky
  • Not enough character engagement
Written by
Although the genesis of my videogame addiction began with a PS1 and an N64 in the mid-late 90s as a widdle boy, Xbox has managed to hook me in and consume most of my videogame time thanks to its hardcore multiplayer fanaticism and consistency. I tend to play anything from shooters and action adventures to genres I'm not so good at like sports, RTS and puzzle games.

Leave a Reply

Lost Password

Please enter your username or email address. You will receive a link to create a new password via email.

Skip to toolbar