When I was young, I remember combing through a demolition site and finding a placard with some writing on it. This was unequivocally the most thrilling discovery of my childhood. It was, of course, a disgusting grimy commemorative plaque of some sort, and it had absolutely no value. That didn't stop me happily exploring the "ruins" with my friends all afternoon in the hopes of finding something else exciting. Sludge Life, a collaboration between developer Terri Vellmann and Anticon record label founder Doseone, evokes that same simple, childlike sense of wonder and discovery.
To look at Sludge Life, you'd be forgiven for thinking it's yet another casualty of the "random" humor plague. The style and aesthetic seem arbitrarily quirky, but look beneath the surface and Sludge Life is an extremely solid first-person platformer. You'll be put off if you don't love the art style straight away since it never lets up or reveals any particularly shocking surprises. If you can stick with it, though, Sludge Life reveals myriad intricacies and idiosyncratic design choices. It's a sandbox in the true sense of the word, one in which every grain conceals a new toy to play with.
What's The Story In Sludge Life?
It's best to look at Sludge Life as an experience rather than a linear narrative. Technically, there is a main objective: you play as graffiti tagger Ghost and you must steal the Grub Corp CEO's escape pod to flee the smoggy city in which you're trapped. This "story" is really just a framework for meeting some kooky characters, exploring a city, and leaving your graffiti tag in as many places as possible. Instead of following a story, you're invited to soak up Sludge Life's thick, pervasive atmosphere and simply wallow in its setting.
That sense of atmosphere is aided by Sludge Life's deliberately low-res visuals. Everything has a jagged, out-of-focus feel that gives a thick, unclear feeling to the setting. There's also a thick green smog that hangs over everything, restricting what you can see in the distance. Sludge Life paints a picture with broad, big brushstrokes, choosing single-color surfaces and wobbly cel-shading over nuance and high fidelity. Since Sludge Life wants to embody the spirit of rebellion, this is the right choice to make. There's a subtly "off" feeling about the city as if it's not quite all it appears at first glance.
Sludge Life's aesthetic and its sense of humor won't be for everyone, however. The dialogue is deliberately abstract and vague, contributing to Sludge Life's experiential nature. Some jokes - the cat with two buttholes, for example - simply feel puerile and don't land. At other times, Sludge Life feels like it's striving for corporate satire, but doesn't get further than "corporations are bad and pollute everything". As an immersive world, Sludge Life works, but it might have fared better without dialogue given that it doesn't add much to the world-building or what little narrative there is.
How Does Sludge Life's Gameplay Work?
When examining "walking simulator"-style games, there's often a sense that narrative and atmosphere make up for a lack of gameplay. Sludge Life puts those claims to shame. It's a self-avowed low-stress experience, one in which there are no serious failure states and there's no combat. Still, Sludge Life finds a way to be interesting. On its surface, it's a first-person exploration-heavy platformer. You explore a surreal open-world cityscape, finding places to put your graffiti tag and discovering ways to interact with your environment more efficiently.
There's a pervasive toybox feel that runs through Sludge Life. You're encouraged to explore your environment not only to find ways to get around better but also simply to find more objects with which to interact. Sludge Life feels like it's hiding plenty of secrets and rubbing its hands in glee waiting for you to find what they do. You might come across a bug hiding in a shipping container and working on his latest hip-hop single. Alternately, walking amongst a community of muck-dwellers could give you a new route into a building you need to "infiltrate". In this way, Sludge Life comes across as a mixture between Jet Set Radio, Jazzpunk, and immersive sims.
Occasionally, Sludge Life is let down by inconsistent visual language. It communicates early on that yellow things can be climbed - window shutters, pipes, and other objects can all be mounted to reach higher places. Later on, though, it presents yellow objects that aren't climbable, which feels counterintuitive. Sludge Life does have a mantling system that allows you to climb to higher places, but it's finicky. Sometimes it works on jumps it shouldn't work on, and other times it's clear you can make a jump but Sludge Life won't let you do it. This inconsistency is a shame because Sludge Life's world feels dizzyingly free and open most of the time.
Is There A Lot To Do In Sludge Life?
If there's a major drawback to Sludge Life's treasure trove toybox feel, it's that there just isn't very much of it. The best exploration-focused platformers offer huge worlds full of things to do, but Sludge Life believes brevity is the soul of wit. When the world is this interesting and stuffed with things to do, it's a shame there isn't more of it. You'll likely be done with Sludge Life in a handful of hours, despite multiple endings and a checklist of objectives to fulfill (which, in true Sludge Life-style, is hidden on an unassuming desk somewhere in the world).
Replayability is fairly thin on the ground here, too. Once you've combed Sludge Life's world for tag locations, interactable objects, and checklist items, there isn't really much else to do. You can always set yourself personal challenges; speedrun it, complete it without certain items, et cetera. In terms of structured fun, though, Sludge Life is fairly thin. Think of this more as A Hat In Time than Super Mario Odyssey; it's a brief, explosively colorful journey through a fiercely imaginative world rather than a huge epic.
Thankfully, the mere act of getting around in Sludge Life is enjoyable. That means the brief time you do get with it is never wasted. Jumping from spot to spot, finding new places to tag, evokes that elusive sense of discovery many larger games have tried and failed to capture. With just a well-implemented aesthetic, a fun world full of verticality to explore, and a smorgasbord of things to find, Sludge Life manages to outclass many triple-A offerings in terms of "content". You might want to replay it simply to remind yourself that it exists.
Sludge Life Review | Final Thoughts
Sludge Life is a very pleasant surprise indeed. Its murky early-90s MTV aesthetic works to portray a city full of misfits and weirdos. Gameplay-wise, it's a success, combining first-person parkour platforming with collectible hunting and traversal in an intuitive and compelling way. Its humor isn't universal, its satire doesn't always land, and it's a very brief experience. Those drawbacks aside, there's plenty to love in Sludge Life. The next time someone says to you that games don't need gameplay if they've got an atmosphere, you can show them Sludge Life. They'll be too busy staring at the two-buttholed cat to think of a snappy comeback.
TechRaptor reviewed Sludge Life on PC via the Epic Games Store with a code provided by the publisher. It's also planned for a Nintendo Switch release in the near future.
- Unique, Quirky Aesthetic
- Enjoyable Exploration
- Feels Like An Interactive Toybox
- Inconsistent Visual Language
- Humor Isn't For Everyone
- Not Much Replayability