I’m no stranger to weird and offbeat media. Sometimes it can be nonsensical as hell, sometimes it makes pointed statements in very unconventional ways, and sometimes it just wants to exist in its own vibe. While I wouldn’t say that games centered around graffiti are something that’s flooding the market, the ones I have come across generally clung hard to the underground anti-establishment aspect of it all. Sludge Life is no different here. Honestly, excluding that aspect would be pretty weird.
That’s not to say I don’t want more of these titles in my life, because I do enjoy them when I encounter them. Usually that offbeat or wacky nature is part of the charm of the game that uses it, and having one that enjoys it and wears it on its sleeve is usually the best part about it. Doesn’t matter if you’re rolling a ball of stuff around or bombing bricks, the right amount of weird can spice up any game it touches.
Developed by Terri Vellmann and published by Devolver Digital, Sludge Life is currently available on PC via the Epic Games Store as of May 28, 2020. The PC version was played for this review.
Taggin’ and Vibin’
Here’s the thing about story in this game, there really isn’t much of one. Instead, I much prefer to think of it as a window into the life of one graffiti artist living their life on the grimiest of islands quite literally above the sludge that the title implies. You’re Ghost, one artist of several who inhabit the unnamed island in question. The game wastes no time with dumping you right into to the game with no explanation of what to do or any lengthy cutscene giving confusing exposition. Just leave your shipping crate home and go find the story.
You’re left to your own devices to peel back the layers of what’s going on in your stomping grounds. This is the most you’re gonna get in terms of a story, and the wild and wacky people you encounter clue you in on their lives or situations they find themselves in. The humor that you’ll find here is often lewd and crude, and it isn’t afraid to show it. It’s not quite “Tee hee hee he said poop” levels of humor, but more along the lines of “Yeah, we’re not going to shy away from this gross thing. We’re gonna joke about it instead.”
But when I say that the biggest strength is flavor in how these residents and fellow taggers speak to you, I mean that positively. This island is a mix of fellow humans and anthropomorphic animals and insects, and the vast majority of them are just so damn weird.
For instance: one character makes no qualms about giving you a ride in a washing machine in exchange for “zooms” (re: psychedelic mushrooms), another one is challenging one of his cohorts to an endless head spinning competition, and a human-sized fly man hands you a copy of his latest lo-fi psychedelic beats for you to play on your shitty pop-up laden laptop that also doubles as your pause screen. While anti-establishment sentiments do exist on the island for the local corporations (a giant conglomerate, a cigarette company, and a pharma), it’s really up to you to go out and find out how deep these feelings go for the locals. Since the story is so adamant on you filling in the blanks yourself, exploration is pretty much required for you to get the best feel for what’s goin’ on here.
If you remember Jet Set Radio or its follow up, Future, you’ll have a pretty good idea of how one of the major mechanics of this game operates. However, you’re not flying around on a pair of inline skates; it’s a bit different in that regard. You have no map to locate tag spots, and instead are given a camera early on to aid you in finding them in this open-world sandbox. You approach the area you’re going to spray down, and simply hit it. It’s super simple.
You’ll have to do a fair amount of platforming that requires a bit of creative thinking to get to some spots, and certain points do require a couple of traversal tools to get there. Half the challenge here is just trying to figure out how to get to those tags seemingly out of reach. Because of this, it’s pretty important that you spend a lot of your time exploring the space. You’ll be pretty busy in between climbing tanks, crawling in air ducts, jumping across buildings, and so on. You’ll be able to activate warp spots as you encounter them across the island, and that’s helpful. But having a keen eye and laying down paint where they want you to will help you as you search for all 100 tag spots. Worrying about death is not much of an issue here, as only very specific situations trigger it (one of which is a jump scare that’s entirely your fault). In the case of fall damage, it can be toggled on and off.
However, if you’re simply looking to beat the game, this is by no means a requirement. Sludge Life is a very short game, and I believe that’s a deliberate decision. Nothing is stopping you from grabbing the appropriate tools and triggering one of several endings featured here, all of which are relatively interesting and weird.
The aformentioned “zooms” are indeed featured here, and do let you explore the environment in the trippiest way possible. You’ll have seek them out like everything else, but if anything it can be used to help you get a better bead on the environment. In addition to the camera, you’ll be able to use a glider, teleportation device, and a pair of pickled eyes in a bottle that locates tag spots, that you’ll have to seek out with seemingly no guidance to obtain. All of these aren’t exactly anything revolutionary, but having these in your possession only help you with what you’re trying to accomplish. Half the fun of this game is finding various weird things on the island and reacting to them, so using these tools in different ways only helps.
Exploration does yield certain goodies as you play, in the form of installation discs for your laptop. Once they’re installed, you’ll be finding things like a simplistic but addictive dungeon crawling-esque app or a goofy but beats-laden rainbow music warping app. While these are no means requirements for beating the game, they are fun ways to add flavor to the total package, even if they’re just silly distractions meant for brief entertainment. Outside of those distractions, you can take a leak, crush beers, smoke, and shoot some hoops on the court if you want to. None of these have any bearing on the primary gameplay, obviously. But at least you can smash that fart button as much as you want.
If there’s one place this game likes to hang out, it’s in its own tub of aesthetics. Graphically speaking, we’re talking about a cel-shaded style that obviously evokes the aesthetic Jet Set Radio popularized in the early 2000s. But instead of a bustling Japanese metropolis, you’re in a bleak smog-filled trash heap of something that resembles an island set on, well, sludge. Upon first starting up the game, it’s shown in a super blurry VHS filter that is laid on like a thick coat of grease. Thankfully, this can be toggled because this is an aesthetic choice that fits the acid-drenched vibe they’re going for. However, I found myself being kind of annoyed by it after a while. The semi low-poly graphics weren’t much of a factor as it fits the aesthetic.
With character designs, everyone honestly looks like they just jumped out of a graffiti tag. This extends to the humans, animals, and insect people alike. Everyone looks like they’re supposed to, but certain features are exaggerated as hell. The buildings, tanks, walkways, billboards, and everything else are all presented with such incredulity that the deeper you dig into the environment around you, the better chance something’s going to catch you off guard and make you turn your head in confusion or just laugh out loud.
You won’t be finding any real voice acting in this game, as everyone on the island speaks in a garbled Banjo Kazooie-esque language that isn’t quite as drawn out as the game it may have taken influence from in the first place. None of it is really annoying, but it wasn’t something that I could say I really hated either. Approaching these guys and having them prattle on about whatever’s on their mind in nonsense speak just adds to how weird the game is in general.
Though the only exception of anything resembling a coherent language would be one of the character Big Mud’s beats where he raps in a very-hazy cut, which is really indicative of the musical style in general. Composer Doseone set out to evoke that drug-high kind of musical style throughout, and you’ll hear different tracks on the island through the ambient sounds of radios and stereos. Except in a few instances, that’s how you’re going to hear this eclectic mix of acid beats and trippy vaporwave-styled music spread thick throughout this game. Like a lot of gaming soundtracks these days, it’s available for streaming on Spotify. It’s one of the best things about the game, as far as I’m concerned.
Make no mistake, this game is a trip and a half to play through. It’s a brief game, that’s for sure, but I can’t say that it’s an experience that is hampered by that brevity. If I walked up to any game I played expecting some AAA experience, I’d walk away disappointed every single time. Sometimes people enjoy a handful of poems one day, and decimate a Game of Thrones-sized novel another day (or so). The point being is that the length of whatever media you consume shouldn’t dictate how much you enjoy it. Right now, cost isn’t an issue for this game; this one will be free on the Epic Games Store for one year after its release. Even then the bar for entry will be low after that, when it eventually raises the price there and also makes its way to the Switch eShop.
Sludge Life feels like the video game version of being under the influence, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. While it feels like it might be a little too wrapped up in its own aesthetics at times, it still remembers that it’s a game first and not a video from the weird part of YouTube. Having it available for free for the moment means that there’s little excuse for you to not at least wade in the smoggy muck for a spell.
Review copy provided by Devolver Digital for PC. Screenshots taken by reviewer. Featured image courtesy of Devolver Digital.