Platforms: PC (reviewed), Switch (TBA)
Sometimes you know everything about a video game’s world. GTA V, The Last of Us, and Ocarina of Time had fully realized worlds that, despite a few mysteries, didn’t leave much to the imagination. Then there are games like Dark Souls, Resolutiion, and Let It Die, whose worlds are shrouded in mystery. You can uncover bits of lore in each of those worlds, but they remain an anomaly, and that’s what makes those worlds so interesting. The industrial-urban world of Sludge Life straddles the line between obscurity and clarity, and it’s a blast to explore.
Developed by Terri Vellman, Sludge Life is the latest game from Devolver Digital. It’s right in line with the company’s offbeat, outlaw lineup of rebellious indie games, and it features gameplay that’s both functional and satisfying. It’s the world and characters, though, that will really keep you invested.
Bombing at the docks
Sludge Life starts out in a large storage container. You wake up, step out into the world, and what do you see? A land of opportunity — the opportunity to bomb an industrial island with some sick tags. While not massive, the industrial, heavily polluted island features quite the sizable area for you to roam around in. There are high perches, buildings, and storage containers everywhere. You can’t tag all of these things, though. Instead, Sludge Life encourages you to explore and find the perfect places to drop your tags.
At first you’ll just move around the game world, finding new locations, landmarks, and warp points. Before long you’ll find a camera that you can use to pinpoint designated tagging locations. Simply look through the camera’s lens and take a look around, and nearby areas where you can tag will be highlighted with a spray can icon. This makes the act of finding all 100 tagging locations a bit more doable. That said, reaching those locations is still entirely up to you and poses a unique challenge.
Climbing tall structures, containers, and buildings can be tricky. The game’s first-person platforming gameplay works well enough, but your character’s movement isn’t perfect. In addition, a lot of the environments are designed to pose a big challenge when you’re trying to reach the top of an area. Like the old days of 3D platformers, you’ll be tasked with walking along narrow beams, crouching and crawling to fit into tight spaces, and performing logic-defying jumps.
If any of that sounds like a knock against the game, I assure you it’s not — for the most part, anyway. See, as tough and as old school as the platforming may feel, it helps to paint a realistic picture. I have a couple friends who were taggers, and from what I’ve heard, it’s no easy task climbing up tall scaffolding and scaling walls to throw up a piece. As such, the finicky nature of the platforming in Sludge Life helps to put you in the shoes of a graffiti artist much more accurately.
Oddly enough, it’s the not-so-perfect nature of the platforming mechanics and controls that makes the experience of actually getting atop a new building and finally tagging it up so rewarding. That’s not to say it won’t get frustrating, though. When you’re wrestling with tough mechanics and controls, you’re bound to get annoyed from time to time.
Disgruntled dock works and ambitious taggers
Sludge Life presents an interesting world that highlights class and lifestyle disparity, and it feels all too real. You’ll encounter a lot of NPCs while exploring the island. Dock workers look tired and overworked. Some are doing their job while others are protesting and on strike.
Most conversations don’t really go anywhere too philosophical or political, but all of the NPCs keep things real. You’ll talk to folks who’ll tell you they’re exhausted or are just pretending to work. Some will tell you they don’t care about their boss, while others will tell you they wish they were a part of the strike. Speaking of which, there’s an actual strike, complete with picketers, going on in the game. Security guards in the area are aggressive, and there’s a feeling of unrest in the world that paints a grim corporate-controlled portrait.
Along the way you’ll also find other taggers. Speaking to these characters, you get a sense that there’s definitely tension in the game’s world. But even then, a lot of these taggers are much more enthusiastic than the dock works you meet. They’re excited to talk graffiti with you, and some will even encourage you to revisit them once you’ve dropped some more pieces. It’s interesting seeing this contrast between the characters who are clearly stuck at a job they hate and lower-class characters who are just stoked to be out their tagging their names and symbols.
Grim and humorous
Just like there’s a huge dichotomy between the workers and the taggers in the game, Sludge Life also presents a stark contrast with its various themes. Yes, there’s socio-economic unrest on the industrial island., but there’s also a lot of offbeat humor. You’ll walk into a restroom and see a long, gross poop in the toilet. Then you might actually talk to the guy who, well, did the work and he’ll tell you he has no intention of flushing it.
If you toggle the game’s “dog lover” option, you’ll find a few pooches around the island. Most of them are doing daily dog things like sniffing other dogs, licking themselves, and, um, going to town on inanimate objects. There are some you can pet, though, which is always great.
The writing and themes in Sludge Life are a solid blend of real-world analysis and comedy to keep things fresh throughout. And sometimes the jokes are just dirty, and that’s fine, too, so long as you don’t mind a bit of crass humor.
Tagging, hip hop, and working-class culture explored
The entirety of Sludge Life is set on the industrial island, and that setting comes to life with a colorful, polygonal landscape and character designs. The gritty, low-fidelity, abstract graphics reminded me of something you’d see on the GameCube, PlayStation 2, or Xbox, and they’re not without a high level of charm. In fact, I can’t imagine Sludge Life looking any different. The graphics are purposely retro, and they work really well within the game’s setting.
Rapper Doseone, who’s also done music for Enter the Gungeon and Nidhogg 2, provided the soundtrack for Sludge Life. The music is really good, and it features Doseone’s signature synth-based hip hop style. Like the graphics, the soundtrack of Sludge Life further paints the graffiti-themed landscape.
There’s no denying that Sludge Life is an odd little game. But should you choose to explore its industrial world, you’ll find a rich and unique experience filled with great characters and a bit of oddball comedy. Finishing the game should take you no more than three hours, which is great because Sludge Life doesn’t overstay its welcome. It’s not for everyone, but if you’re looking for something different, with its own brand of unique and challenging gameplay, Sludge Life is a fresh take on the 3D platformer that also features intriguing characters and fun humor.
*Note: Sludge Life is free to download on the Epic Games Store for one year following its launch date.