There are many things that can get us sucked into a game. Some games have a gripping narrative, and some have gameplay that is engaging and addictive. And then there are the ones that suck you into its unique setting, and give you an experience you don’t think you could possibly get anywhere else. Sludge Life from Terri Vellmann, Doseone, and Devolver Digital manages to do that last one perfectly.
In Sludge Life, you play as Ghost, a faceless tagger in an industrial complex island city. The game opens up with you on your laptop where you are free to adjust your settings. Then you toss that laptop aside and walk out of your shipping container apartment to an open world that’s just begging for you to spray paint it. Throughout the island you’ll see several spray paint icons. Some are right in front of you, and others are up high on billboards, but you’ll be able to make your mark on all of them.
The more you tag in this world, the more your reputation rises. Ghost isn’t the only graffiti artist in town, and you’ll see the tags of others all over the city, and if you care to explore, you’ll get to meet the other artists as well. Their feelings towards Ghost seem to fluctuate a bit based on your reputation, but most of them are pretty cool.
There is a narrative to Sludge Life, but I think the most apt way to describe it is to compare it to the sludge you’ll encounter throughout the game - there’s a lot to wade through, but it only seems to be about ankle deep. You’ll see signs of a corporate hellscape in the form of disgusting fast food chains, or the employees of a soda factory on strike, but there’s not a lot of in-depth meaning to Sludge Life as a whole. There are three different endings to Sludge Life though: there’s a good ending, a bad ending, and a weird ending. If you want to know which ending you’re heading towards, you’re going to have to look around. Each ending has its own criteria to be unlocked, but there are clues literally lying around on tables if you're willing to search thoroughly enough.
Exploration is the real meat and potatoes of Sludge Life. I walked into someone’s apartment and they told me about a banana slug on their fridge, and that I could eat it. So I went and looked - and sure enough - Ghost ate it. And that’s not even the only slug you can eat in the world. The first time I died was because I tried to grab a snake out of a toilet. Dying sends you to the nearest medical center and when you check your laptop you’ll find outrageous medical bills. But don’t worry about paying it off, because you can't pay it off. There's no money system in Sludge Life, so your "bills" are just a fun extra bit of world building.
You’re definitely going to want to talk to every NPC you come across, because you never know what information is going to be useful for you at a later time. As you explore you’ll find more items to help you explore even more. The most useful of which is a glider which can help you get around. There’s also a pair of eyeballs in a jar that will point you in the direction of spots to tag, but you could be forgiven for not being able to figure that out right away.
Sludge Life has a pretty unique visual style. It’s a cel-shaded world and the entire city seems to be under construction. The best way I could describe it is almost like if Sega’s Jet Set Radio had a baby with a bunch of 1990s commercials for MTV. There are metal frames of buildings, giant tankers, shipping containers, and literal monuments to capitalism everywhere in this city. It’s not very big, but there’s a lot to explore. If you want to tag all of the spots, you’re going to have to pull off some clever platforming maneuvers. Unfortunately, first person perspective never lends itself very well to precision platforming.
On more than one occasion I’d fail to reach a high area multiple times, and when I finally did get up there, discovered nothing of value. But valuable or not, there’s no shortage of things to find. There are plenty of disgruntled NPCs with humorous dialogue. There's a newsroom filled with pigeon-men publishing their own biased news. There’s a cat with two buttholes, and there’s even a promise of a giant baby. Will you be able to find the giant baby? Does the giant baby even exist? Well you can find out yourself if you’re willing to explore the crazy mixed up world of Sludge Life. I could just list off all of the crazy things I found exploring this island area and it would sound like I'm talking about five or six different games. There's definitely a lot to see in this title.
Sludge Life is such a strange game to recommend. The first person platforming isn’t particularly fun, so I don’t really recommend it for its gameplay. There isn’t a lot of depth or any meaningful messages in its story, so I'm not sure if I can really suggest it for that either. Sludge Life is just an incredibly unique experience. It’s worth exploring just so you can have your own moments of “Woah!” and “Wait, am I looking at what I think I’m looking at?” The name of the game really is exploration, and if nothing else it is worth taking a look around if only because this is an experience you’re not going to find anywhere else.
And the best part is you can have that experience for free. From the day it launched until May 28, 2021, Sludge Life is available on the Epic Games Store for free! And with that kind of price tag that will fit any gamer’s budget perfectly, you should definitely give it a look for yourself. And if nothing else in this review has convinced you, I should mention that Sludge Life comes with a designated fart button.