Ankle deep

Sludge Life aims to be a vibe factory, a game entirely about exploring a place that feels exactly as intended. It is not a walking sim. If anything it’s more of a self-paced platformer with lots of clambering around and ledge-grabbing to find ideal spots for your tags. You walk, you spot a taggable area way up somewhere, you spend a bit of time casing the joint for routes up, you scarf down a banana slug you happen to find along the way, you eventually find your way to your target, and you get to sprayin’. But crucially this is not a first person Jet Set Radio. The c(l)ops aren’t coming for you, they’re busy containing a strike. No tension to be had here, no consequences. Relax, explore, vibe out. And that, in theory, is great! There are games that have pulled off this exact pitch before. It’s in the execution that things get murky.

Let’s talk about atmosphere. Video games rely on it a lot, especially first person ones, but it’s rarely focused on in critical work. Oh sure there’s talk of visuals, audio, what have you, but rarely mood. How a game makes the player feel is critical to achieving a quality experience. Just this year I cried at Adios, felt equal parts creeping dread and comedy in Uktena 64, and had one of the most immersive horror experiences I’ve ever played in Devotion. All of these games look and feel wildly different, both mechanically and atmospherically. Games that pluck at your heartstrings or bring genuine joy are invaluable. Sludge Life has a cohesive style, yes. Wonderful visuals when you find a good vista, excellent music when it remembers to play it. But it lacks an emotional core. It left its soul at home and it can’t be bothered to go back and get it.

No one cares in Sludge Life. The game’s storefront description calls its NPCs “ambivalent” and it means it. Nothing matters, no one matters. Some characters are your friends, some aren’t. Some hit you over the head when you talk to them. None of this matters. You don’t have to talk to anyone, ever, to accomplish anything. Aside from combo tags with other taggers becoming available when you spray certain amounts of things in the world no one’s existence ever alters. This world is filled with statues that contain short recordings of repeating lines. It feels like you’re playing as some kind of closet sociopath who talks to those around them out of obligation rather than genuine interest.

To compare it to another game in which you platform around a terrible place (albeit one that looks nice), do a lot of searching for collectables, talk to weirdos, and end the game whenever you please, let’s look at Paradise Killer. Paradise Killer felt like a filthy world being kept clean through sheer desperation, blood and grime flowing just beneath its surface, with characters that had a history going far further back than was ever stated outright. Sludge Life, bizarrely, doesn’t feel especially grimy. It thinks it is, its characters say it is, and there’s enough people sleeping in shipping containers suspended above the titular goop that I could even say it factually is, but it doesn’t feel that way. It doesn’t really feel like much at all. You walk, you talk, characters say a silly phrase sometimes, but no one ever really says anything. I don’t believe this world is a place, it just feels like a cool art portfolio that you have to walk through instead of scrolling.

Exploring never reveals anything of consequence unless you bumble into an ending, and I do mean bumble. You could trigger two of the three without ever tagging anything. The bad end was actually my favorite of the lot; I won’t ruin its jokes (plural!) but they landed with me better than almost anything else the game offered up until that point. The consequence of not providing any real structure in Sludge Life is removing any motivation beyond basic curiosity, and nothing ever, ever happens.

I’m not here asking for a game about nihilistic taggers wandering around to provide a linear cohesive narrative. That would feel contradictory to what it’s trying to do. You’re meant to explore, take things in, feel it out, put some pieces together, chill. And to its credit it doesn’t exactly fail at doing any of those things. It just doesn’t nail any of them either. I see a lot of people online saying the game’s intended to be played high and you know, maybe. I wasn’t when I played this. But other vibe-y first person games work wonders on me stone sober, and this one didn’t, so that’s worth something.

This one stung a bit because I wanted to fall in love with this game, its characters, its shit-ass world. In terms of style this game’s top notch. But as I explored its tiny world and what little it hid from me I realized that there would be nothing more than I saw from the get-go, that the sludge was only ankle-deep no matter how far out I trudged. I can only be so unkind to Sludge Life, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed.

A Steam code was independently purchased for review.