Sludge Life Review: Interactive Surrealism | Screen Rant
One of the most persistent discussions about the video game medium is whether or not it can be considered an art form. Detractors insist that video games are nothing more than cheap, mindless entertainment, while supporters of the medium argue that they have just as much potential as books or paintings to convey emotional depth and creativity. Most of the games that are commonly considered art are deep and poignant experiences, ones that are held up as masterpieces of the genre and ones that players can even shed tears over. But to consider these games the only ones worthy of being called art does a disservice to both art and video games. Not all art is deep, moving, and meditative, and not all video games are either. Some art is brash, rude, confrontational, and, frankly, confusing. And for a perfect example of that form of art in the video game space, one should look no further than Sludge Life.
If nothing else can be said about Sludge Life, at least it lives up to its name. The game takes place on a tiny, heavily industrialized island sitting in a vast, endless ocean of thick black sludge. It is a very surreal place, with cyclopes and animal-people freely intermingling with the more human NPCs the player can encounter. The more one explores the space the more bizarre it gets, and like many other pieces of modern art, Sludge Life has no interest in explaining itself. Why is there a titanic baby taking up half of an apartment? Why is there a cat with two buttholes? Why does the player character eat banana slugs? All these questions, and more, are ones that Sludge Life stoically refuses to answer. It is a very crass game, with a penchant for toilet humor and a dedicated fart button. Squeamish gamers should consider themselves warned.
As for gameplay, Sludge Life could arguably be called a 3D platformer. The game takes place from a first-person perspective and environment navigation is key to the experience. Jumping isn't always the most precise, and it isn't always clear how tall a structure can be before the player is unable to surmount it. The first person perspective doesn't help mitigate this. Fortunately, as frustrating as traversal can be, the stakes are never too high. The game is generous with its fall damage, and if the player dies they are revived at the nearest "Lifeloop" clinic, with the only consequence being largely meaningless medical bills that the player cannot actually pay off.
The player character, Ghost, is a graffiti artist, and the core gameplay revolves around scaling the various urban buildings around the island and "tagging" certain walls that are both hard to reach and easy to see. The more spots you tag, the more reputation you earn and the more respect you gain from your fellow graffiti artists, all of which are just as outlandish as the rest of the game. The player is given free reign of the island from the start, and is perfectly free to explore wherever they wish in search of strange characters to encounter or walls to tag. In addition to graffiti, there are numerous collectibles throughout the game to encourage exploration, like packs of cigarettes which Ghost can smoke on command or apps they can install on the laptop they carry with them. These apps range from functional services like a list of objectives or a map of the island, to distractions, like small games within the game. There are also four useful items the player can collect which will make navigating the island and finding valuable tagging spots easier to do.
The game boasts multiple endings, which one may find surprising given the almost total lack of story-based content. These endings can be found, as with most other things in the game, through thorough exploration. Sludge Life is in every way an open world game, and its nonlinear nature is apparent after only a few seconds of playtime. Unlike most of the titans of the open world genre, who seem locked in a race to produce the largest game world possible, Sludge Life is an incredibly small game. One can get a sense of just about everything the game has to offer after only an hour or two of playtime, and can even find one of the endings as well.
It feels strange to judge Sludge Life as a video game, because that's really only part of its identity. As a video game, Sludge Life works. It doesn't achieve any remarkable, never-before-seen feats of gameplay, it doesn't reinvent a graphical style, but it works. It's fine. Considering Sludge Life as an art piece is much more interesting. Like all pieces of art, the game is mostly subjective. It won't appeal to everyone. Its filthy sense of humor will be a turnoff for many people, and its surreal style will likely be more off-putting still. But if you enjoy the message of the game, appreciate its confusing imagery, and are a fan of graffiti, you'll probably derive a lot of meaning and joy out of Sludge Life.
Sludge Life releases for PC and Switch this spring. A digital PC code was provided to Screen Rant for purposes of review.