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Review: Sludge Life 2

27 Jun 2023

Endearingly strange games, and really just any weird media, are something I’m sure I enjoy more than most people. I’m always down to plop myself in front of something that some might find too out there, and some games meet these criteria in a way that I find endearing and entertaining. It’s part of the reason I covered the original Sludge Life a few years ago. Everything about it just screamed, “I’m weird as hell, and I’m gonna hit you with as much weird and gross humor as you can handle.” It’s a vibe that I very much appreciated, and while it didn’t blow me away, I enjoyed the vibes that it brought to the table.

The game was something I very much thought was just a one-shot thing, but then I was proven wrong when developers Terri Vellmann and Doseone plopped down a preview build of a sequel I wasn’t expecting to drop at all. It was time-limited, it was still super weird, and I enjoyed what I played in that short period. It’s not often I find myself going from preview to final build. But the last time this happened, I found myself being way more let down than I was expecting.

Even with that negative experience behind me, letting that cloud my judgment isn’t going to do this game any favors. That’s part of reviewing games, you know? Despite my surprise, I’m happy to delve back into the weird and gross universe that Terri and Dose have decided to give us more of, and I’m sure others are excited to do the same. You can head to Ciggy City yourself when Sludge Life 2 drops on PC via Steam/Epic Games Store/GOG Galaxy on June 27th, 2023. The Steam version was played for this review.

Big Mud’s Big Break Gone Awry

If you can believe it, there’s some story content here, but don’t get your hopes up about it being anything more than a surface-level plot. This isn’t surprising, since the last game didn’t even have that much traditional story content at all. That didn’t stop Big Mud’s jams from becoming popular enough to get him out of his humble sludgy beginnings from the last game.

The very same big-eyed frog man that yearned to break out of his shipping container was lucky enough that his music gained him enough notoriety to do just that. Now he’s secured a brand deal (with the monolithic cigarette company, no less), and is ready to record a music video in Ciggy City to aid in his ascent in the scene. It’s one hell of an improvement given where he was in the last game, for sure.

There’s just one problem. Mud mysteriously went missing after an epic offscreen bender with his cohorts, including protagonist Ghost. After waking up from said bender, he’s informed that Mud is nowhere to be seen and needs to be located somehow. That’s pretty much the gist of the story. Since Ghost has to piece together something he has no memory of, we slip into the now-familiar loop of obtaining information from the locals. But at least this time there’s a little more purpose this time around.

While you’re still drinking in the absolute weirdness of those who live in Ciggy City, Ghost essentially has to play a makeshift sleuth to find Mud. In the process of doing so, we start to slip into the familiar trappings of the last game in a way that makes sense for what’s here. You’re not exactly pulling private eye-level shenanigans, but the locals are more than happy to let you know about their problems or weird observations going on while you find the ones who will aid you in your goal.

That’s still where much of the story charm still hits for me, honestly. Part of what I enjoyed about the original was just wandering around and finding out why someone is taking a ride in a dryer or doing some other weird and occasionally crude thing. This time around, we’re just trying to figure out what the hell happened to our human-sized frog man who just happens to know how to rap well enough that people will buy his music in bulk. It just so happens to be in a different environment, with a whole new set of weirdos to interact with on your way to completing your task.

Would I consider it an extreme departure from the original? Not really, but the aim of “let’s add a little more story and not get in the way of what worked in the last game” didn’t go unnoticed by me. It’s not exactly a story that strives to be anything other than a reason for the game to proceed, which is nothing new in the gaming space. Regardless, it’s more than we got in the original, which just thrust you into the game and expected you to go out and find out the vibe for yourself.

This kind of self-directed story content is unsurprising given how the original panned out, but even adding a story-based objective would be considered an improvement by some. Given that I considered that the original felt like more of a one-off experience that wasn’t concerned with an overarching story, moving out of that comfort zone even a little bit makes sense in context. Even if some might find it a little surprising. I didn’t have much in the way of expectations here given the last game, but what’s here is very much on brand for something as hazy and weird as this.

Tagged for Shenanigans in the City

Since the story is a slight expansion from the last game, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the gameplay would follow suit. Terri and Dose know what works for these games, and it makes sense to play to those strengths. True to the usual sequel expectations, Ciggy City is a much larger open area than the original game.

Because of that, the warp point fast travel mechanic from the last game is a little more useful because the scale of the area benefits from it a bit more. Since the area is bigger than the original, there’s more space to run into more weirdos to suss out in the process of locating Big Mud. More stuff in a bigger space just makes sense, and it’s just dense enough to not be overwhelming. Though it’s nice that if you choose to simply explore the space instead of warping around, it’s not an especially arduous affair getting from point to point.

One of the things I do enjoy about these games is the exploration factor in general. You’re encouraged to do so with the power-ups, graffiti tags, story content, and other secret bonus goodies to locate. Grabbing discs for your laptop do net you silly little things like a match game dungeon-crawler roguelike called Gato Mago where you match specific symbol arrangements to cast spells and the like. It’s a cute little diversion, and surprisingly deep for a silly little bonus game.

While you’re navigating around Ciggy City, many of the original power-ups do come along for the ride. Goofing around with stuff like Zooms is still entertaining to me, as is gliding around while locating 100 new spots to tag. Though you will still have to locate them as you did before, which isn’t super surprising. There are new toys to goof around with here, and they complement the core gameplay pretty well.

Items like the Double J’s let you sprint and double jump or things like the Portable Launcher let you just fling yourself around with reckless abandon. Most of the new things to play around with do have a purpose, but some also just have the right amount of weird goofy vibes to feel like a worthy addition to the gameplay.

Though even with the amount of stuff to find and replay through to your heart’s content, it’s still a pretty short experience overall. Because of the open-ended nature of the game, there’s just as much space to critical path your way to an ending as there is to just fully explore the environment. It’s the kind of replay value I appreciate with indie games like this because nothing is stopping you from just finishing other things in the game after the credits roll.

Despite those trappings, the overall gameplay experience is on par with what the prior game brought to players. I never got the vibe that Terri and Dose wanted to go out and make the next big-budget blockbuster game with the original. They just wanted to throw players in a sandbox and give them a reason to goof around. Because of that, the design and gameplay are more concerned with having a memorable experience than wowing you with bombast and excess. In that regard, it’s working within the parameters it set for itself and doesn’t drop the ball. It expands and refines pre-existing elements, and I appreciate that kind of consistency.

Can’t Ignore the Haze

Part of the appeal of the original game was the weird, gross, and hazy vibes that permeated every inch of that environment. Most of the presentation was in service to that vibe, and it’s not surprising that there would be a continuation of that here. Why divert away from that when it fits so well with what they’ve already established?

That trademark gross-out humor, VHS filter, visual flair, and other trippy trappings still hit in its unique way. Most of this can be toggled at your leisure, but still maintain the overall weirdness that came before. I preferred most of those filters and effects disabled to help me enjoy the environment in a much more straightforward fashion. But if these things give other players enjoyment, they don’t get in the way all that much.

I didn’t expect there to be a diversion of the art style from game to game, but the environment and character design still retains that exaggerated vibe that I enjoyed before. These games look like they jumped out of the pages of some abstract comic book and plopped into something you can play, and it’s something I can say is a strength that it should keep holding onto.

That said, the low-detail art style is something that most modern PCs (and eventually less powerful gaming hardware) should have no problem running smoothly on its target resolution. Depending on what you may be rocking, tweaking things to get this into a playable state might need to be done, but most should be able to run this without breaking a sweat.

Most of the audio side of things is in line with its predecessor, which is a good thing in my book. Given the vibes from there, I would have missed the nebulous and smoggy music that laid the zooms-laden undercurrent if it was somehow omitted for whatever reason. Big Mud’s new track “Double Bubble” is not a bad track, and is a good successor to “Bubble Up.” Everything else about the sound design is good but doesn’t do anything outside of what it’s done before. Not that I expected any drastic departures or anything, but it’s nice that they kept doing what worked.

Overall, like the last game, the presentation gets the most love in the total package. It’s not a detriment, but you can tell that this is where the most effort was placed during development. They’re not bad vibes, the focus isn’t to the detriment of other aspects of the game, and you can tell that they cared a lot about how everything plays out in this gross and grimy environment. It holds tight to that anti-establishment slant it has and isn’t afraid to put it on display. Nothing particularly amazing, but you can tell how much they cared about it by what’s on screen.

Embracing the Strange

Just because something isn’t setting out to be the next big franchise doesn’t mean that it’s something worth ignoring. There are loads of indie games out there doing things that you just don’t see in the AAA side of things, and sometimes you’re gonna come across games that just want you to have a good time more than anything else. When it comes to games that value an aesthetic-laden experience laced with competent gameplay, games like Sludge Life 2 have that endearingly oddball vibe that does the right amount of legwork to achieve that goal while also giving the player enough things to do to justify the asking price.

The fact that Sludge Life 2 exists at all is still a pleasant surprise, and both games are experiences worth firing up if you’re looking for something a little less overproduced and something unafraid to just say “Let’s do our own thing and let it loose on the world.” While the sequel doesn’t do anything drastically different, it does enough to justify its existence and is something that’s as competent as its predecessor. It’s a grimy good time, and it’s something I think fans of weird games can pull up and appreciate for what it is. Ciggy City might be bigger, but it still has a rebellious heart that should satisfy those seeking something a bit more out there in their gaming lives.

~ Final Score: 7/10 ~

Preview copy provided by Devolver Digital for PC. Screenshots taken by reviewer. Featured image courtesy of Devolver Digital.