Sludge Life 2 review - more sly greatness from the masters of the compact open-worlder
It took me a long time to realise that Sludge Life 2 is a diorama. And, wait! So was the first game! These sun-faded, intricate, often queasy worlds that you scramble your way through, part puzzle, part gymnasium, part treasure hunt, these worlds that see you jumping, climbing, leaving a sheen of spraypaint behind you? The only thing that really moves inside these worlds is the player. Yes, there are a handful of very slight exceptions to this, but they're rare and also spoilers, things you'd want to find for yourself. For the most part, Sludge Life 2, like Sludge Life before it, is a single moment captured in all its brisk human complexity. It's a place, but it's often also an instant in time. We're just jumping around and tagging walls inside it.
It was hard to see this at first, I think, because for all their stillness, the Sludge Life games are simultaneously defined by a frantic sense of movement. There's the stripped-back first-person parkour at the heart of it, obviously, which turns each building into a climbing frame of ledges and pipes and mini-roofs. But there's also that fisheye viewpoint that frames everything, complete with videotape artifacting and strobing noise. It makes your surroundings seem fidgety, liquid and mobile. You shift a millimetre and the world squirms to show you the new perspective. The walls are alive. It all feels weirdly intestinal, the first-person game camera as a form of peristalsis. How are we headed into this halted world? We're riding an endoscope. Open up! Say ahhh!
Sludge Life 2 is very similar to the first game in this, and almost all, respects. And that's a good thing. These are compact worlds, but also worlds I never feel I can get absolutely everything out of. There's that glint of paradox throughout. You load into these games through a beautifully realised operating system, and the sense, from the off, is that there are secrets everywhere. There's a sense of rules being broken, even though in some ways these are games that deal with classic ideas of exploration, narrative, traversal, puzzling and collecting stuff. These are angry games, but they never let the anger define the experience. There's tons of craft and storytelling, but you are free to make of it what you will.