The ocean planet of GUP-14 is not a happy place. Its seabed has been gunked up with piles of trash, globs of purple gunge and nasty clouds of micro-plastics, all because an industrial megacorp couldn't be bothered to clean up after themselves after bleeding it for resources. That megacorp's since upped sticks to, sadly, continue their terrible ways somewhere else in the solar system, but calling out these bad practices (beyond them being obviously bad and not good for the planet) is not really Loddlenaut's concern here.
Rather, your job is to simply clean up this mess with your array of high-tech gadgetry, healing its polluted environments so: a) it's not a grim, purple hellscape anymore; b) native, axolotl-like loddle creatures can move back in and prosper. It's simple, satisfying work that's designed to make you feel warm and fuzzy inside without having to think too hard. But its straightforward, frictionless tale may leave some wishing it had just a little more bite, and less of a sense that you're laying the ground for some other faceless corpo power to go and splurge all over it again.
There is, I admit, a distinct possibility that I'm overthinking this, and projecting some of my own personal woe about the state of our own planet onto what is otherwise a very cute, charming and well-presented video game. So before I get too bogged down in existential misery, let's talk about what Loddlenaut does best: giving your brain a nice hot bubble bath while you methodically zap-clean stuff with your laser, scoop up its trash and bring it back to your base's recycling bins, and create cute little songs with your clean, smiling loddles by flashing your helmet lights at them and watching them chirrup back in response.
You start small in Loddlenaut, tackling simple stains in a small, contained area and watching your efforts slowly transform the water and mood from doomy indigos to a serene shade of turquoise. With each new area you visit, however, your cleaning canvas starts to grow in size and complexity, escalating at a satisfying pace until you reach the factory and headquarters where all this bad stuff originated from. Along the way, you'll need to upgrade your suit, toolset and unlock new gadgets to help expunge these growing threats, which you do - thankfully - by upcycling the planet's trash into newer, fancier equipment.
Over the course of its five to six hour run-time, you gradually settle into a gentle loop of cleaning and returning to your home base to recycle. Everything has a pleasing sense of tactility to it as well, especially for those playing with a rumble-enabled game pad. Your diver's laser arm will thrum with activity as it automatically seeks out the nearest blobs it can purge, for exmaple - provided you manoeuvre him close enough to the offending spots, that is - and watching its clouds of microplastics all zhoom into the gaping mouth of your vacuum will have physics-likers squealing with admiration. It's always clear what you're meant to be doing, too. Your surface-side operator pal will keep you updated on your progress, letting you know when it's safe for loddles to start moving back into each environment, and whether you're correctly equipped to face the obstacles in front of you. He mostly leaves you alone to get on with your work, but it's nice to know he's there like a big, catch-all safety net if you get happen to forget what you need or where you're heading.
It's all very 'switch-off-brain-and-have-a-good-time' kind of fare, but the one thing you can't ignore is your oxygen level. Even early on, you can go a fair old clip on a single tank, but you will need to keep an eye on it and keep it topped up, either by returning to the oxygenated waters of your base, or plonking down a circular gate you can make from your crafting bench. The latter are obviously much more efficient than constantly going back and forth to your base all the time, and the good news is you're never short on resources to make them either (or anything, for that matter - there's so much trash in this ocean that the grind to get new equipment is completely non-existent). Still, if you do happen to get carried away with your cleaning and forget to glance at the meter in the corner of your screen, your backpack will also start beeping red when it gets to about 25%, giving you plenty of time to go and sort yourself out.
The loddles themselves need a little bit of attention every now and then, but apart from cleaning them so they don't instantly undo all your hard work, you could also feasibly ignore them for the rest of the game and be perfectly fine. They can't die, even though they're regularly starving and intensely sad when you 'check up' on them, and really, if they can't sustain themselves on the abundantly clean and fertile plants I've spruced up for them without constant supervision and hand-feeding, then maybe it's their own fault they got gooped in the first place. Honestly. They are very cute, though, and the way they follow you around, boop beach balls you make for them, and mirror the pings and pongs of your helmet headlights with little tunes of their own making all help endear them to you so you don't just abandon them with a cold-hearted grumble. They're very characterful, and returning to an area to see new species and evolutions of their initial blob forms is always a charming, low-key delight.
As much as Loddlenaut wants to be a chill, cosy game that's all happy thoughts and cute little critters, I also couldn't help but feel like my cleaning work was sort of all for nothing in the end. Aside from the fact that the corporation you're cleaning up after clearly is doing all this polluting somewhere else in the galaxy (based on story snippets pieced together from lost employee badges that have also been discarded along with all their other junk in this place), the ocean itself will continually drift in other pieces of wayward trash when you're off cleaning elsewhere, gradually eating away at your completion rating on each of its five main areas. It doesn't matter how diligent you are either within the area itself, or in its connecting gullies and oceanic corridors. The trash will just keep on coming, and the loddles will continue to suffer for it.
Perhaps this sense of inevitability is intentional and I'm worrying over nothing. For example, when you eventually leave GUP-14, you're told that you've done what you can, and that the planet can heal on its own now. But I also have zero confidence in that assertion based on just how quickly these areas seem to degrade when I'm not looking. I should stress: it's not like they'll drop from a perfect 100% back down to a 20% danger zone in the space of 15 minutes or anything. It's a much slower, more gradual process than that, and I never saw any of my fully cleaned areas drop below 90% throughout my playthrough. But even this quote minor degradation began to nibble away at me over time. The rating might not be that low, but the accumulation of trash felt more severe in the collecting of it, and the deep, dire purples of their previous doom state would return to make things extra gloomy. I'd give each area a little spruce as I passed through it, but the gunk still came, and the loddles still got gooped - and when the loddles get gooped, the plants do, too, making these once pristine environment feel even more of an eyesore.
It's not a nice feeling knowing that even your best efforts won't ever be good enough to get rid of this stuff for good, and when at one point my blasé pal on the radio merely responded with a, "Well, at least all this bad stuff means we get to have a job," it was hard not to sigh at the futility of it all (and in the game, etc). Perhaps it's unfair to take Loddlenaut to task over this, but there's a disconnect between its happy-go-lucky cosiness and the fact that, no, this shouldn't be okay, I want some chuffing justice for these creatures, goddamnit, and for the spineless lackeys at Guppi to be taken to task for endangering these patently adorable little blob fish and ruining an entire planet for the sake of corporate greed. Games with such a strong environmental theme shouldn't just stop at 'switch-off-brain-and-have-a-good-time'. Personally, I think they should demand more of us, and to the developers' credit, they are, in fact, donating a portion of each individual game sale for the next three years to UK charity Whale And Dolphin Conservation. That's incredible! Amazing! You love to see it! But I do wish it was also more rigorous on this front in the game itself and less complacent in the way it frames its narrative.
As I said, I'm well aware there's some personal planet fretting starting to creep in here, so I will summarise my thoughts thusly: Loddlenaut is a cute, cosy and charming adventure in all the ways you'd expect it to be. The process of powerwashing this idyllic ocean floor is chill and zen-like, and if you're the type to coo over adorable nuggets of animal, then its little loddles will be right up your street. But it will never be anything more than that. It will not challenge you in the slightest, and it probably won't make you feel anything particularly profound, either - and for some people that will be absolutely fine. For me, GUP-14 felt like a marginally happier place once I'd worked my magic there, but I wish it had a bit more grit in its own convictions.
This review was based on a retail copy of the game provided by publishers Secret Mode.