Cleaning in games has started to become an interesting trend. It makes sense given the growing adult population in the medium: the satisfaction of renewing a once-grimy place can sound just as exciting as vanquishing monsters (given the right context). Image & Form's The Gunk essentially mashes those two sensations together in a different way; moreover, they're also venturing into the 3D action-adventure genre (they're previously known for venerated SteamWorld series). The result? Although relatively clean of grimy design issues, only just enough is done to elevate above the heap of other titles.
You assume the role of Rani, a down-on-her-luck scavenger with a metal arm (named "Pumpkin"). She, her partner Beck, and their robotic assistant CuRT, arrive on a mysterious alien planet with one goal in mind: finding anything of value to pay off their debts. A rare blip on their ship's radar suggested this place has a high concentration of energy. As Rani and Beck soon discover, there's more to this place than initially meets the eye.
It Doesn't Suck To Suck
Within minutes of landing, a masked-up Rani encounters one of the creatures inspiring the game's generic title: the gunk. This strange, goopy substance that's incommoding you can be vacuumed through Pumpkin. Sucking up every trace results in renewing the affected area; new plants and grass immediately spring forth, freed from previous environmental shackles. Puzzles and light combat aside, this is the game's main feedback loop. It's you against expansive oily globs disrupting the planet's enchanting flora and fauna.
Despite a disparate setting, it takes me back to Luigi's Mansion and Super Mario Sunshine. There aren't as many creative ways to clean by comparison, but there's still a similar tug in doing the work. A large part of that is thanks to great audio/visual design: the visual sensation of slurping up huge masses into your hand (akin to Ghostbusters' Ghost Trap), the squelching sound as it's being drawn in, and Pumpkin's soothing suction noise all work in unison. It's like successfully vacuuming every crumb on a carpet in one motion. Credit is also due to the, well, image & form of your main adversary. Even if this snotty membrane mottled with unguent, crimson boils were benign you'd still want to vanquish it.
Cleaning eventually gets overplayed, but the loop is still tantalizing. Whether they're locked in place, casually hovering around an area, or slowly attacking, the gunk's unseemly look encourages you to eradicate all traces. When you cross into their oxygen-stealing threshold and Rani automatically dons her breathing mask, you want her to breathe fresh air again. It's a solid concept that could feel rewarding with good supplemental mechanics.
The Rest Kinda Sucks
The issue is as that authentic-planet comes to life exploration is dampened by mostly bland puzzle-platforming. Pumpkin isn't just handy for vacuuming gunk; it's also capable of yanking big plant bulbs that are either countdown explosives or seeds that sprout mushroom platforms. Even though it's visually rewarding to create new life or destroy roadblocks, getting from A to B was consistently a non-challenge - aside from the end; further, the only platforming difficulty is repeating jumps if you're just a single angstrom off the designated grapple ledge. Whether it was secret pathways for more material or the main road, the puzzle layout rarely takes any adventurous turns.
Combat feels like a lesser afterthought by comparison. Naturally, the three main enemy types are handled with Rani's arm: yanking them from their roots or using Pumpkin's suction. If I were to limit my issues into one word it would be "loosey-goosey." The annoying critters can easily be tossed and the ranged plant has a lock-on that's unperturbed by the gunk between us. Even though the difficulty is really easy, those kinds of cheap shots are annoying. Even the charging beasts (the supposedly most-daunting minions) are a cakewalk. There's no satisfying ebb-n-flow to managing them in conjunction with the gunk.
Given Rani's occupation, scavenging various resources plays a role. Aside from goop-cleaning, putting the upgrade tiers behind scanning new things is one of the gameplay's best qualities. Reinforcing that implicit yearning to discover complements Rani's avidity to learn what happened to this world. It's just a shame how useless the majority of upgrades feel. Compared to sprinting or increased suction powers, the rest are mere novelties; for example, there are several upgrades choices for a throwable decoy I never used in combat. Checklist game design.
As nifty as The Gunk's cleaning concept is, its action-platformer vocabulary is limited and too content with repeating itself.
Whether considering the core gameplay loop or the game's description, it's easy to infer the ecological underpinnings of this narrative. It's expected, but totally fine regardless. Some credit is due for how that aspect of the plot's pacing is built up. Several indie developers would do well to take note and not blindly sprint towards "the message" (Sea of Solitude as one such example). Rani's slowly unearthed discoveries of there being more to this planet feel earned as a result.
Less earned is the Rani/Beck dynamic when conflict arises. The obvious dilemma of finding quality energy sources for a quick payday versus reviving an unknown planet simply doesn't connect for the player. We're shown (through Rani's eyes) why she's compelled to save this place and we're merely told of The Bunny's dire straits and their rough financial situation. This imbalance makes Beck's mood swing feel like capricious melodrama. This leads to the "despondent hero falls to their lowest point" trope being one of the worst segments; the intersection of both narrative and gameplay here feels so stiff and uncoordinated.
It's also not really helped by some presentational faults. Although I don't wish to disparage them too hard, I found neither Fiona Nova's (Rani) nor Abigail Turner's (Beck) voice acting to be very effective. In Fiona's defense, it's not particularly helpful when most dialogue between the two comes back to spirited "whoa! that's so cool!" or "whoa! that's spooky!" descriptions. There's not much flavor between these two on comms (especially since they've been partners for years); in fact, Beck's most-noteworthy lines were when she pronounced solder phonetically (it's actually pronounced "sädər"). I know that's an extreme nitpick, but it sounds so goofy to my tradesman's ears.
I know I'm dragging its storytelling through the muck, but I don't want that to be my only lasting impression. Fundamentally, I still took to some emotionally evocative moments punctuated by Ratvader's soundtrack, the world-building that maintained my interest, and Rani's eagerness to unearth more. Although fundamentally derivative, there's a reason this story structure still works. It's just that some of these sizable complaints show how important the details are to make the critical moments stay with you.
Good Enough, I Guess
I do my best to avoid the label, but it's tough not to associate The Gunk as the titular Game Pass Game of 2021. It's that modest 5-hour title with an approachable & breezy design ethos. Even its notable complaints don't sting so hard when the core feels competently composed. The world consistently looks enticing, the audio/visual polish for planet-cleaning, and more show Image & Form haven't lost their best qualities from the venerated SteamWorld series. Despite those fair accolades, its lack of ambitions leaves me at an impasse upon reaching the credits. It's kinda funny: here's this mysterious alien world cluttered with rich biodiversity but the safest design choices.
TechRaptor reviewed The Gunk on Xbox Series X with a copy acquired via Xbox Game Pass. It is also available on Xbox One and PC.
- Satisfying Cleaning Gameplay Loop
- Striking Visual Design
- Careful Story Pacing
- Pleasant Soundtrack
- Flavorless Puzzle-Platforming (Except For The End)
- Nagging Storytelling Faults
- General Sense Of Unadventurous Design
- Inconsistent Voice Acting