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May 2022

The Gunk

Platform(s): PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series X
Genre: Action/Adventure
Publisher: Thunderful
Developer: Image & Form Games
Release Date: Dec. 16, 2021


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PC Review - 'The Gunk'

by Cody Medellin on Dec. 20, 2021 @ 12:00 a.m. PST

Embark on an all-new adventure in a vast and exotic world where you’ll encounter terrifying enemies and challenging puzzles on your quest to unravel the mystery of a forgotten planet, while saving it in the process.

If you're familiar with Image & Form Games, it's most likely because of the SteamWorld series. Whether it's SteamWorld Dig's fun exploration, SteamWorld Heist's strategy elements, or the offbeat RPG goodness of SteamWorld Quest, their 2D titles have been a really big hit. The Gunk is something different for the developers, as it is not only a break from the SteamWorld series but also the first game in 3D. For the most part, it works well.

You play the role of Rani who, with your partner Becks, is an intergalactic scavenger. Down on their luck with a spaceship that's barely held together, the duo navigates close to a planet that sent out a large energy wave. Wanting to investigate and since the ship is in need of repairs anyway, Rani heads down to the planet to find the source, only to discover that living gunk is polluting the planet. Rani and Becks get to work, both of them driven to clean things up and to get rich off of the planet's potential energy.

Upon immediately landing on the planet, you can tell that the story is aiming for an environmental slant. The beauty that erupts from cleaned-out areas and several story beats in the back half further cement this notion. While that becomes more of an impetus later on, the first half is driven by the characters. Rani's adventurous attitude contrasts greatly with Becks' more practical focus, but you easily get the sense that they play off each other well instead of disliking one another's company. The dialogue feels normal, and the acting goes a long way toward making the duo likeable, even after they stop seeing eye to eye.

The Gunk is all about exploration with a character that doesn't have a large move set as one may expect from a modern adventure game. Rani can climb up vines and run and jump, but she can't sprint or double-jump. She can climb up ledges but only ones that are specifically painted to stand out from the environment. She can automatically lower her stance to go through low passageways, but you can't manually crawl or duck. She can't roll, so don't expect to tumble through the world. In the few instances when she has to fight, she can aim, but don't expect to lock on to enemies or strafe around them. This is about as basic as it gets.

Rani's lone highlight comes from her mechanical arm, which acts as a multipurpose tool despite only having a few functions. Its main purpose is a vacuum for the gunk, and with the world full of the stuff, you'll be pulling the right trigger a lot during the campaign. The arm is also useful for pulling in smaller enemies, so you can launch them when you wish. The same goes for any plant balls that are used to solve puzzles. When not in combat, you'll use the arm to scan points of interest for more information and gather materials for arm power-ups, including an energy ball that opens switches or stuns enemies or increasing your vacuum distance.

That might not seem like there's much for the player to do, and that's partially right. There are a few areas where you need to mind your jumps, but infinite lives and feasible gaps make them easy to conquer. The levels are expansive but linear enough that it's almost impossible to get lost. Most of the puzzles have solutions that aren't out of reach, and combat is fine. The bestiary is tiny, and it takes a ton of hits before you die, while fighting is uncommon. Materials are plentiful enough that it's possible to get all of your arm powers.

Even with all those things going against it, you continue to play due to the mechanic of eradicating the gunk. The game avoids making the task tedious by not hiding the gunk in hard-to-reach places, and vacuuming it doesn't leave behind tiny bits that prevent the natural elements from coming in. It doesn't creep back in when unattended, and the fact that you'll spend most of your cleanup time with enemies that are bothersome but not overwhelming makes for a strangely Zen experience.

Aside from the minor gameplay issues, it doesn't seem like autosaving is a thing. Despite receiving warnings about not turning things off when a symbol appears and seeing that symbol pop up whenever you go back and forth between beacons, there's no indication that saves have been created, so it's best to create manual saves just in case. Additionally, the campaign is all the game has for you. The average playtime seems to hover around six hours, with movement in either direction depending on how diligent you are about scanning things and finding every possible secret in the world. There's no level selection to go back and find stuff you missed, and there's no difficulty slider, so the only reason to replay is to clean up the Achievements list.

The move to 3D retains a style that seems reminiscent of the company's older works. The character designs for Rani and Becks exemplifies this well, as their spindly limbs and big plastic faces make them look like marionettes without strings. There is plenty of detail whenever you look at them up close, but the look is very different from what you'd expect to see. Elsewhere, the environments sport a gorgeous amount of detail in the corrupted gunk-infested forms, and the natural state filled with foliage with the judicious use of color makes things pop more without using full cel-shading. Only the enemies get the short end of the stick, as they look fine enough but not memorable. As far as frame rate goes, you're looking at a solid 60fps, and that doesn't waver whether you're on the PC or Xbox Series X.

On the audio side, we've talked about the vocal performances of the characters and how well done they are, but the soundtrack needs a special mention for how good and subversive it is. Moments where the music is uplifting are rare, and most of the tracks go from a sense of dread when you're in infested areas to cautious hope when the environments return to normal. It's strangely relaxing when paired with the act of cleaning up the gunk, and you'll only ever notice how melancholy it is when you get a moment to stand around doing nothing.

It doesn't hit the highs of the SteamWorld series, but The Gunk is enjoyable. When you break things down, the game doesn't offer up a plethora of things to do, but it remains enjoyable thanks to how satisfying it is to clean up gunk. There's payoff for the curious in the form of extra materials to power up your arm faster, and even though it is familiar, the story remains satisfying. Its short length makes it perfect for the Game Pass service, but it is also a worthy purchase if you like brisk, uncomplicated adventures.

Score: 7.5/10

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