‘The Gunk’ review: plenty of heart, but lacking spirit

Inoffensive, but a nice way to spend a few evenings.

What is The Gunk? It’s a weird name for a game, but then, while it may stray too close to being safe at times, it’s a fairly strange experience from start to finish. Image & Form is a well known developer that’s become a cult favourite thanks to the Steamworld series of games: each a brand new genre within the universe, but this is the team’s first new game in over ten years.

In many ways, The Gunk feels like a throwback to a bygone era. A game where the story develops as you play, there aren’t any collectibles, and the reward is just playing through once, then moving on. It’s one of the least pretentious experiences of 2021, with simple to grasp controls, motifs, and a runtime of well under under five hours.

The Gunk
The Gunk. Credit: Image & Form

That length, while irksome to some, is a boon for Game Pass subscribers and people who prefer shorter experiences these days. When the credits rolled I didn’t feel hard done by, I felt as though a metaphorical hand had been extended for me to shake. This is one of those titles where “thanks for playing” appears at the end of the rather short list of credits where a lot of the names repeat. Yet despite all of this, it has a tremendous amount of heart.

Landing on an unknown planet, Rani and Becks are partners. There’s an allusion to them being more than just business partners, but The Gunk is about the story more than it is the characters. One way or another this pair have been together travelling the galaxy for a while, and owe a lot of money for their clapped out spaceship. The idea is to explore uncharted territory to find something to make money from, and before they know it they are in over their heads trying to save the planet itself.

As a conceit to push the story forward, it’s simple and it works. Rani is adventurous and carefree, wanting to push into the depths of this planet and explore. She isn’t put off by the titular “Gunk”, and happily starts hoovering it with her false arm that is actually a power glove. There’s never any explanation as to where the enormous amounts of hoovered up Gunk goes, and there really doesn’t need to be, either. This is about exploring and adventuring upon an alien planet, and Image & Form nails that feeling entirely.

The Gunk
The Gunk. Credit: Image & Form

Becks, though, isn’t as much of a fan of these type of shenanigans. She’s the captain of the ship, and while it’s very clear she deeply cares for Rani, her immediate reaction to the sticky situation the pair find themselves in is to get out of dodge, and I don’t blame her one bit. Even if you were able to see past the blackened-red amorphous bubbles of Gunk that are eating away at the very life of the planet, once it starts spitting alien enemies at you, even the most hardened of explorers might consider turning back.

The problem, then, is that The Gunk just poses little to no challenge. The power glove is upgradable thanks to all manner of flora and fauna (and bloated alien remains) you can suck up, but this is a mostly linear journey and even the larger caches of materials are barely even off the beaten track.

There are a grand total of five enemy types in the game, including the final boss. None offer much of a threat, yet there’s an upgrade that lets you have a second wind if you should fall in combat. You can unlock and upgrade a laser cannon, and there’s an alien baiting throwable which can be improved, too, but none of them feel essential. In honesty, the improvements you can make hint that perhaps this was once conceived as a grander adventure, as by the time I’d finished The Gunk I had all bar one unlocked, and had unlocked every Xbox achievement bar a few.

The Gunk
The Gunk. Credit: Image & Form

The combat, though, is at least entertaining. It’s rudimentary and you don’t really shoot or anything traditional like that. Instead you will use the power glove to suck in the smaller enemies to shoot them at the others, blowing them up. Larger enemies do make an appearance, but they have enormous glowing weak spots and actually offer even less of a challenge than the smaller, faster moving ones.

On the other hand, while the puzzles presented throughout are hardly Portal 2 head-scratchers, there’s a few nice light bulb moments that are rewarding and make you feel clever. You can also use your scanner to identify the various alien tech or foreign plants growing on the planet, but it’s not essential and really only works towards an achievement for scanning everything available to you.

In truth, The Gunk reminds me of Kena: Bridge of Spirits in how it’s a harmless experience, and honestly, a nice one, but just doesn’t rip up any grass: it’s inoffensive. I don’t want anyone getting it twisted and misconstruing this to mean it’s not likable: this is a good game. But outside of some moments between Rani and Becks, it’s lacking a little bit of the spirit and character, especially when compared to the Steamworld series. Regardless, it’s a perfect game for Game Pass, and one that is well worth a couple of evenings of your time, even if it just misses having a bit of oomph.

The Gunk is available on PC and Xbox Series S|X. We tested all versions, but predominantly played on Xbox Series X.

The Verdict

The Gunk is a nice game you could spend a couple of evenings with and then move on. It’s lacking challenge and is pretty short, but the characters and overall feeling of exploring an alien planet make it still worth your time. If nothing else, it’s an interesting experience that is hard to pigeonhole into any one genre.

Pros

  • It’s fun to hoover up Gunk
  • Great feeling of adventure
  • Looks and sounds great

Cons

  • Lacking difficulty
  • Short without much replayability
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