Playing through The Gunk is the process of reversing an oozing allegory for the climate crisis; of sucking up the corruption that plagues a dying planet and returning it to unique and brilliant life.
Early on in developer Image & Form’s first foray into 3D platforming, space truckers Rani and Becks arrive on a dark and barren planet. They’re running low on fuel for their ramshackle spaceship and just as low on funds. So Rani, the more adventurous of the pair, sets out to find something – anything – they can use to reverse their fortunes.
As Rani explores this new planet, her mission becomes a quest to quietly save the world. Almost immediately, our heroine encounters a strange and damaging globular substance which she dubs – you guessed it ‑ ‘the gunk’. But by using Pumpkin, a multi-functional device that fills the role of a prosthetic arm, Rani can suck the gunk up like an interstellar Luigi. As she clears it away, the barren world springs to life, sprouting megaflora to climb and useful fruits that might function as explosives or create helpful platforms when united with pools of green goop. The world revealed by removing gunk is beautiful, with brilliant colours and strange plant life – like flagella-covered tongues that extend to form bridges when activated.
The puzzles here are pretty simple – clear away gunk to reveal an object you can use to open a new path – but they serve their purpose as something to keep your mind occupied as you move from vista to vista.
The gunk is responsible for in-world problems, but also seems to cause its fair share of issues for the game’s performance. The stuff is constantly shifting, moving, and responding to provocations from Rani’s arm vacuum. As a result, performance often staggers when there’s a lot of it on screen. Frames also dipped into the single digits on unexpected occasions, like while riding an ancient elevator. These drops rarely affected gameplay too much, but they were still a consistent annoyance throughout my time with the game.
After Rani has used her green fingers to clear out a safe spot for a base camp, Becks lands the ship and sets up shop. Mostly, that just means that there’s a workbench here for Rani to use after a spot of exploration. The world is filled with ore to mine and fibres to collect, all of which can be hungrily vacuumed up. From there, the materials can be repurposed into upgrades, netting Rani simple skills like the ability to run or deploy bombs. You will unlock most possible upgrades fairly quickly, so much of the game is spent sucking up orbs you don’t actually have much use for. The Gunk’s world is intrinsically fun to explore, but the upgrade loop here never really sings as extrinsic motivation. There just isn’t enough there to keep it interesting for long.
That’s mostly OK because The Gunk clocks in at around six hours, give or take. It works great as the kind of game that was a bit more common ten years ago: a straightforward, linear experience where the fun has little to do with upgrading a character and very much to do with running, jumping, and puzzling through the well-designed world that Image & Form has crafted. Still, the game has much less going on, mechanically, than the studio’s previous 2D titles like the stellar SteamWorld Dig 2. Sucking up gunk never becomes challenging, even when the game begins to throw enemies at you in the second half. But The Gunk makes up for that lack of depth with a gorgeous surface and controls that never get in the way.
In the end, The Gunk is a good first step for Image & Form if they intend to keep working in 3D. The game’s graphically impressive, and exploring its world is fun, if unsurprising. I hope the developer can manage to dig a little deeper next time, though. Like a planet swept clean of gunk, the surface is spotless, but I’d really like to see more complexity working underneath.
The Gunk is extremely pretty. Though its stylised art differentiates it from ultra-realistic triple-A system sellers, it often looks just as impressive, offering improbably jaw-dropping vistas, memorable character designs, and a gorgeously textured world.
The Gunk offers a beautiful and original, if slightly shallow, world to explore.
Genre: Adventure platformer | Format: PC(tested)/ XBO / XB S/X | Developer: Image & Form | Publisher: Thunderful Publishing | Price: £19.99 | Release: Out now