We get to go to so many different worlds. But mostly we are travelling to them as space-assholes: invading, conquering or harvesting them of resources. We rarely get to explore them in the scientific sense, mapping them and logging all the different wildlife. We certainly don’t get to leave them in a better state than when we arrived.
We’ve had the impulse to be Charles Darwin on a kind of space Beagle, but no game has been able to satisfy it. Hallelujah for The Gunk. We can rest happy, as it delivers on all these desires and more. Finally, we’re space-Samaritans.
The Gunk is the ambitious next step for Image & Form Games who, up to this point, had been best known for their Steamworld series. Always 2D, always in their same steampunk universe, their games have been precisely crafted but not huge in scope. That changes with The Gunk, and you sense a team aiming for the stars. This is them breaking loose.
You play as one half of a space exploration and mining team. You are Rani and your partner is Becks; you are the gregarious, excitable one, and she is the more pragmatic one. But you’re both in the same (giant, steel) boat: you have got barely any money between you, so the next job needs to earn you both a windfall. So, you land on a desolate planet that has an unusual energy signature, and you set off to explore with a view to making some moolah.
Instead, what you find is the Gunk. Hovering around like some zero-G snot, it’s a phenomenon rather than a creature. Luckily you are outfitted with something to deal with it: a prosthetic on your arm that can suck it up and store it. Think the Luigi’s Mansion backpack, or a Ghostbusters proton pack with more of a ‘suck’ function. Once the Gunk is gone, an energy wave causes the immediate area to flourish into life.
Lots of joyful distractions spin off from this simple loop. You can scan and classify various plants and minerals once they’ve been de-Gunked, which gives you that Charles Darwin feeling that we talked about, but it also contributes to a research bar that unlocks upgrades. You can also find resources like metals, ‘organic’ and ‘alien’ materials, which can be spent on constructing those upgrades. And the post-Gunk levels will often reveal secret passages or the means to make a passage, as you suck up seeds to plant them in energy pools, or explode blockages with combustible seeds.
This all plays out in third-person, and by golly does it look beautiful. The Gunk arrives at the tail-end of the year with a justifiable claim to be the best looking game of the year. Rani is a wonderfully animated little action figure, but the real star is the world. In the foreground, you have tactile, high-contrast environments that demand to be explored. In the background, you have sweeping vistas that convey the size of the world and trivialise your role in it. The Gunk can swing from claustrophobic in one moment to agoraphobic the next.
But what might surprise you most about The Gunk is how inviting it is. This is not a combat-centric game. There are only a handful of enemies and barely a dozen combat moments, and we only felt panicked and swarmed twice. The emphasis is way, way over into non-combat exploration and lightweight puzzling, and knowing that combat sits at the bottom of the pile means you can take a bit of a breather. Regardless, death and failure is barely an inconvenience.
The Gunk is also endlessly optimistic and positive. Some of our favourite games of the year have given us a world or cast of characters that we want to spend as much time with as possible. It Takes Two, Mutazione, Roki, Cozy Grove: these are all games that we feel a warmth towards, and The Gunk joins them. Rani and Becks have a relationship that does get strained, but they’re clearly close. And they both want the best for the planet, getting whipped up in a plot to return it to past glories. Without ruining too much, it’s a plot that revolves around caring for your surroundings, of having enough hope and optimism that bad choices can be overridden. Which is a message that we all could do with hearing.
And supporting it all is a simple action that never gets old. Hoovering up the Gunk is a joy, as you clear the unsightly snot from an area and then watch as a shockwave reinvigorates the environment. Image & Form do such a superb job of making everything feel physical, when the Gunk could have felt like an abstract element. Hoovering up chunks of metal feels like getting coins caught in your hoover; the Gunk slurps and gurgles like oil going down the plughole. The audio and visual design are in unbelievable concert, making this one of the most immersive games in recent memory, and you have to keep reminding yourself that this is a studio who had been making indie rogue-lites up until this point.
That tactility and confidence stretches to the puzzles, which mostly involve finding keys to certain locks. But the keys and locks are often natural elements of the environment, like seeds and puddles, so you rarely feel like you’re manipulating game mechanics. In the later sections, the puzzles almost reach Portal-like levels of environment-manipulation, and you half-wish the whole game had been like it.
As a story, The Gunk can’t quite stick the landing, and it’s where the full marks tumble down a half point. The history of the planet feels familiar and predictable, probably because it wants to run parallel with our own climate-changed planet.
The dialogue is affectionate but unremarkable, and the ending feels hollow. For the first two-thirds of the game, The Gunk feels like a wondrous odyssey through an alien planet, but the final third determines to repeat itself, taking you through the same area twice with the same objective driving you onward. These repeated sections bookend one of the best and most heartfelt sections of the game, but there’s no getting around how familiar and back-tracky they feel. The Gunk doesn’t give you enough time to understand and spend time with its big-bad, either, so there’s no real satisfaction in defeating them. That it devolves to combat, rather than the exploration and cultivation that The Gunk excels at, only highlights how much of a misstep the ending is.
But let us be clear, this is not enough to pollute the good feelings that The Gunk generates. This is an astonishingly immersive and good-natured fable, and we relished returning to it whenever we were away. It may not be long, it may not do anything groundbreaking, but The Gunk radiated good feelings whenever we picked up the pad.
And, lest we forget, The Gunk does something rare for gaming; this is your chance to arrive on an alien planet and – finally – leave it in a better state than when you arrived. So, go grab a hoover and suck up some Gunk. You will be saving a world.
You can buy The Gunk from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S