Hello. I’m Benjamin Wagner, this is my blog and today I am well and truly surprised.
The Gunk is a game that I would not have played if it weren’t on Xbox GamePass for PC. Having recently bought a decently powerful laptop, the world of games once foreign to me has opened up and I am loving every second of it. An indie game made by the studio behind the well-renowned Steamworld Dig titles, The Gunk was a game I knew little about except that the name sounded dumb and the screenshots looked nice. As is the case with most things on GamePass, as the game is essentially free, I just gave it a shot.
I finished it in 1 and a half sittings.
Yes, this game gave me a feeling that is so precious but can be often hard to find. I didn’t want to put this game down. And the 18 hours or so between the two sessions I played this game, all I wanted to do was play more of The Gunk. That doesn’t make it the perfect title, far from it in fact, but a title that surprises you often lives longer in the memory than one that just hits your expectations. Find out what was so surprising about this title as I attempt to review The Gunk.
Before jumping into the synopsis, it is worth prefacing that The Gunk is an indie game. I’m not saying that these games deserve special treatment but I do like to bear in mind that the budget for this is a fraction that big Triple-A games do. As such, I don’t look for these titles to ‘be better’ than their contemporaries and instead look for them to do something new, unique or just plain fun. Much like comparing a home-cooked stew to one cooked by a Michelin star chef, your expectations are going to differ when playing The Gunk compared to playing a game like The Outer Worlds or the upcoming Starfield. I just thought it was of import to mention before jumping in further. And we shall now do that.
The Gunk places you in the shoes of Rani, a young woman who alongside her friend Becks, goes from planet to planet looking for things to salvage and sell to make ends meet. Rani is far more interested in adventuring around than on the money side, however, and this often gets her into trouble; as is shown by her missing arm. She doesn’t let this get her down and has instead replaced her arm with a mechanical glove counterpart that has the miraculous ability of suck. This glove seems capable of sucking almost anything up and Rani has turned her disability into a big advantage. Upon landing on this beautiful new planet, we learn that the two are in dire straits as they desperately need to find some saleable goods to make enough money to keep on working in this field. But after exploring a small cave system, Rani soon discovers an imposing, black sludge that almost seems sentient as well as a powerful energy source that the weird bio-waste, known as the titular Gunk, is attracted to. Through Rani’s mechanical hand, she is able to absorb and eradicate her gloopy foe and sets off on a journey to discover the energy source she and Becks are chasing and finally make bank.
Of course, the mission isn’t as simple as it first seems as the sentient gunk is connected to the indigenous civilisation and carries a powerful message alongside it. But I’ll get into that a little deeper soon. The plot starts strong and gives you more than enough reason to explore this planet, which is the main driving force of this game. It is odd to call a linear game ‘exploratory’ but this one is about as close as you can get. You are always limited to one or two paths but combined with the narrative, the art design and the Gunk mechanic, almost every place you visit feels fresh and new. This game is simply one big surprise after another. To detail this, I am going to list and analyse six ways in which The Gunk surprised me as a player before mentioning four areas where it did slip up a bit. That’s more than enough preamble so let’s get it on.
Surprise 1: Art-style and graphics
Indie games are not usually graphical masterpieces. This is a wide ranging statement that probably doesn’t hold a great deal of water but I am going to justify this, so bear with me. In terms of fidelity, these games usually lag behind the big developers simply because they don’t usually have the budget to keep up. Of course, this year’s Kena: Bridge of Spirits makes me look like a complete fool but I still see this as an outlier. This isn’t always a bad thing however as this means many indie teams instead focus on art style instead of accurate hair physics. I love myself a unique artstyle; probably because I have spent most of my gaming life on underpowered Nintendo systems and that I have become accustomed to games that have to try something different to stand out.
The Gunk stands out.
This game, to my eye at least, looks absolutely stunning. I found myself taking far more screenshots than I needed to and now have a folder that is unnecesarily stuffed with images of this beautiful world. You know what I said about artstyles? It is amazing that this game blends a colourful and vibrant world with some absolutely stunning graphical fidelity to create a game that I loved to look at so much, I made a screenshot of the game my new laptop wallpaper.
If that isn’t giving it credit, I don’t know what is.
Surprise 2: Gameplay that doesn’t really force combat
It takes a very brave game indeed to shun traditional gun combat and instead focusing on a more puzzle style combat format. And whilst there certainly is combat in this game, I do hope that this game shows the industry that shooting up enemies isn’t the only way in which you make this enjoyable.
I’m going to make a comparison here between The Gunk and Paper Mario: The Origami King. One of these doesn’t force combat onto you and instead presents itself as a linear adventure with exploratory elements; adding puzzle combat sporadically. The other is a triple-A developed game by one of the largest companies in the world that tries to present itself as a linear adventure game with exploratory elements but forces a ridiculous amount of puzzle-focused combat down your throat at every turn. The Gunk blends its story and gameplay together beautifully; with the titular Gunk being an integral part to the gameplay and the story. In The Origami King, the puzzle wheel you are placed on has no story foundation, happens at every turn and is rarely enjoyable. When your main combat mechanic has an option to just buy your way past it, I think that shows there is a problem.
The Gunk doesn’t have this problem.
Honestly, I am loathed to call what is in The Gunk combat at all. There are a few monsters that spawn from the Gunk and the slimy beast does attempt to engulf you the further your progress, but none of this is ‘industry standard’. It seems like a fresh take on what has been established. Honestly, I think the game could have gotten away with even more if it doubled down on exploration but, for what we have here, the non-combat combat system is a complete triumph.
(Note: I wasn’t saying that The Gunk is better than Paper Mario: The Origami King. It was just a comparison between two puzzle based battle systems.)
The Gunk is better than Paper Mario: The Origami King.
Surprise 3: A beautiful evolving world
Okay, let me explain ‘evolving world’. The game doesn’t have a dynamic weather system or civilisations that spring up as time passes, as cool as that would be, but what I mean is that when you clear an area of Gunk, the screen bursts with colour as the life returns to this barren wasteland. This part might be minor to some, but I took great joy in cleaning up this planet piece by piece in order to see the true beauty that lay beneath it. This section doesn’t need to be long because… well, it’s just nice to admire the world sometimes, isn’t it?
Surprise 4: The story is simple but I love it
Going into this game, I wasn’t really expecting the story to appeal to me but I was very glad to be surprised by this. From the moment I landed on the gooey rock to the moment I left, I was engrossed in the fairly cliche yet oddly endearing narrative. Your standard stopoff for supplies and resources takes a turn as Rani’s interpid exploring takes her deeper and deeper into a lost civilisation and eventually trying to find a way to save the indigenous people. This story really sings out Dinsey to me.
If they made a musical out of this, I’d watch it.
It’s odd. The game isn’t polished to a beautiful shine and the narrative shouldn’t really be as fun to play through as it is, but there is something about it that makes me feel safe and happy and like I want to see more. The short runtime of the game does have a big plus-side for those who like it in that it leaves them wanting more. And I want more. More planets to explore and mysterious civilisations to free. More twists and turns and more character drama. What is here is great. So great in fact, it made me want more, and I think that demonstrates this story’s effect on me pretty damn well.
But the narrative wouldn’t have been as memorable as it is without the main cast of lovable characters, which brings me onto…
Surprise 5: Beautiful relationship between the two protagonists
This was probably simultaneously the biggest surprise and my most favourite portion of this stellar indie title. Each of the relatively small cast of characters left an impact and I’m going to attempt to explain why as I go one by one.
Rani: The player character, Rani is a very Shounen manga protagonist. She craves advenutre, is a little selfish but is likeable enough that it doesn’t matter, has an OP ability in her mechanical arm and cares deeply for her friend Becks. She has flaws and things she can’t do but still plows headfirst into every problem. She has a keen sense of right and wrong and isn’t afraid to follow her gut, even against the wishes of others around her.
We, as the player, spend the entire game following Rani and get to hear her inner thoughts and feelings, something that you cannot do with the other characters you are not controlling. As such, I felt a close connection to Rani as she plowed her way across the planet; especially when she almost made a fatal mistake.
Chapter 7, the penultimate of the game, is almost entirely cinematic; reminiscent of beloved video game Journey. You are completely alone in a desert. Injured. Unable to run and surrounded by nothing but darkness and monsters. You slowly thumb your way across the seemingly never-ending sands in an attempt to reuinite with Becks. This journey allows a softer, more emotional and lonely side of Rani to be shown and it fully makes her as a character. Sure, some could levy that the resolution of the main conflict of the game, something I will dive into more in Becks’s section, happens a little too easy and is a little contrived, but remember, I said this felt reminiscent of a Disney movie. As long as we get that happy resolution and everything feels upbeat in the end, I can let the game off on a couple of small leaps of faith here and there.
Rani sounds great, looks great and is a wonderful player character. Enough said. On to the other one.
Rani & Becks are very much the main dancers in this gunky tango and both are just as important to the experience as the other. Sure, you spend all of your time with Rani, but Becks is a constant companion via the communication relay she has in the spaceship. It is very rare that you will go more than 5 minutes without communicating with Becks. This also very rarely takes you out of the action and happens naturally as you continue to explore. From the very first moment, Becks is much more serious than Rani. She still jokes around and is still happy to indulge Rani in her exploratory whims, but she is also laser-focused on the money side of their salvaging business.
They need a win. Badly.
As Rani finds different hints and clues regarding the energy source, Becks becomes more upbeat and pushes Rani to find it. She still wishes for Rani to be safe but whereas in Chapter 1, the focus was on almost entirely on Rani’s safety, now the focus has switched to the monetary incentive that could be gained from the energy source they chase. This spirals out of control as Rani loses focus and attempts to save the indigenous race from a tyrannical trickster that has essentially trapped and enslaved the whole planet. Rani believes that she has a duty to save these people but Becks sees this as a distraction and flips out at Rani’s ‘childishness’.
This paints Becks as a money-hungry dictator but give her a chance. She is more than justified in her motives here as, unbeknownst to Rani, Becks had been keeping the seriousness of the situation a secret from her. Their ship, their home, was days away from being repossessed. Everything they had worked for and all the memories they had made could be lost in an instant. Becks focused on this instead of communicating to her friend which, yes, from the outside, is dumb.
But remember, when people are scared they make stupid decisions.
When Rani ends up on death’s door, Becks doesn’t hesitate to help her long-time friend get back on her feet. And then they have a real talk. Chapter 7 is the real climax of the narrative, the character part anyway and the cinematic desert scene combined with Becks’s heroic rescue paints such a vivid picture of these two in my head, that I may never forget it.
Also, there might be some romantic tension between the two. Or I might just be seeing things. I’d read that fanfiction. Who knows.
I was now going to speak about the indigenous people and the robot that Becks and Rani bring on missions with them but I have elected not to. My reasoning is that, despite the story being good, this is not a story-heavy game and there is not a lot to say about either of them. Sure, they are both likeable enough but don’t have anywhere near as much screen time as the main duo. In fact, it does sometimes feel like the indigenous people aren’t characters at all and are instead just plot fodder to drive the story forward. But I digress. There is one more character that merits a mention and that is the big bad himself.
The Gardener is a mysterious figure you first see immortalised as a large, imposing statue. The Gardener is the planet’s slavemaster. His origins, even at the end, are still shrouded in mystery but, from my understanding, he tempted the indigenous folk of the planet to harness the energy of their planet. For what purpose, this is never told to us and, I have to admit that thinking back on it, this is a rather large plot hole. What I do know is that the energy harnessing method is what causes the Gunk as a byproduct of this energy.
Basically, it’s pollution. This game has an eco-friendly message. It can be a bit hamfisted at times but I’d be loathed to say it was irrelevant and, mostly, it is told well.
Back to The Gardener and, when you finally meet this man in Chapter Six, the mysteries don’t really clear up. He seems to think that he is helping the folk of the planet by using them as pawns to collect energy but no reason is ever given to the player. All this might make you think I am negative on him and, I suppose I am in a way as I wish to know more about his motives to make him more understandable or relatable. However, we don’t get that. What we do get is mystery, intrigue and an opportunity to form your own motives for this puzzling villain. And even despite not knowing a great deal about him, it still fills me with great pleasure when I kick his ass, so they done did something good, I guess.
Surprise 6: Gunk collecting gameplay creates interesting environmental puzzles
I have already spoken about the Gunk as a combat element but I just want to double down here on how it is used in puzzles. In particular, how it is used to encourage you to scour every area into every corner to find every little thing this game has to offer. Working your way around the planet’s different enclosed spaces and working out the most efficient way to cleanse it of the gunk is incredibly satisfying. This is helped by some stand out moments. The biggest of which is in Chapter 4: The Tower of Gunk. It is an incredibly linear jaunt up a large tower that has been completely enveloped in the black, icky matter. The gunk moving before this point wasn’t uncommon but it was here that the Gunk really started to become aggressive; expanding and chasing you as you attempted to carve a path through. Each section became slightly more difficult than the last as you slog your way through a harrowing assortment of near misses and sprint to safety. Finally cleansing this mammoth structure of the pollution that… pollutes it is a real high. Another one follows soon after, when you discover a still living indigenous lifeform and free it from its captvitiy in a creepy underground laboratory. Each of these settings makes the Gunk gameplay more interesting, especially considering it doesn’t change a great deal throughout the run time. I.e. you still suck Gunk up the same way at the start of the game as you do in the final boss encounter. But this doesn’t take away from these wow moments where the game and what it does with the Gunk AI, if you can call it that, any less special.
So yeah, I very much have a soft spot for The Gunk. I like a lot of what it has to offer. The story is nice and not too heavy, the message the game carries is solid and the characters are a delight. I even find the puzzle-based combat to be a unique and entertaining change from the norm.
That don’t mean this shit is perfect.
No, despite my love for this plucky indie attempt, it definitely carries some flaws inside its gunky body. Let’s go over them!
Slip-up 1: Very linear (Exploring is the most fun thing here but the levels become more one route as the game goes on.)
Earlier on I gushed about how fun exploring the planet was despite the linear design of the game.
And it’s true. That is great fun.
It doesn’t mean however that this game wouldn’t have benefitted from being a little more open ended. Exploring the planet was very much the biggest joy that this game with me, moving away from the landing site and attempting to discover titbits about this planet’s past. But there did come a point, around chapter 5 or so, that the linearity weighed me down a little. In the earliest minutes of my playtime, I found that this game reminded me of a modern take on the original Ratchet and Clank style level design, in that the areas had a beginning point and an end point but there were a couple of different paths to takes and things to grab on the way.
The Gunk needed more paths.
What is here is truly excellent but by the end, these 1-2 paths very much become just a singular throughline directed at the end. In a game that fills me with exploratory wonder, a little more openness or sandbox style level design would have taken this up another level. It actually feels like this is what they originally wanted to do but had to scale back as time went on for some reason or another. But we will likely never know. And whilst some linear sections, the desert in Chapter 7 for example, are excellent examples of linearity done well, the earlier sections could have done with just a little bit extra scope to endear more people to this beautiful planet.
Slip Up 2: Gunk mechanic felt like it could have gone further
I think the gunk mechanic is an excellent alternative to standard shooter combat. But that doesn’t mean its perfect. Early on, sucking up Gunk takes far too long and there is little challenge in doing it. The challenge quickly ramps up but nothing you ever have to do with the gunk is particularly taxing. Suck it up to create a path. Suck up the monsters before they damage you. Shoot down a bomb to clear a large gunk pile…
That’s about it.
For a full game to only use its titular mechanic in only 3 ways is a little disappointing. What about a type of gunk that evolves into a beast akin to Super Mario Sunshine or a type of gunk that causes environmental damage and requires different elements to put it out. I’m not a game designer and these may have been beyond the scope of the main game but even a self-professed fan of what these developers have made wishes for a little bit more to be done with the gunk to make it engaging right up to the final whistle. Even making the gunk more aggressive in the final hour would have helped.
This isn’t helped by the final couple of sections; namely an elevator fight where you fight a growing number of monsters spawned from the gunk and larger quantities of the goo. The monsters really aren’t very challenging and there are only three varieties of these anyway (little termite like things, piranha plants and a big brute). Their patterns are easy to guess and whilst they are fun at first, they are simple reused too often to stick with you in a good way.
I… I just wanted more. For the final area before the boss in a game that leans on exploring a planet to be a combat gauntlet just felt underwhelming to me and, with the potential on offer, it just leaves me a little hollow. The final boss uses the mechanics in much the same way but the threat of being struck down by the boss’s killer laser adds just enough to spare this from too much criticism. Overall, much like my first criticism, this is just me wanting more.
Slip-up 3: Can be a little buggy and glitchy
This slip-up is not we wanting more. For 85% of the game, this game runs perfectly. My laptop is pretty damn powerful now and can run Cyberpunk and Forza on ultra pretty perfectly so this game shouldn’t be a problem. And it isn’t.
Until it is.
The aforementioned elevator section. The combat gauntlet. This is made 10 times worse because this area and this area alone is buggy and glitchy as hell. The models clip through the floor often but, worst of all, the framerate hits the floor. Through the entire section, the game struggled to stay above 15FPS and was borderline unplayable. This is where the relatively low difficulty of the title turns into a blessing rather than the curse I have made it out to be. Luckily, this problem is limited to this section alone but it doesn’t mean this is forgivable. This is still about 15 minutes of a 4 hour game. That is about 6% of the entire game. I’m sorry, but that just isn’t really good enough.
Slip-up 4: Platforming can be a little stiff
The Gunk features a decently high amount of platforming. I grew up with 3D platformers and find myself loving the ones that try something different. The Gunk might be a game I enjoyed but it isn’t a platformer I enjoyed. For all the game does right in setting, puzzles and characters, the platforming is far too stiff to be anything other than serivcable. For a platformer to work, think Ty, Mario or Banjo, the characters need a sort of lightness; to feel agile enough to jump from block to block and still be fun and challenging for the player.
The platforming in The Gunk is more akin to the terrible chandelier section in Final Fantasy 7 remake mixed with an Uncharted rip off game. And whilst all the places you can climb are marked clearly and well, actually jumping up and across them just isn’t that fun. And that’s what hurts most of all.
So this game is flawed as well. Great. So what’s your point?
The Crux of the Matter
Not all games can be games of the year; some of them just need to be different. And that’s what this game does. It’s short, it’s fun and makes me excited for the next game that these developers choose to tackle. Basically, this game is good, fun and for GamePass subscribers, essentially free. This game probably won’t be anybody’s favourite. But it is just good, clean fun that gets me excited for the next game these developers tackle. Sometimes, just sometimes, I can see what a game could have been yet still appreciate what it is. I like this game. Not everybody will but I can appreciate the risks that the developers took in their first fully 3D title. And I am positively horny with excitement for their next go.
And with that out of the way, it is just time for the score. After much deliberation, I have decided that despite some missed potential, I really enjoyed my time with this game. It was a great palate cleanser between big RPG’s and allowed me to sit back and unwind with a great group of characters and a pretty world.
The Gunk: 7.5/10– A beautiful indie experience that is just good. And that’s okay.
And with that, I’ve been Benjamin Wagner and I endorse this message.
And, Merry Christmas.