Indie studio Image and Form has been putting out one excellent SteamWorld game after another for nearly a decade at this point, but now, after having mastered the art of 2D game design and delivered some of the best Metroidvania games ever with both SteamWorld Dig games, the developer is eyeing bigger and better things. Enter, The Gunk– a story-driven, fully 3D action-adventure game that attempts to carve out its own identity- and succeeds on pretty much every front. True to form, with The Gunk, Image and Form has delivered yet another stone-cold classic that sinks its teeth into you the moment it kicks off, bites deeper and deeper as it progresses, and then embeds itself into you by the time it comes to an end.
The Gunk tells the story of Rani and Becks, two scavengers exploring the outer reaches of known human space to gather resources and find something that can make them some money, which they desperately need. The two friends land on an alien planet after chancing upon an energy signal, and soon upon their arrival, they find it completely decayed and isolated, with much of its long-standing troubles seemingly being brought about by an unknown, corrupting, black gelatinous substance that they dub “the gunk”. Hoping to find the source of the energy signal, which they’re assuming will lead them to a money-making discovery, Rani heads deeper into the planet with Becks’ support in an effort to uncover the planet’s mysteries.
"With The Gunk, Image and Form has delivered yet another stone-cold classic that sinks its teeth into you the moment it kicks off, bites deeper and deeper as it progresses, and then embeds itself into you by the time it comes to an end."
The Gunk’s story succeeds in more ways than one. Rani and Becks are the heart and soul of this tale, and it’s a tale with a lot of heart and soul. Both of them are very relatable, very normal people who, even though they find themselves in an extraordinary situation, are dealing with very real, very ordinary problems. In spite of these obstacles, they both remain upbeat and optimistic, with Rani’s sense of wonder and curiosity being constantly piqued by the rich enigmas and alien beauty of the planet, and Becks pulling her back with her pragmatism and cautious personality. The dynamic between the two characters and the bond that grows deeper and deeper as the story progress makes this an incredibly human story that’s easy to immediately get invested in. It helps that both characters are voiced and written expertly.
On a macro level, there’s plenty else to pull you in in The Gunk’s story as well. Right from the get go, the game builds up an intriguing of mystery, and instantly, you have core questions to latch on to that pull you through the entire experience. What is the gunk? What’s it doing to the planet? What’s the source of the energy signal? As you progress further, Rani and Becks discover ancient alien ruins of a long-forgotten civilization, and those questions are compounded even further. The intimate and big-picture halves of The Gunk’s story work together perfectly, combining to deliver a narrative that is as heartfelt as it is captivating.
And there’s just as much to love on the gameplay front. The Gunk abides by the “less is more” philosophy, and rather than creating a vast web of mechanics, it focuses on a handful of those and builds on them in increasingly clever ways as the game progresses. Your primary way of interacting with the world is by using a vacuum-like device in Rani’s prosthetic hand, which is used to suck up the gunk in corrupted areas. Once all the gunk in an area has cleared up, that area transforms, going from decrepit and rotten to lush and gorgeous in the blink of an eye. With that comes a change in the environment, with new areas to traverse, new environmental objects that you can use to get to previously inaccessible areas, and new resources to collect.
"The intimate and big-picture halves of The Gunk’s story work together perfectly, combining to deliver a narrative that is as heartfelt as it is captivating."
Collecting resources is equally important too, because those resources – divided across various categories like metal, fiber, and organic – are used to upgrade and improve Rani’s prosthetic arm, which in turn allows you to explore and traverse the alien planet more effectively. These two elements – the need for collecting resources and being able to explore areas that change through your actions – work together perfectly to elevate exploration in The Gunk to incredible heights. The environments and levels that you find yourself in this game are also never awfully massive, but they’re intricately designed with interconnecting paths, unlockable shortcuts, and smartly designed puzzles that ask you to use your limited arsenal of tools in different ways.
The environments, in fact, motivate you to explore just as much as the game’s own mechanics. The Gunk is a gorgeous game, and the alien planet is a dense, lush, and beautiful location full of striking sights and vistas and vibrant flora and fauna. There’s also a scanning mechanic that takes heavy cues from the Metroid Prime games, and looking for new things in the world to scan and learn more about never gets boring. It also helps that there’s a surprising amount of environmental diversity in the game, like dense and lush outdoor locations, towering alien ruins with ancient statues, networks of dimly lit caves, abandoned mines with crumbling machinery, and much more.
With almost zero emphasis on combat, intricately designed levels that are as enjoyable to explore as they are beautiful to look at, and a tight, compelling loop of collecting resources, upgrading your tools, scanning objects, and solving puzzles, The Gunk exhibits that it’s perfectly aware of where its biggest strengths lie, and it doubles down on those strengths every chance it gets. Things only get more complex and mechanically interesting as the game progresses, which means you’re always excited about what lies around the corner. If there’s one issue with the how the game plays, it’s that the movement can sometimes feel a bit inaccurate and cumbersome, especially during the light platforming sections, and can, as such, lead to unnecessary moments of frustration- though these are, in the grand scheme of things, little more than minor annoyances.
"With almost zero emphasis on combat, intricately designed levels that are as enjoyable to explore as they are beautiful to look at, and a tight, compelling loop of collecting resources, upgrading your tools, scanning objects, and solving puzzles, The Gunk exhibits that it’s perfectly aware of where its biggest strengths lie, and it doubles down on those strengths every chance it gets."
On the audio-visual side of things, The Gunk is similarly excellent. In my time with the game, I have had some issues with excessive motion blur and the sound occasionally glitching out, but other than these minor stumbles, the game has impressed me thoroughly. Technical strengths such as incredible draw distances, densely packed environments, and a solid frame rate go a long way towards allowing the game’s artistic beauty to shine the way it should, and the soundtrack serves as a perfect companion to the tone that The Gunk sets every step of the way.
Though The Gunk is not a flawless game, such shortcomings as it has are relatively minor when all is said and done. The lingering sentiment that stays with me regarding the game at this point is one of overwhelming positivity- a positivity that is a composite of emotions such as awe, empathy, wonderment, curiosity, an investment in its narrative and storytelling, and an appreciation for how expertly it builds on and emphasizes its own narrative strengths. When all is said and done, The Gunk is fantastic, and it is heartily recommended to just about anyone.
This game was reviewed on the Xbox Series X.
Rani and Becks are instantly loveable characters, and their bond forms the heart and soul of the narrative; A captivating story that instantly builds up an intriguing area of mystery; An engaging loop of collecting resources and upgrading your tools; Transforming areas by freeing them of the gunk's corruption is always a joy; Smartly design puzzles; Areas are intricately crafted and encourage exploration; Exploration is consistently rewarding; Scanning flora, fauna, and objects in the environments never gets boring; A surprising amount of environmental diversity; Looks gorgeous, primarily thanks to excellent art design; Great soundtrack.
Movement can occasionally feel cumbersome; Some minor technical issues.