This format is a shorter, more to-the-point, off-shot of the normal review/op-eds I normally do. A ranking will be given at the end from a scale that starts at (from the lowest to the highest): Bad – meh – fine – good – great. Anything not appropriate for these “scores” will likely warrant a more in-depth discussion, which is what I normally do, so this range does not cover all games, just the ones that I think are suited to this format.
Image & Form studios have consistently surprised and excited me throughout the years with the diversity and quality of their output; from the nearly perfect Steamworld Dig 2 to the hidden gem that is Steamworld Heist and the surprisingly excellent Steamworld Quest, their catalog showed a willingness to experiment in new genres and excel at them, providing experiences in those genres that were welcoming to newcomers, but also quickly turned those newcomers into “veterans” seeking that big challenge and mastering the mechanics to beat it. Quest, in particular, had me laboring for hours in its arena, trying to figure out the best hand to deal with that challenge, something I rarely do in games. When they announced that they are working on a new game that is not part of the Steamworld universe and would be their take on a 3D platformer, I couldn’t help but be excited. Does The Gunk live up to my excitement? No, but it’s not entirely its fault; after completing the campaign with only one upgrade left to get and a couple of unscanned objects, those 6 hours on Xbox Series X made me realize something that I wish I had known sooner. The Gunk was created with a younger audience in mind, sort of like a 101 introduction to platformers for children; that’s not a bad thing, but a lot of the creativity and the unique twists on genre tropes that defined the studio’s previous work is gone in favor of a more streamlined and narrative-heavy experience. For what it is, I think The Gunk is GOOD, but I expected something more…
The Gunk is the story of Rani and Becks, two partnering scavengers who arrive at an alien planet in search of valuables to take home with them. Rani, the character which the player controls, is an adventurous girl who wants an adventure and begins exploring, while her more practical partner Becks begins to work on their ship to fix it; soon though, Rani discovers a gooey substance that has taken over parts of the planet and has suppressed its natural beauty, so, using her trusty glove she begins to vacuum the substance, restoring the planet and discovering its secrets along the way. There are two ways to look at this game: Either you’re like me and are here to see the creativity and mechanical prowess of the studio’s take on the genre, or as what it feels like it was meant to be, which is a family-friendly action-adventure. The latter, obviously, has a lot more positives. The game is a linear affair that has some basic puzzle-solving and platforming as its main focus while adding some light combat for spice. This ensures that most players (regardless of age or skill) can easily beat the main path and discover most of the secrets. For example, secrets are usually hidden behind destructible walls or pathways that are a few steps afar from the main path, which is going to easily inspire most to spend time and collect everything before moving on. Furthermore, combat is less about skills or reflects and more about understanding the two things you need to do for the two enemy types you will encounter; one is a small creature that you can vacuum and throw, while the other is a turret-type that needs to be stunned and vacuumed to be defeated. The main mechanical focus is on vacuuming the gooey substance and restoring the natural beauty – with some slight puzzle platforming at times – taking in the beauty of the world and then moving on. Looking at this from the perspective of wanting a new and interesting take on 3D platformers or action-adventure, that is definitely disappointing, however, I understand that the game may not have had the same priorities in mind as I did. Despite that, I did find myself enjoying the casual nature of it; vacuuming the level clean, enjoying the satisfaction of restoring beauty, scanning objects, and getting all the secrets, before moving on.
That contrast of what I wanted and what I got, while also enjoying the game for what it was, remains consistent in all its features. For example, there are upgrades to get for Rani and they are the bare minimum for an upgrade system, which is something that fits with a game that is oriented towards younger players, however, I also enjoyed that system just because it was a checklist that I wanted to cross every item on; that made exploration fun for the intended crowd (as upgrades require materials found in secret areas and throughout the main path) and made it fun for me as I kept exploring the levels to cross off my checklist. The story is the same way as well. I found it to be a fairly-standard environmental crisis warning story with the characters facing a crisis in the relationship, due to a lack of trust and a differing perspective, to be not that engaging, as it is something I’ve seen before done better. However, the strong voice cast, the engaging visual design of the world, and the subtly great soundtrack made it a narrative that was interesting enough to keep me engaged. As a family-friendly adventure, I’m sure most younger players will be delighted with Rani’s optimism and energetic personality while being subtly taught a good message about taking care of our environment and not allowing greed and power to get the better of us.
Having said all of that, there are a few issues that I think will not please any audience, such as the lack of visual diversity and the loading screens in-between all areas, or strange decisions like including a hub area whose only real use is to house the workbench that installs the upgrades (which I rarely used and was never really bothered to upgrade until I needed to go back to that area for other reasons).
The Gunk is a good game, but it also is a shift away from what I like about Image & Form’s games; Steamworld Dig 2 is a nearly perfect, action-adventure-platformer regardless of skill level; 2D-XCOM-like Steamworld Heist will welcome newcomers and engage fans of the genre alike; Steamworld Quest will work for you whether you’ve played deck-builders before or have never played one in your life. The Gunk will delight younger audiences and those seeking a casual experience, but hardcore platforming or action-adventure fans will be disappointed by the lack of challenge or interesting mechanical twists on the genre; that doesn’t mean the game is bad, it just means that I, despite the casual fun I’ve had with it, won’t praise it as much as I have with the previous Steamworld games.