We’ve been here before. With both The Gunk’s gameplay loop and clean the literal gunk gimmick, that is. Whether it’s sucking up ghosts from a vacuum backpack in Luigi’s Mansion, spewing water from a mounted water cannon strapped to Mario’s back in Super Mario Sunshine, or painting the town RGB in Nintendo’s beloved multiplayer romp, Splatoon -- the tech gimmick that is weaponising some form of voluminous liquid in clean or spray arrangement is a fun and accessible one. (Ectoplasm is a kind of liquid -- fight me!) One where the overgrown trope can be played out in full and an easy-to-swallow narrative concept can be built upon.
In The Gunk, the white savior trope is dialed up to human saviorAvatar levels, where our main protagonist, Rani, an offworld junk collector, stumbles upon a ‘gunk’ that is eating away at the natural beauty of an alien planet she and her (more than just business?) partner, Becks, have stumbled upon. There’s a pipe, you see, and emanating from that pipe and around the gunk itself are some promising power readings that could spell big profits for the workaday pair, and their single-phrase automaton, CuRT. But as you’d expect with any form of human intervention in worlds we don’t truly understand, an alien mystery presents itself, slowly unfolding to reveal a bit of a native dweller misstep in managing the planet’s resources, and in how large a footprint has been left by those natives in the wake of their attempt at progress.
So naturally (heh), we’re soon the centrepiece to emancipating the planet’s indigenous population from elective OG Matrix-level self-battery stationeering, tasked with undoing a Rhinehart-esque villain’s monorail sales pitch, he clearly succeeded at. He also calls himself “The Gardener”, and has anointed himself savior and protector of this place; deified by the denizens he’s fleeced. Meaning his God complex is very real, and very much in play throughout your journey.
"She’s a walking, jumping, sucking context machine, and all gameplay within The Gunk stems from her general being...”
The Gunk is best described as an action-platformer. Its world is one brimming with stunning alien-to-humans flora and fauna, rich in resources for the grubbing. Our hero, Rani, has a prosthetic arm she affectionately refers to as “Pumpkin” which has an incidental vacuum function (among others) that comes in handy in both sucking up said rich resource realness while also making short work of the gunk consuming the planet. She’s a walking, jumping, sucking context machine, and all gameplay within The Gunk stems from her general being, but I’m getting ahead of myself here.
I say “short work” because as the titular threat, and the game’s key visual selling point, the gunk is fairly trivial in its challenge. In that it never really presents one. In fact, it stands largely as purely aesthetic in the grand scheme of things; a narrative hook to draw you into a world that never truly explores, or becomes, all it can be. It’s also lite-on as far as difficulty is concerned, with enemies scarce, and even scarcer in archetypal variety. And their impediment tends to formulate in volume rather than in anything mind-bending or requiring planning or tact. There are just the two main types of grunts, and just the one type of ‘boss’, and that’s kind of it. Everything else is effectively traversal as far as any form of videogame goes, which isn’t an entirely bad thing, it’s just that in equal measure to the smallish concepts at play, the game’s world is bite-sized and delivered in load-in chunks, too, rather than as a streaming, expansive whole.
"Minor artistic points of interest accidentally catching the trained eye, yet being entirely unreachable because your only job here is to walk in a straight line...”
This is a disservice to what could, and should, have been in the modern ilk of games of this nature. Those load-ins tend to pull you out of any sense of proprietorial exploration, and remind you you’re on a linear path to the end. There’s a section of the game that’s a glimpse of what the future of what the planet looks like, should you fail. A vast wasteland stretching as far as the eye can see, with minor artistic points of interest accidentally catching the trained eye, yet being entirely unreachable because your only job here is to walk in a straight line. And that’s all she wrote.
Too often The Gunk just feels like a “my first action-adventure-platformer”, to its own detriment. And when it does exercise agency for the player, and reward skilful exploration, discovery or successful navigation of one of its [only a] handful of challenging moments, it feels too little, too late. And it tends to revert back to the safety of handrail gaming. What’s frustrating about all of this is this is a mostly wonderful experience that hearkens back to Nintendo-era Rareware style and design (sans challenge). It has an excellent score, a mostly great cadence, and some really good writing where the inter-character banter is concerned (the lover’s quarrel towards the end, and the gaslighting that rears its head and yet remains entirely unresolved and blatant, however, is jarringly out-of-place, and out-of-touch). And throughout the journey there’s just this promise of more, which is infuriatingly never realised.
What we get when all’s said and performed in step with The Gunk’s level design, is a fleeting experience really only good for the Achievements (your first G is a whopping 50, and this rarely lets up), or for a chilled and relaxed romp through an alien world whose FernGulley storyline is face-slappingly on-the-nose. I mean, it’s actually quite fun, despite Rani’s overly contextual Mepsipax design, which is entirely at odds with everything I’ve gunked at you here, but it did suck me in. That gameplay loop, cheap as it is, drew me into a vacuum of repetition I couldn’t really move past. And maybe that’s just the sort of recipe we’ve all needed at the end of an admittedly gunk-filled 2021 (and 2020). So, in some respects, there’s an incidental Pro right there from The Gunk. But the truth is, you shouldn’t go into this expecting any more than a game about sucking up some gunk. It just happens that can be a bit of cathartic fun, if you contextualise it right.
What we liked
Gunk-sucking is a pretty addictive gameplay system
Well-written banter between the game's characters
What we didn't like
I wanted to score it higher, but couldn't on lite-on principle
Never truly realises its full potential
Context-heavy in a negative way
No real challenge
Enemies and the lack of variety is a big let-down
The 'gunk' itself is never a threat, and never changes