The Gunk Review: "Doesn't Leave Us Enough Time With The Characters Or World"
Building an entire game around one simple mechanic is as old as gaming itself. While during the ancient eras of the medium it was all that could be done, now even the most basic ideas can be spruced up into a full experience. At its core, The Gunk is about sucking up slime with your mechanical arm - which is admittedly very satisfying in a gamified way, but built around that is a journey through an alien planet with plenty of puzzling and combat, plus a narrative about personal responsibility. It's certainly not a shallow experience, but how much depth does its gameplay loop carry when it all revolves around what is essentially a giant vacuum hoover?
Two Best Friends
In the opening moments of The Gunk, you're introduced to the protagonist Rani and her companion Beck, as they arrive to scavenge at an unnamed alien planet. As you begin your initial exploration of the planet, there isn't much but barren canyons of rock and a slime like parasite that covers whole areas seemingly at random. After sucking all of it up with Rani's prosthetic hand though, it reveals an entire lush grove of flora suppressed beneath it and the source of some energy.
From here, you'll spend the experience continuously clearing areas of the slime while trying to follow the source of the massive energy reading. However, things become complicated along the way, and it turns into a fight to save the planet and your relationship with Beck. It's a simple intro and premise, but it effectively introduces a wider mystery while hooking you to the central gameplay concept.
The Big Succ
The main drive in The Gunk comes from completing puzzles and combat sections that largely intertwine with sucking up the slime that infests everything. As the slime suppresses plant life, revealing it will open entries to new areas with giant fungi and plants providing pathways and platforms. It's a satisfying loop, watching previously dead terrain spring to life in an instant, and Unreal Engine 4 represents this transformation well, with the expressive and cartoony graphics.
While many of these set pieces are engaging enough early on, their lack of challenge dulls the experience to the point of being mundane, and it eventually felt like going through the motions just to hit the next story beat. None of the puzzles are particularly hard - which isn't necessarily a terrible thing - but it felt like there was no ramp up in difficulty, so the skills learnt along the way were hardly challenged.
The combat has many of the same issues, as you fight little spider-like creatures, ranged plants, and a huge charging enemy. As products of the titular Gunk, you have to balance battling them and hoovering up the slime at the same time. Doing both these things requires the exact same input though, and the enemies are incredibly easy to incapacitate, meaning you can mostly hold one button and get through these segments.
Another lacklustre implementation was the collectible and upgrade systems. Collectibles are, once again, not much of a challenge, though on the plus side, it does stop them getting tedious. These also tie into the upgrade progression, as scanning more plant-life and architecture will net you new upgrades, but most of them are pointless and with how short the experience already is, you won't even use them all.
The narrative focus and the story between the two main characters is easily the highlight of The Gunk though and redeems it from being a below average action-adventure game. As you begin to uncover the mystery surrounding the planet you're on, it causes a strain on Rani and Beck's relationship. A central conflict between them manifests in the theme of personal responsibility, and they both have opposite opinions on attempting to save the planet and fleeing with what resources they've gathered.
This is heightened by the game's deeply sombre atmosphere. Sadness seems to hang on the wind of the planet you'll explore, and coming across the ruins of prior civilisations or the result of overexposure to the Gunk makes for some melancholic moments. These are bolstered by both the art direction and orchestral music score, which both invoke the feeling of loss as you explore what evidently was once a vibrant world.
Unreal Engine 4 really brings the world to life here, and even when the environments are dead with fragmented rocky outcrops and caves. It again works to invoke the feeling of a lost world, and makes the transition to a green and life-like tapestry of plant life rewarding. There isn't a lot of variation but with the playtime only hovering around four hours, it never quite loses its aesthetic allure.
Gunk In The Trunk
In the end, The Gunk sits in the middle of the pile. The core of sucking up the Gunk is satisfying for the roughly four hours of playtime, but the lack of a difficulty curve for the puzzles or combat lets it down. Its story makes an honest attempt at character drama that works for the most part, but the short playtime doesn't leave us quite enough time with the characters or world. It's by no means bad and there's not much poorly implemented content here, but it's a plainly inoffensive experience that settles when it could have punched slightly higher.
Reviewed on PC. Code provided by the publisher.