The Gunk (Xbox Series S) Review

Galactic cleaning services
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The worst thing I could say about The Gunk – developed by Image & Form Games and published by Thunderful – is that it’s remarkably inoffensive and enjoyably unremarkable. In the opening hour, it feels like a classic Image & Form game: polished, compact, and mechanically satisfying, with quirky characters to carry the narrative. However, the longer you play, the more you see the rough edges. Unfortunately for The Gunk, as a relatively breezy experience, it needed exceptional polish to stand out.

The Gunk takes place in a distant future where humanity has spread to the stars, abandoning an environmentally-devastated Earth. Predictably, no one has learned a thing. Corporations still wield more power than governments, discovering natural resources to exploit is the most profitable venture, and there’s no shortage of strip-mined worlds left in humanity’s wake. Enter protagonist Rani and her “captain” Becks, cruising the galaxy in their increasingly dilapidated ship, scanning for the location of resource deposits they can sell to corporations. An energy burst leads them to an uncharted planet and their adventure kicks off.

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The “Dust Bunny” campsite becomes your base of operations, allowing you to fast-travel, upgrade your gear, and chat with the Becks about your current objective.

Narratively, The Gunk is trying to convey both a message about environmental conservation and the value of friendship. It succeeds – especially in how it ties the core gameplay loop to restoring the environments you explore – but the narrative pacing is off, and the delivery feels uneven. Rani, having been previously crippled in a mining accident and her mobility restored through robotic prosthetics, is hellbent on discovering the source of the titular “gunk”, restoring the world to its natural state, and saving what life remains. Becks, on the other hand, is more interested in completing a contract so they can pay off their ship and improve their socioeconomic status.

In theory, this combination of wondrous discovery and competing interests should make for a good narrative, but The Gunk keeps the stakes low until the final hour. Events come to a boil but are just as quickly resolved. Sure, it’s by no means the only game with these pacing issues, but it’s much harder to excuse when you have the control offered by a linear experience. Compounding these issues is the uneven quality of cutscene and in-game line delivery, especially during the opening hours. I legitimately liked the characters – especially the empathetic culinary robot Curt – and the trajectory of the story, but it felt notably less polished than Image & Form’s prior efforts.

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You undoubtedly spend too much time hoovering up gunk, but there’s something cathartic about the experience and you’re rewarded with the audiovisual spectacle as an area bursts back into life.

A single run of The Gunk will probably set you back 6-7 hours, depending on how thoroughly you explore a few side paths for scannable objects and resources. It’s brisk by modern standards, fair for the asking price, and the core gameplay mechanics only hold up that long anyway. The Gunk plays like a conventional third-person platformer/puzzler, with the clunky combat encounters only requiring observation and a bit of timing to overcome.

Most of your time is spent running, climbing, jumping, and pulling switches as you explore the uncharted alien world. Rani’s “power glove” allows her to hoover up inexplicable amounts of gunk and cleanse infested areas, leading to a dramatic resurgence of plant life that, in turn, opens the way forward. Aside from an upgrade that allows you to pull out versatile plant pods (which grow new platforms or explode) and a laser for triggering switches, these abilities never change. Your progress through the world is also strictly linear, even if a few areas allow you to pick which side path you want to tackle first when you need to find multiple switches. As a result, The Gunk relies on escalating the complexity of puzzle-type roadblocks to keep you engaged.

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There are a few action-packed sequences in the final hour but, by and large, The Gunk is a slower-paced puzzle-oriented experience.

Early locations include basic platforming, cleansing patches of gunk, hurling seed pods, and maybe fending off annoying mini-beasts. Mid-game challenges involve precision platforming and timed switches, while juggling mobile gunk swarms and larger creatures. By the end-game, The Gunk feels like a gauntlet of back-to-back puzzle rooms and combat sequences, culminating in the only true “boss” fight. There are plenty of awe-inspiring locations, some wondrous, others intimidating, but relatively few action-packed set pieces. As such, The Gunk is a game for those that enjoy solving multi-step puzzles to progress at their own pace.

Restoring corrupted areas and exploring short side paths reveals several resource types you can hoover up with your power glove – think metal, organic, fabric, and alien – which can then be used to incrementally upgrade your gear and increase your survivability back at the landing site camp. Aside from the two plot-specific upgrades, these all fall into the nice-to-have category (think more efficient power glove suction or taking a few more hits) but none are essential to complete the game. You get back to your ship using a simple fast-travel system between beacons but, aside from revisiting your ship’s workbench, returning to other locations is usually pointless outside of a brief comment on the reduced level of gunk infestation.

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The resource harvesting and upgrade system feel perfunctory, but you’ll be able to upgrade nearly everything with only brief diversions off the main path.

Visually, the vibrant and distinctly alien environments can look stunning, even if the character models and animations look stiff and last-gen during cutscenes. Luckily for The Gunk, the focus on exploration and discovery means the beautiful backdrops, lighting, and a fantastic soundtrack do most of the heavy lifting and keep you immersed. There’s plenty of banter, think comments from Rani about the location or chit-chat with Becks over the radio but, as with the major story beats, the delivery is mixed.

Unfortunately, this lack of polish extends beyond presentation issues Rani has a remarkable ability to snag on objects as you explore, she’ll slide off ledges you’re sure you’ve reached, and get stuck in a fall animation for several seconds if you jump onto uneven ground. It doesn’t help that platforming feels loose and mantle grabs are limited to clearly marked surfaces. It never stalled my progress (falling to your doom only results in a quick reset to the nearest ledge) but it made several epic platforming sections feel frustrating rather than tense.

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Exploration above ground always offers the most impressive vistas but descending deep into corrupted caves and ancient ruins are equally compelling experiences (and provide more elaborate platforming sequences).

Overall, The Gunk is a brisk, enjoyable, but unremarkable adventure from Image & Form. The heartfelt story, quirky characters, and distinctive designs were on point. However, the mostly unchanging mechanics, uneven presentation, and lack of polish felt uncharacteristic and brought down the experience. It’s a budget title and their first game with full 3D environments, sure, but The Gunk deserved a few more months of polish to shine at launch. At the $20-equivalent price point, it’s easy enough to recommend to fans of the genre, and well worth a look if you’ve got an active Xbox Game Pass subscription.

The Gunk (Xbox Series S) Review

The Gunk (Xbox Series S) Review
7 10 0 1
7/10
Total Score
  • Story
    7/10 Good
    Cliched, sure, but you get a likeable cast, several heartfelt moments, and moral lessons to boot. I just wish the pacing and delivery were better.
  • Gameplay
    6/10 Normal
    Streamlined and simple, the platforming, puzzling, and combat are fun at first but run out of steam towards the finale.
  • Visuals
    7/10 Good
    The alien geometry, vibrant environments, and lighting make for impressive vistas; however, the stiff character models and animations stand out in cutscenes.
  • Audio
    7/10 Good
    The ambient audio and excellent soundtrack bring each location to life and set the mood. Unfortunately, both cutscene dialogue and in-game banter suffer from variable delivery.

The Good

  • A likeable cast and heartfelt story
  • Enjoyable, puzzle-oriented platforming and combat challenges
  • The cathartic joy of hoovering up gunk
  • Impressive alien vistas coupled with an atmospheric soundtrack

The Bad

  • The gameplay mechanics don't evolve significantly
  • Line delivery, during cutscenes and in-game, is uneven
  • Feels like it deserved several months of additional polish
Total
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