The Gunk review

By Heidi Nicholas,
Gunk. Better get used to that word now, as SteamWorld Games’ sci-fi adventure has a lot of it, and, spoiler alert, it’s really fun to clear it all out! Gunk of all forms shall come to be your nemesis in your time with the game, and you’ll soon come to enjoy charging straight at it, wielding Rani’s Power Glove, and hoovering up as much of the yucky stuff as possible. The Gunk drums up an instant sense of adventure by dropping you straight into things — you’re immediately sent out to explore an alien world. Your objectives are clear and simple, as are the controls, meaning you can focus entirely on exploration and discovery. And gunk. Never forget the gunk.

the gunk gameplay

Our partner Beck stays on the ship, and right away, The Gunk sets up that idea of conflict between the two. This is thanks in no small part to the stellar voice acting — you might think that keeping one character back would limit their impact on the story, but Rani and Beck stay in close contact throughout the game, creating an increasingly tense narrative about trust and the “right” thing to do. The crux of their conflict is noticeable right from the start, when Beck decides to stay on the ship while Rani goes out to explore. From then on, Rani begins to build an attachment to this strange alien world, while Beck is focused inward on more practical matters, like fixing the ship. The gunk itself is dropped straight into the middle of this burgeoning bubble of mistrust — Rani is instinctively protective of the planet and wants to clear away the gunk, while Beck wants to stay back and stay out of it. The voice acting does a great job of getting across this gradually-building feud, and while the eventual fallout wasn’t quite as dramatic as I was hoping, the voice acting remains one of the strongest parts of the game. The music wonderfully complements that voice acting, with soaring music accompanying your exploration, or with sombre tones for some of the more serious parts of the story.

the gunk gameplay

Now, let’s talk about the gunk — we can’t go far either in this review or in the game without encountering it, so let’s dig in. The gunk itself is a nasty, corrosive substance which seems to be draining the life from the planet. Rani comes armed with a Power Glove which lets you hoover up the substance, and it’s sort of like interacting with the world via the Vacpack in Slime Rancher; everything seems divided up into “stuff that can be hoovered up” and “stuff that can’t.” You’ll be doing a lot of clearing up after the gunk, so the fact that it is oddly satisfying to clean up the planet really helps. It can be a somewhat lengthy process when there’s quite a lot of gunk, but the result — the sudden burst of greenery and vegetation as you help the afflicted area come back to life — is always enjoyable. Clearing up the gunk usually results in access to a new area or to more resources, and this leads to one occasional hiccup of the game — when there’s one globule of gunk left hiding somewhere and you can’t find it, you are pretty much trapped until you can. This only happened once or twice in the later stages of the game, but it was still frustrating, especially when the exploration normally feels so fluid. It also feels like a bit of a mixed message when it comes to the resources that appear after cleaning up the gunk. Getting rid of all the gunk revitalizes an area, bringing it back to life and filling it with plants and resources. It feels a little odd to go to all that trouble of working to save an area of natural beauty, just to turn around and plunder it. It might have been nice, too, to have a little more to do in the game, in addition to just cleaning up the gunk. Either way, the actual process of hoovering up the gunk is enjoyable, and you’ll find yourself invested in clearing up as much of it as possible.

the gunk gameplay

Another of the game’s strengths is its sense of natural exploration. There’s no mini-map or HUD, so your entire attention is on the world in front of you, and the movement from one area to another feels entirely fluid. The world of The Gunk feels solid and looks beautiful, and while you can sprint, I often had Rani just trotting slowly around each area, looking at the light filtering through alien plants, just to breathe it in. There were a few frustrations in the later levels where a map might have been useful, but for the most part, the exploration does feel entirely natural. You can use Rani’s Power Glove to scan alien plants or structures, bringing up a little screen with all of its data, and this really heightens your sense of setting out as an intrepid explorer. The resources you’ve found during your exploration can then be taken back to camp to craft upgrades, which will help you deal with the gunk and the occasional gunky creature you’ll encounter. The puzzles tied in with the exploration and with handling the gunk remind me a little of Omno, just in that both are very effective in giving an idea of natural progression, making the player instinctively aware of where to turn next. The further you get, the more complicated the levels become — you can set up beacons at certain points, where you’re able to fast travel back to your ship or to another beacon, and “completing” an area — clearing out its gunk, or putting down its beacon — does feel like a rewarding experience.

the gunk gameplay

The achievements felt as though they were handed out fairly regularly, for reaching story beats or else handling the gunky creatures in a certain way, and provided a nice punctuation point to the gameplay. There are also a few to keep an eye on — I thought I had scanned everything I came across, but I haven’t yet unlocked the “Space Archeologists” achievement for scanning every scannable object, so there must have been one or two I missed. I also tried to scavenge every resource I could, but I didn’t have quite enough to unlock the last upgrade, meaning I also missed the “All In” achievement — it seems The Gunk won’t give up all of its secrets so easily!

Summary

Overall, The Gunk feels like a weighty, enjoyable adventure that goes to some surprising places with its story. I had a great time clearing up the gunk and living my best adventurer life, and the length of the game seemed just right, ensuring that the gunk didn’t overstay its welcome. To make things even better, The Gunk launches straight into Xbox Game Pass today — so you can’t not give it a go.
8 / 10
* Heidi spent around 15 hours cleaning up the gunk and working to save the planet, earning 11 achievements as she went.
Heidi Nicholas
Written by Heidi Nicholas
Heidi graduated with an MA in English Literature, and now enjoys writing news, reviews, and features across TrueAchievements and TrueTrophies. When she’s not writing, Heidi is usually either looking for her next RPG, or trying to convince the rest of the team to hear about yet another delightfully wholesome game she has found.