“Yeah, yeah, we’re supposed to get rich and home,” Rani, the playable character in “The Gunk,” chatted into the radio as her partner, Becks, worried whether scrambling into ancient ruins on a mysterious alien world was a good idea, “but what about space adventure?”
There’s many memorable lines exchanged between the two over the course of your space adventure in “The Gunk,” the latest game from the developers behind the excellent “Steamworld” series. As the studio’s first entry into the 3D realm, “The Gunk” is both a familiar and fresh twist on the action-adventure games that packs creative gameplay with an engaging story and excellent characters.
Rani and Becks are a pair of scrappers who are searching the galaxy for, well, pretty much anything of value when they’re lured by an energy signal to a mysterious planet. You quickly discover that the planet is afflicted by these billowing black masses, called the gunk, which just so happen to be easily vacuumed up by Rani’s power glove. Suck up all the masses in an area with Pumpkin—because, oh yeah, the power glove has a name — and the gray, ashy world springs to life in vivid colors in a not-so-subtle metaphor about pollution. New paths open up and resources reveal themselves.
That’s the basic loop of gameplay in “The Gunk” and it’ll grow into more and more complicated puzzles where you’ll be using Pumpkin to suck up resources and key items — like seeds and bombs — to progress through the areas. You’ll be using those resources to upgrade Pumpkin throughout the game, adding new abilities and new bonuses to help you along the way.
In all, it has a familiar framework of older adventure games of the PlayStation 2 era where levels would be crammed with things to collect, puzzles to beat, platforms to leap across and enemies to best. Like some of those older games, I initially found it easy to fall into the old bad habits of trying to be overly completionist about everything. I’d find myself practically inching my way down pathways in the off chance that I’d run into a cliff and couldn’t run back and dig up all the loot.
But what “The Gunk” does well — particularly once you’re about an hour into the game — is make the exploration feel much more realistic. Supplies are bountiful, giving you more than enough to upgrade the must-have abilities and pick up many of the optional upgrades so scrounging every corner doesn’t feel quite as required. Perhaps even better, though, is the character-filled banter between Rani and Becks — and sometimes just Rani and herself when the communications are on the fritz, as you might expect to happen on an unknown alien world — that keeps you moving through the level.
I still was checking plenty of corners, but it felt like something the adventurous Rani would be doing. Few games find a way to really contextualize the exploration and collecting, but “The Gunk” does it well and it’s better for it.
And that’s where I really started to enjoy “The Gunk.” Through a combination of story, dialog and level design, the characters and their relationship really shines through.
Rani is a headstrong scrapper whose adventuring spirit has got her into trouble more than once — she does have a robot arm after all. And Becks, your partner, is the ship’s mechanic and is more laced-up, careful and protective. Some if borders the old odd-couple archetype but, like with the gameplay itself, there’s many subtle twists on the formula that make them into more lifelike and familiar-feeling characters. They’re not just one note throughout the story, but react and change as the story progresses.
Still, not everything in “The Gunk” sticks the landing.
With a strong story and good voice acting, it is disappointing to see only basic animation with the central characters that leaves them looking more like ventriloquist dummies than the empathetic characters that they are through the voice-acting performance and dialog. Fortunately, you’ll rarely be seeing them chatting face-to-face but there are a few moments that are really undercut by the stilted character models.
Still, “The Gunk” is an engaging action-adventure game that effectively blends together story, characters and gameplay into a tight package that doesn’t overstay its welcome at about 5 hours to complete and available for free with the excellent Xbox Games Pass subscription service.
That’s a space adventure worth taking.
Matt Buxton is a freelance writer and gamer. He can be reached at email@example.com.