The Gunk might not be the most sophisticated name in the universe for a gooey black jelly that pulses with an ominous red light, but goodness it sure is appropriate. As space haulers Rani and Becks touch down on a forgotten planet in search of a strange energy signal, the place is absolutely gummed up with the stuff. It oozes and throbs in the caves, plains and rivers of this once vibrant landscape, and the urge to suck it all up into Rani's chunky power glove (a literal hand vac in this case) is overwhelmingly strong. After all, when it turns the ground black and saps the world of all its colour, this is one case of Extremely Bad Vibes you'll want to remedy as soon as possible.
Your reward for scooping up all the gunk in any given area is the kind of graphical wizardry video games do best. A burst of light, a shruum of sound, and the world is instantly transformed back to its former glory. Despite its gloopy namesake, The Gunk is frequently stunning, its soft pastels and coral-esque flora showing such an eye for jaw-dropping visuals that it's hard to believe this is SteamWorld developer Image & Form's first ever 3D video game. If this is what they've been holding back on all these years, then their upcoming action adventure SteamWorld Headhunter should be a real treat for the old eyeballs. That said, while Image & Form have clearly navigated their 2D to 3D transition from an art perspective, their typical flair for adding their own spin to different genres has been less successful. There's a lot to like about this 3D action platformer, but it's missing that spark to really make it sing.
The Gunk isn't related to the SteamWorld universe. Apart from a few cheeky Easter egg nods in Rani and Becks' ship, this is a standalone adventure that would be great to play with the kids over Christmas if it weren't for the occasional swears. Language aside, Rani and Becks make for an affable duo, and their snappy and rambunctious radio chatter reminded me a lot of Aliya and Six from Inkle's Heaven's Vault. There's a witty playfulness to their dialogue that makes them a fun pair to hang out with over the course of this five-hour planet hop, and I hope we get to see them and their slightly borked yellow delivery bot Curt (whose only line is an increasingly mangled but endearing take of "You've got served!") get another outing in the years to come.
You play as Rani, who ventures out to clean up the titular gunk and investigate that strange energy signal while Becks keeps watch back at base. At first, the game almost seems to be following the same space tracks left by games like No Man's Sky, tasking you with scanning the local plants for data and scavenging for resources in order to upgrade your power glove. The more stuff you scan, the more upgrades you eventually unlock.
Let loose in this gorgeous world, I started firing off my scanner left right and centre. I wanted to absorb every bit of information I could about this strange, reverse ocean bed, especially since the visual language of the surrounding landscape seemed to be deftly sidestepping that classic video game problem of only the very prettiest and most obvious bits of stage furniture laying claim to a revealing bit of flavour text. As it turns out, despite everything looking like a valid (s)candidate, there are in fact just over 50 scannable objects to find in The Gunk, which meant a lot of the time my scanner was falling on dead air. It does, at least, mark up what is and isn't scannable with little notepad icons that change colour once you've logged it, but overall I can't help but feel it's all a little undercooked.
That's partly because the glove upgrades you unlock by doing all that scanning are equally a bit lacklustre. There are a couple of vital upgrades in its 16-strong arsenal, such as a faster absorption speed, the ability to run (for some reason), and a wider catchment area for sucking up that gooey menace, but when a good chunk of them are focused on giving you a leg up in combat, the game's easy-going challenge level makes a lot of them feel a bit redundant. I didn't ever need the ability to revive myself, for example, because on the rare occasion I did suffer one too many gunks to the face the generous checkpointing just plopped me straight back at the beginning of the fight. The same goes for the chuckable monster-drawing beacons, which you can upgrade to last longer and have a wider area of effect, but there were never enough enemies onscreen to make it worth the slightly fiddly button juggling on my controller. In fact, many of them feel like concessions made for younger players who maybe haven't played this kind of game before, which is why I'm so baffled by its definitely adult-oriented script. Anyone who's played even the ropiest of 3D platformers before will likely waltz through The Gunk, leaving little incentive to engage with either the scanning, resource collecting or the upgrades.
That said, sucking up space carrots and big juicy space berries with Rani's power glove is, and will always be, a delight. These are obvious with their tell-tale yellow glow, and way the little roots and chunks of rock fizz and jiggle as they're being dislodged (not to mention the satisfying "tchunk" of them slamming into your fist) is immensely satisfying stuff, and the same goes for sucking up the gunk, too. There's a convincing audio and visual tactility to the whole affair that goes a long way to make up for the simplicity of what you're actually doing. There's rarely any kind of puzzle element involved in sucking up what you need on this planet. All you need to do is point and squeeze your sucker trigger and the job's a good 'un.
Thankfully, once the story wheels kick into gear, all this planet scouting pretence quickly takes a back seat in favour of some good old fashioned 3D platforming. This is what The Gunk is really about, and with the exception of Psychonauts 2, this is arguably one of the most polished character platformers I've played outside a Nintendo console. There are a couple of cheesy jumps here and there (and I really do mean just a couple), plus those dreaded yellow brush strokes telling you that yes, this is definitely a cliff edge you can latch onto, but on the whole Rani makes for a responsive and confident ledge leaper.
It's a shame, then, that her athletic abilities are never really put to any real test. Most areas fall into a similar pattern: you arrive, clear out the gunk, then use its newly blossomed seeds and shroomy platforms to make your way further inland and follow Rani's nose for trouble. There's only so much you can do with a glorified hand vac at your disposal, but Image & Form get good mileage out of Rani's metallic mitt. She can chuck, suck and occasionally blast far off obstacles to get where she needs to be, and the infrequent bouts of combat lean on the same core skill set. It just never develops in the way you might expect given Image & Form's back catalogue of unique genre twists and mashups. You're plucking the same tree-sprouting seeds at the start as you are at the end, and even the number of different enemy types you face can be counted on a single hand. The critical path does often peel off into little interesting cul-de-sacs that require a little more lateral thinking on the puzzle front, but your only reward is extra resources to gobble up. It's all very artfully done, but it's also going to be a breezy stroll in the park for most people, rather than the dextrous ballet dances of Double Fine's Psychonauts or any recent 3D Mario game.
The Gunk is good rather than great, then, but given it's on Game Pass you'd be silly to pass it up. Maybe it's just the time of year, but watching each region unfurl in a bubble of light and colour, not knowing what it's going to look like until the last minute, feels very much like pulling back the windows of an Advent Calendar, with each de-gunking revealing yet another jaw-dropping treat for the senses. It's Christmas comfort food for lazy afternoons on the sofa, and at just under five hours, it can be done and dusted in just a couple of sessions, too. Very good vibes indeed.