For some reason, the act of cleaning in video games is oddly satisfying. Tidying up might be a monotonous chore in everyday life, yet games like Viscera Cleanup Detail, PowerWash Simulator, and Unpacking turn cleaning into a surprisingly engaging activity. Maybe gamifying burdensome housework with rewards and goals is enough, or perhaps it boils down to the fact that these games can make you feel productive even when you're procrastinating. Either way, The Gunk takes this formula and applies it to an alien planet in the far reaches of space. There's more to developer Image and Form Games' first 3D title than simply cleaning, but for all of the other ideas it brings together, ridding the planet of its titular mess is its most enjoyable.
Upon discovering that black malevolent goo is sapping the planet of its lifeforce, protagonist Rani goes about removing the Gunk to restore the world to its former beauty. This is achieved with an arm attachment she affectionately calls "Pumpkin" which acts like a heavy-duty vacuum, allowing you to inhale the Gunk's globular masses until there isn't so much as a speck left. Hoovering up the planet is The Gunk's central tenet, while simple third-person platforming and puzzle-solving encompass the rest of your adventure. There are rare moments of combat, too, but cleaning the Gunk takes precedence. Each time you clear an area of the debilitating sludge, the planet bursts back to life as the flora and fauna emerge from their goopy prison. Watching a cold, gray, lifeless area suddenly exude color and wildlife is reminiscent of similar mechanics in games such as Okami and provides The Gunk with an inherently satisfying loop. Maybe if the game were longer than a brief three hours, the rather workmanlike act of cleaning the planet would eventually grow stale. Instead, it's the rest of the game that suffers this fate.
Freeing the planet from the Gunk's clutches isn't the objective when you first land on this peculiar alien world. As Rani--together with her partner Becks--you touch down on this uncharted world to scavenge a potential energy source that might be valuable enough to pay off your mountainous debt. Rani is the adventurous type, impulsive and eager to explore every nook and cranny of this unfamiliar land, even if it means being reckless at times. Becks, on the other hand, is more practical and goal-oriented. She's overprotective of Rani and averse to her risk-taking, reluctantly adopting a maternal role as she remains with the ship and stays in contact with Rani via radio. The relationship between the pair carries what is otherwise a fairly routine story about uncovering the planet's mysterious past. Rani and Becks' inevitable conflict is predictable, but the combination of believable dialogue and accomplished voice acting makes for an interesting relationship, albeit one that feels overly familiar.
And this familiarity seeps into the rest of The Gunk, too. Navigating the planet's gloomy caves and abnormal jungles is a routine experience, as The Gunk mixes simple platforming with some rudimentary puzzle-solving. Early on, for instance, you discover a type of seed that sprouts into a huge plant when thrown into an energy pool, allowing you to hop onto its branches and reach higher areas. This mechanic is repeated throughout the game and rarely deviates from the simple act of finding a nearby seed and throwing it into the appropriate pool. There are never any variations on this straightforward process, and the only other type of seed you find functions in exactly the same way. The only difference between the two types is that you need to lob the explosive version of the seeds at obstacles blocking your path, rather than chuck them into the planet's glowing energy pools.
If the game were longer than a brief three hours, the rather workmanlike act of cleaning the planet would eventually grow stale. Instead, it's the rest of the game that suffers this fate
Neither The Gunk's platforming nor its puzzles evolve beyond their humble beginnings. This laid-back design style can be relaxing at times, but the low stakes make it difficult to feel engaged by Rani's adventure. Combat is an occasional distraction, and there's cohesiveness between the game's action and its exploration due to the tools you use. Rani is a scavenger, not a fighter, so Pumpkin is utilized to defeat the planet's aggressive critters in much the same way as you would clean up the Gunk. Smaller enemies can be sucked up into the vacuum before being tossed into each other, while stationary projectile-spewing plants can be pulled from their roots, similar to how you pick up the planet's seeds. This approach makes sense, but it also means that the combat doesn't stand out, acting as an intermittent diversion more than anything else. The same is true of the game's crafting system as well.
There are various resources dotted throughout the planet that can be collected and then spent on upgrades for Pumpkin, but this system gives the distinct impression it was included just so you'd have to vacuum up more than just the Gunk. Aside from an upgrade that expedites the vacuuming process, none of the other items you can craft are of any significance. The obstacles you face are already incredibly trivial, so improving your health doesn't feel necessary, and the whole crafting system comes across as inconsequential.
The Gunk's placid approach would make it an ideal game for kids, yet the presence of a few ill-suited swear words nixes that notion. Regardless, cleaning up the Gunk and restoring the planet to life still provides a satisfying loop, and there's something to be said for a game that doesn't demand too much of the player. It's fairly laid back and relaxing at times, but even at three hours in length, The Gunk's unambitious and routine design struggles to sustain an entire game. The endearing relationship between its two leads makes up for this somewhat, but you're left feeling like they deserve something more than what is an inoffensive and rather forgettable game.