Tunic brilliantly captures the feeling of that special childhood title that made you fall in love with video games. Using a virtual simulation of an old-school guidebook, the game masterfully balances telling players almost nothing with giving them all the information they need. The result is a game brimming with genuine, triumphant discovery.
With its every pixel stuffed with reverence for gaming as a medium, Tunic revels in its historically inspired design. Players steeped in the hobby’s traditions will find following their instincts richly rewarding as they quest through its gorgeous world. Impressively, Tunic also melds the charm of the past with the sensibility of modern titles. As an isometric action/adventure, Tunic has a heaping helping of early Zelda games with generous handfuls of the Souls titles thrown in for good measure. It’s a winning combination.
The real-time combat had me tackling foes by watching for offensive openings while keeping a careful eye on my stamina. Every swing, dodge, or block took a chunk of the bar. Mercifully, low stamina never kept me from attacking, but I did take more damage when the bar ran out. The distinctly relaxing music introduces an intriguing contrast to the tough battles, and the ‘Chill Beats To Fight To’ vibes take the sting out of being viciously cut down. As does the world’s simple-but-beautiful visual aesthetic. Dying meant dropping a portion of the hard-earned currency I’d won from my victories. The nice thing about Tunic, though, is that you never lose everything. So, you can run directly back to the spot you died to regain the contents of your wallet, or you can spend what you have left on items to give you an edge.
For those turned off by this kind of gameplay, Tunic offers players of all kinds the chance to enjoy its combat system, as the accessibility options include a no-fail mode and the ability to turn off stamina restrictions. The Souls-like combat is intense, but the challenge feels satisfying rather than punishing – though a few later bosses definitely gave me trouble. Each boss has its own feel, with different attack patterns to study, but most play out similarly. An imposing challenger does its best to take you down in a closed-off battlefield; that means no running away from the conflict.
Tunic’s fighting is great, but discovery and exploration might be its most impressive elements. Your adventure is linear, but its myriad paths contain branches that split off into more branches and then more still. No matter which direction I went in, the destination was usually noteworthy, with some paths unexpectedly leading me to new objectives or undiscovered, late-game areas. It made the world feel boundless, which is a commendable feat for a game made up of strictly defined pathways.
Every route was also packed with things to uncover, and there were an unbelievable number of treasure chests. Many of these were seemingly inaccessible until I noticed an inconspicuously hidden passage or used some clever combination of items to get where I needed. Without resorting to busywork puzzles, Tunic constantly compelled me to feel proud of my puzzle-solving skills. In an amazing display of unintrusive design, the sense of discovery didn’t stop once I’d collected my prize.
Some things – like the sword or the very Zelda-esque key items that opened new zones or allowed me to get past obstacles – were self-explanatory. However, others, which I won’t spoil, were complete mysteries. One of my favorite moments from the game involved a curiously mundane object that didn’t seem to do anything. Later in my journey, a wild idea popped into my head on what it might be for. Thinking to myself there was no way I was right, I tested my theory and was greeted by surprising success. I audibly celebrated my accomplishment, along with the developers’ skill in designing a wonderful ‘ah-ha!’ moment.
I wasn’t left entirely without guidance, however. Tunic’s gameplay is inextricably linked to collecting the pages of an instruction booklet scattered throughout the world. Despite being predominately filled with unreadable glyphs, the nostalgia-inspiring manual somehow contained all the information I ever needed to know about Tunic – if I paid close attention. One page might demonstrate combat mechanics, while another serves as a map, and still another could give a veiled look at the game’s narrative. As I uncovered more pages, I discovered there was actually an entire section dedicated to the story. But the snatches of largely incomprehensible text didn’t tell the whole tale. Despite its lack of transparency, Tunic still paints a compelling narrative picture that gave me a sense of what was happening but also left a lot of details up to my interpretation, which I enjoyed.
Looking closely at the manual, I quickly realized there were copious, hand-written pearls of wisdom scribbled in the margins. This gave me the sense that I had received Tunic – along with its booklet – from an older sibling, a friend, or a second-hand store and had inadvertently gained access to secret knowledge. I studied the pamphlet’s official print as well as the helpful, if obscure, ink-scrawled hints meticulously, and the game constantly rewarded me for it. If I ever got stuck at any point in my quest, the answer was somewhere in the pages. I love when a game includes me, as the player, in its meta-narrative. With this conceit, Tunic invoked my youthful memories of inheriting games and mixed those real-world experiences into the gameplay, making my connection to the game deeper and more personal.
While Tunic is an experience I would recommend to any player, the obscureness that makes it uniquely rewarding can also lead to genuine frustration. Mostly, the game is so well designed that it is easy, especially in the beginning, to find answers or check out a different avenue while puzzling something out. But when I got stuck near the end of the game, I couldn’t simply run down another path, and my progress slowed to a halt. However, this was a rare exception to the overall sparkling experience. And my frustration gave way to admiration when I discovered the easy-to-miss secret I’d been glossing over had been right there in the booklet the whole time. The developers’ attention to detail and the work poured into those collectible pages is remarkable.
I was constantly veering off from the main quest to track something down or look into a newly discovered path, and so it took me about 20 hours to roll credits. Despite that, I know there’s still a lot for me to do in the game, and I’m excited to go back in to find every secret and experience everything its aesthetically striking world has to offer. Tunic is a stunning achievement that manages to embody the best of nostalgia while being completely refreshing. It’s absolutely a must-play gem.
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