The Legend Of Zelda meets Dark Souls in this action adventure where deciphering a manual unlocks a world of secrets.
Now that online guides are always just a click away, it’s never been more difficult to build a game on mystery. Being stumped by a puzzle in 2022 isn’t the progress killer it once was – rectified pre-internet only by browsing physical guides or listening to smarter kids in the playground – since now you’re challenged not just by the puzzle itself but the temptation of looking up answers online.
There are still games where using a guide misses the point. The Witness and Return Of The Obra Dinn are both reliant on the satisfaction of understanding and solving the puzzle of the world you’re thrown into. Looking up the answers transforms them into empty experiences without the personal triumph of bringing the clues together yourself. For Tunic, there’s a similar design sensibility which can easily be ruined by spoilers, since accumulating knowledge to figure out the path forward is instrumental to the thrill.
Like those other indie games, Tunic’s world is introduced with little context. You’re a fox who wakes up on the shore of an island with, dodge roll aside, no abilities to speak of. As you venture towards the centre, you’ll discover a stick to hit enemies with, objects inscribed with an unknown language, and a mysterious, older fox trapped inside a glowing orb. Your mission isn’t explicitly stated but, as is the law, given its Zelda inspiration, you’re directed to finding three triangles scattered across the land to, presumably, free the trapped animal.
In a callback to physical games of yesteryear, your understanding of the world is coloured by collecting pages of a manual. These aren’t filled with straight-forward instructions, however, but serve as another puzzle to solve – where indecipherable text is interspersed with occasional English and drawings you have to interpret. These range from maps scribbled with annotations, tips for overcoming certain enemies, to explanations of key mechanics – like the unique quirks of the stamina gauge and how to interact with certain objects.
You don’t often find pages at a time when they make sense and it’s possible to miss them entirely, so you’re always referring back to the manual as you explore, to work out directions or decipher a hint nestled in the margins. On paper, it might sound like an irritating, archaic hurdle interrupting the action but it’s this emphasis on adventure – and the gratification from gradually piecing the intricacies together – which elevates Tunic above many of its peers.
This sense of discovery is amplified by Tunic’s brilliant level design. Similar to Death’s Door, Tunic in inspired by both Dark Souls and Zelda, in terms of its combat and structure; with progression tied to looping shortcuts, bonfire-esque checkpoint statues which respawn enemies, and key items that open new areas. The main difference is that the layout and aesthetic of Tunic’s world resembles the dioramas from Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, with secret paths hidden by the default camera perspective, which often connect areas in smart, surprising ways.
Unlike Dark Souls, these shortcuts aren’t always gates you unlock but secret pathways you discover. You’ll complete a section against a sequence of enemies, only to find a route tucked in a crevice was there the entire time and which bypasses the area entirely. Like the manual, Tunic is about gathering knowledge as much as gathering items and upgrades, lending a natural quality to the world design which is enormously satisfying.
You’re always motivated to seek out secret nooks for the rewards: shortcuts, new items or currency to spend on upgrades. The latter becomes crucial against the game’s tough bosses which, while not comparable to FromSoftware’s pantheon, might surprise those lured in by the cutesy visuals.
They’re built on the same philosophy of memorising attack patterns and figuring out the opportune moments to strike, but they lack spark – having neither the memorable designs of Death’s Door or fights which evolve in any distinctive way. They’re fine, but Tunic feels more ordinary and derivative when locked into these battles.
The same problems exist for the combat in general, which echoes the simplistic, satisfying systems of top-down Zelda titles, with only a few modern touches. There’s a decent amount of items at your disposal, along with some welcome perk customisation, but it’s a shame these elements lean so hard on Zelda for ideas – with many weapons being reskins of tools we’ve seen before. It’s not a huge issue but when the exploration is so refreshing there’s a nagging sense Tunic could have soared higher if it wasn’t so bound to its influences.
There are accessibility options if you want to skip the challenging combat, including a no fail mode and a toggle for permanently full stamina. There’s an admirable amount of enemy variety too, across the 12-hour adventure, from flying stone ruins to knife-wielding frogs, which keeps the combat engaging despite the déjà vu.
Beyond the main quest, there’s other secrets to unpack for 100% completionists. After beating the story it’s still tempting to continue simply for more of Tunic’s serene atmosphere, which takes cues from the minimalist art of Monument Valley and coats it with some excellent lighting effects. The soundtrack too, co-composed by Lifeformed and Janice Kwan, is fantastic – a therapeutic, gentle soundscape of twinkling pianos and atmospheric synths which lends Tunic a light, ethereal quality.
We’re hesitant to describe anything else in too much detail because discovering Tunic’s world for yourself is its biggest draw. While it sticks too close to its inspirations at times, this is a superbly designed adventure that makes the uncertainly of what’s going on one of the central appeals. If you’re too intimidated by Elden Ring’s scope, Tunic is the smart and compact alternative you’ve been looking for.
Tunic game review summary
In Short: Old school adventure sensibilities and an expertly-designed puzzle box world combine in this charming and engaging indie gem.
Pros: Excellent ‘manual’ mechanic, which makes even the smallest discoveries rewarding and memorable. World design is consistently surprising and satisfying to navigate. Great soundtrack and art style.
Cons: Boss battles are underwhelming. Weapons draw too heavily from Zelda.
Formats: PC (reviewed), Xbox One, and Xbox Series X/SPrice: £24.99Publisher: FinjiDeveloper: Andrew ShouldiceRelease Date: 16th March 2022Age Rating: N/A
By Adam Starkey
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