Tunic Review Title

Tunic Review: Satisfying Secret Solving

Nearly Five years after the initial announcement, Tunic is finally out. Was the wait worth it? Without a shadow of a doubt.

A hero in a green tunic wakes up on a deserted beach, fights fantasy enemies with a sword and shield, solves puzzles and finds sets of magical artefacts to defeat an ancient evil.

A familiar tune. You’ve heard this one before.

Tunic takes influence from classic The Legend of Zelda. It would be a disservice to both games to pretend it didn’t. But Tunic joins an evergrowing list of stories that go beyond simple callbacks. This isn’t a reference. This is a remix.

What starts as finding a sword to cut grass quickly morphs into a game that’s got a fascinating relationship with its own medium and where the fun is within that.

Tunic is about nostalgia for a certain era of video games, but not in the way you might think.

Tunic Beach

From the start though, toe to tip of a bushy tail, Tunic is an isometric puzzle adventure game. If everything to date makes you think of Link to the Past, you’re on the right track. 

Published by Finji, development was lead by Andrew Shouldice with significant support in other areas, and is described as “an action adventure about a tiny fox in a big world. Explore the wilderness, discover spooky ruins, and fight terrible creatures from long ago.”

Lets work through those backwards.

You’ll gather a sword and shield, use lock ons to fight enemies and eventually challenge large bosses, using dodge rolls and blocks. Tunic has a very fairly explained combat system.  When stamina is replenishing from zero, you’ll take more damage and be stunned more easily when hit. But if you can manage your stamina well then your dodge roll is guaranteed invincibility, clearly marked by clouds of dust as you go. 
The combat is engaging, with the options provided by items and gear meaning you can always find a method that works for you. Personally, I found that the game got a touch too focussed on it towards the end, but thanks to some careful application of items and upgrades to skills, it was manageable enough.

For those who may not be capable of the finer control that Tunic asks for in those later sections, the accessibility options are simple but effective. At least in motor terms, Infinite stamina/invincibility options are right there to make the combat more pleasant.

But we’re going backwards through that description for a reason. Combat isn’t the best thing in Tunic.

That wilderness filled with spooky ruins then.

It’s not quite Zelda levels. There aren’t dozens of vast dungeons filled with items that you’ll need to acquire to progress. Instead Tunic distills the essence of those games, pairing fiendishly clever map design with a beatiful chunky aesthetic.

You’ll travel through ruined settlements, strange coastlines and secret tombs, as well as far darker and unexpected places. All watching the delightful animations of your Fox character as they bob and weave and clamber, tail wiggling the whole time.
Every new map area presents a new colour palette and new navigation puzzle to solve. In particular, Tunic asks you to constantly look closely at the world itself in order to work out what’s next. There are moments where you almost seem to be following in someone else’s footsteps, picking through the things they left behind or overlooked. It’s a subtle effect in a world that’s only filled with Monsters, but consistently adds to the evergrowing feeling of the surface of the world being pulled back.

The isometric view is the key to the effectiveness of Tunics world and art direction in this secretive theme.

At a 3/4 angle, you can always see two sides of any room, with any internal obstacles intervening. Changes in height and framing reveal future areas and paths to come. But one of the biggest joys of Tunic comes in backtracking. Shortcuts are everywhere, with these often completely hidden through clever camera work. There were more than half a dozen instances where I walked back into a room ten minutes later through a crevice I hadn’t had a reason to investigate, after I passed through a hidden passage.

Tunic Traps

It appears there’s not a lot of hand holding within Tunic’s world. Almost every bit of text is within the games own language (further Zelda influences). The game is more than happy to let you bounce off an obstacle you need a certain item for, for a while, till you figure out your next steps. 

In another game, I’d call it frustrating and unfriendly. In Tunic, it’s the framing device for the single best aspect of the game. 

Tunic evokes the spirit of a different era of games, but recontextualises it for a digital era. If you ever bought a game before the early 2000s, they came with instruction manuals. Sometimes these were simple affairs of a few pages. They taught you the buttons and maybe had a paragraph of story setup. The best ones though, were windows into the game world. Beautiful concept art paired with in universe histories and maps. They even had whole sections of hints and guides to help players get started as well as pages for your own notes.

Beyond even that, there was a certain thrill in poring through the still included manual for a pre-owned game. The notes section being an inscrutable look into your upcoming experience. The doodles and scribbles of someone who potentially could be guiding you to beat the game as they did. Even a ripped out page became something that could be as mysterious as it was frustrating.

Tunic Geometry

As games have become more digitally focussed, there’s been less prominence placed on the humble instruction manual. 

Tunic rectifies this. As you progress through the game, you’ll find collectible pages. These aren’t necessarily hidden (to start with) but each one completes more and more of the instruction manual. The wrinkle is, you’ll be finding them out of order.

You might have half of a double page spread that tells you how to do something but not why. A map for an area that will double in size as you find the rest of the pages. 

What elevates this above and beyond simple tooltips and guidance is that the answer isn’t always provided directly.

In a later area, I kept having difficulty and there was no clear way to get past the  progress blocker.

After some investigation of other game paths, there was no item in any other location that could fix this specific issue.

So I needed to investigate further and find a way to progress. This was ultimately communicated to me was through:

1. Enemies in game not being subject to the same problem I was (so there was clearly a solution)

2. A map highlighting a certain area (so I needed to look there)

3. A scribble on a single page underlining an item with an image (so I could connect the dots between 1 and 2)

And more than the combat or exploring, that’s the heart of Tunic. It’s wonderful to experience. Exploring areas, unpicking patterns hidden in the game world. And thanks to the instruction manual simply presenting the information in an oblique manner, it’s always rewarding when you finally get your brain in line with the puzzle designer.

All of this presented in some wonderful artwork and design techniques. Every piece of art in the instruction manual feels right out of a paper manual with soft faded colours and crosshatching along the prints. The manual screen is even backlit by a fizzing CRT TV! It’s such a tiny element, but it injects such an air of verismilitude into the experience that it can’t help but stand out.

As you find these pages and unlock explanations for more and more of the narrative, Tunic starts as a pretty good indie Zelda-like with fun combat and wonderful visuals. But before long it becomes such a consistently fascinating and engrossing experience as you try to solve more and more of the mysteries of that world and narrative.

Tunic is available on March 16th for PC from Steam or GOG or Xbox Series Consoles.

Review Copy and Media provided by the Publisher/Developer