Tunic

In a context where a few franchises and developers are smartly recognizing that their audiences want to be left alone to engage in quests of exploration and discovery, Tunic takes that concept to its extreme

One of the most notable, and welcome, occurrences in the gaming landscape during the 2010s was how the industry came full circle regarding a very particular matter: how much information was conveyed to players about the adventure they were engaged in. Going back to the moment that marked the market’s revival and the start of its fantastic run, the mid 1980s, one can see that efforts of the era did not go out of their way to explain mechanics and give directions. Mostly, of course, this nature stemmed from either the technical limitations of the time or the straightforwardness of a large portion of games: if the reason was the former, then designers were forced to pack vital details into manuals, a trend that was recurrent in RPGs; if the quest, on the other hand, was too simple, then there was really no need to explain much. But many titles opted to be silent by design, be it completely or punctually; and although this sometimes led to excessive obtuseness, as numerous frustrating situations where guides were necessary emerged, it also paved the way to classics that did not hold players’ hands, like Metroid and The Legend of Zelda.

But then, technology advanced, games began to grow more complex, and designers could communicate as much information as they wanted. Early on, during the Super Nintendo days, for example, this tended to be limited to brief explanations, vague directions, and the occasional icons on the map. As time passed and gameplay depth increased, though, developers seemed anxious to walk players through it all whilst guaranteeing they would not miss anything: mechanics were dissected in tutorials, markers were used to highlight everything from main goals to side-content, and there would never be a second in the whole quest where one would be left to their own devices in order to figure out where to go. The joy of discovery, exploring, experimenting, and thinking had been slowly eroded into nothingness; and numerous gamers took notice.

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At some point, however, the tide started to shift. It is hard to pinpoint exactly who was responsible for kicking off that process, but the fruits of that movement are easy to highlight because they were showered with critical praise and commercial success. Games like Dark Souls, The Witness, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Hollow Knight, Outer Wilds, and Elden Ring rescued the old-school notion that players can learn and discover by themselves. And by doing so while getting rid of the exceedingly confusing rough spots seen in many projects from the 1980s, they unlocked a type of thrill so lost that it felt like a transcendental and unprecedented climax for many people.

To a degree, Tunic feels like a natural offspring of this recent movement. After all, like those modern classics, it kicks players into a world without any sort of deep introduction and then it keeps quiet all the way to the end, leaving its audience to fend off for themselves. Furthermore, this comparison to The Legend of the Zelda and Dark Souls in particular is rather appropriate because those two franchises are blatantly the game’s main inspirations. However, an argument can be made that Tunic catapults this resurrected hands-off approach to higher level than its peers, as if it took a look at what they achieved and concluded that it could do more with that design philosophy. As it turns out, that evaluation is absolutely correct, because Tunic feels like a refreshing success in that specific regard.

Truth be told, Tunic does tell players one command: the button that is used to lock onto enemies, which appears as an indicator surrounding foes. The rest, though, has to be figured out. An isometric adventure that takes place in a partially open world, Tunic does not stop its gameplay to tell a story; it does not explicitly reveal an ultimate goal; it does not announce what needs to be done next; and it does not even explain any of its mechanics. It is this last item in particular that sets the game apart from its hands-off contemporaries, because Tunic is so radical that it does not talk about the intricacies of its combat system, the possible usage of the equipment that is acquired, the effect of the consumables that are collected, and even the nature of its save system. Players are meant to figure all of that out.

It is a description that could make Tunic sound like it is excessively cryptic, but although that is certainly the best adjective to define it, the quest is not too obscure. In fact, pretty much everything that is necessary to understand Tunic is contained within it, because as the heroic fox that serves as the adventure’s protagonist explores the world, it will come across the pages of the game’s own gorgeously hand-drawn manual. And it is by accessing it to read its contents that players will get clarification about vital matters such as story, goals, mechanics, optional secrets, and even the maps of the locations which they will have to visit.

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Some may say, then, that Tunic is not that much of an extremist in terms of not providing any sort of guidance because, quite on the contrary, it actually teaches players everything: it is merely returning to the 1980s and doing so via a manual that is, humorously, within the game itself. But that is not totally true for multiple reasons. Firstly, because the pages need to be collected, and some of them are nicely hidden, meaning nothing is dished out on a silver platter; if one wants to learn about Tunic and especially if one feels like completing the manual, which is made up of twenty-eight pairs of pages, they will have to put effort into the endeavor. Secondly, the manual tends to use every couple of pages for a certain section and the pairs that are collected will sometimes only have the halves of two subsequent segments; as such, sometimes one has to either make do with part of the information, like a puzzle where half the information is omitted, or seek out the remaining half to fully unlock the knowledge.

These two traits, though, pale in comparison to what ultimately makes Tunic cryptic: the fact that the manual and the few characters that are encountered use an unknown dialect made up of ciphers, with only certain words being translated into the understandable language of one’s choice. Because of that, deciphering what the booklet is trying to say is a puzzle in itself; meaning discovering where to go, grasping the nature of the plot, and comprehending the inner workings of some mechanics require some engaging brain exercises that ought to lead to marvelous eureka moments.

It might sound overwhelming, but it really is not, because Tunic is designed to accommodate anyone who loves the process of discovery. The manual does not need to be translated because the words that are understandable and the wonderful illustrations that abound are enough for nearly anybody to, after some thinking, get what they are trying to convey. Furthermore, many of the essential pages – including the maps of the world’s locations – are brilliantly placed in a way that makes them natural discoveries when the time for their usage is nigh. Finally, the game nicely adjusts the difficulty of its booklet and navigational puzzles to how far one is into the quest; in other words, there is a learning curve underlining the process. The main goals in the beginning of the adventure will be easy to decipher because the pages will be simple to find and they will have a lot of translated words; later on though, these two variables will be nicely turned up, reaching very difficult and absurdly clever levels in a couple of optional sidequests that will have players scouring the manual for minimal details and even checking the pen-written notes left by an unknown gamer.

It goes without saying that this innovative and creative journey of discovery would lose a lot of its charm if it were not backed up by strong gameplay. Fortunately, in that regard, Tunic also hits the mark, even if not with the same degree of creativity displayed in its manual-related puzzle-solving. As stated by the game’s creator himself, the adventure was inspired by a certain franchise that involves chasing triangles, and indeed there is no secret about Tunic’s love for The Legend of Zelda: the starring fox wears a green outfit, deploys a shield to defend itself, and has a sword as its main weapon, giving birth to an iconic look that is rather familiar. But, naturally, references to Nintendo’s mighty franchise do not stop there: they are in the overworld design, which is akin to what is usually seen in Link’s 2-D outings; and they are in the many new pieces of equipment the hero will acquire, which will always be useful in battles while usually opening the way to previously unreachable areas.

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Tunic, however, throws a whole lot of Dark Souls over that The Legend of Zelda core, to the point it is possible to say the presence of FromSoftware’s saga is stronger than that of Nintendo’s legendary property. Although the game has a colorful tone that naturally leans more to the charming fantasy of The Legend of Zelda, the presentation of its story recalls the cryptic spirit of Dark Souls, as besides being forced to put it together via scattered bits and pieces, the hero here also seems to be late to the party, as his arrival appears to proceed the occurrence of a major event. But that is not where the Dark Souls influence stops: it is present in the combat, which matches the simple hack-and-slash of 2-D Zelda games with the dodging and stamina-based mechanics of Dark Souls; it is present in mechanics related to saving, dying, and upgrading stats; and it is present in level design.

That final area is especially important to highlight because, in a way, it defines Tunic’s gameplay. If its overworld is The Legend of Zelda, then the individual areas that branch from it are Dark Souls, because they have none of the puzzles Link tends to face. There is no block-pushing, switch-hitting, or lever-pulling. The puzzles in Tunic, which are brilliant to a degree rarely seen in the gaming industry, are entirely contained both in the understanding of the manual and in the relationship between the booklet and the game’s world. As such, the challenge contained in its areas are a mixture of navigating, exploring, surviving enemies to get to the next checkpoint, and eventually unlocking shortcuts that make any eventual backtracking easier.

Tunic is such a unique game that even the act of reviewing it can be challenging. After all, talking too deeply about its mechanics and other details can spoil part of the fun because they are all supposed to be discovered; and that means they cannot be individually analyzed. However, in general, it can be said that this is an extremely well-designed game. The combination of The Legend of Zelda and Dark Souls is not original in the indie landscape; one year before Tunic came out, for example, Death’s Door had already tackled that mixture. But here it feels much more polished and mature than it has ever been.

Enemy encounters are varied and generally simple, but the stamina-focused combat adds intriguing dynamics to them. Bosses are not numerous, but they are challenging and unique. Puzzles are thoroughly original on account of how they use the manual. Areas are very cleverly designed, rewarding exploration with nice extra goodies and forcing thoughtful navigation not just because foes are everywhere, but also because even if gamers will likely have a map at hand, the way forward is sometimes not so trivial to discover. And the adventure is pleasantly lengthy, clocking in at twelve hours for basic completion and being able to extend past the twenty-hour mark to those trying to locate all secrets. To boot, Tunic is a game of wonderful artistic inspiration. Aside from oozing an absurd amount of charm from its immaculately hand-drawn booklet, it also stuns via colorful visuals, great animations, and an atmospheric soundtrack whose ambiance sometimes recalls the best moments of David Wise’s legendary work.

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Due to its bold cryptic nature, it is possible that Tunic will cause some players to occasionally wish the game were a bit clearer in one or two points. But overall, this is a masterclass of design. In a context where a few franchises and developers are smartly recognizing that their audiences want to be left alone to engage in quests of exploration and discovery, Tunic takes that concept to its extreme by having players figure out nearly everything, from where they must go next to the intricacies of basic mechanics. On its own, that idea should already be thoroughly enticing to many, but Tunic amplifies the thrill of it all by turning that process into clever puzzle-solving seamlessly integrated into a journey that matches a The Legend of Zelda overworld with progression, exploration, and combat that carry a firm Dark Souls stamp. The result is one of the finest efforts ever produced by the indie scene, and an adventure with the capacity to trigger a nearly unparalleled joy of discovery.

FINAL SCORE: 9 – PHENOMENAL

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