Tunic Review: A Triumph Of Design
Tunic doesn’t try to hide its influences. You literally start the game by going into a cave and receiving your first weapon. Your character wears a green tunic, which the game’s title refers to. This is a game in many ways patterned after Zelda.
If that was all there was to Tunic, you’d be left with a pretty solid indie title that could keep you busy for a long weekend. That’s the thing, though; it may be more correct to say that Tunic doesn’t hide all of its influences. While Zelda is a significant source of inspiration, there are elements pulled from all throughout gaming. Everything from Souls titles to Fez can be felt in its design, and all of these pieces come together to create something that is like so many other games and yet is ultimately completely itself.
Go Your Own Way
You start out Tunic with very little direction. You’re an absolutely adorable fox who quickly arms themselves with a stick and starts on an adventure. Initially, you may find yourself wandering around, beating on various enemies with your stick, and figuring out where to go. Soon though, Tunic’s brilliant design starts to guide you.
As you pick up items, you’ll notice that the descriptions are very much not in English, or whatever language you’re playing the game in. A few words in your language of choice will show up around the edges, but most of what you find gives you no idea how to use it. You can trial and error some of it, but other parts you won’t even know how to do that with, and since a lot of items are not easily replaced, that’s not ideal.
Instructions Are Included
The solution is right in the game, though. Littered throughout the world of Tunic are pages to its manual. If you’re asking me, wait, I just have to read the manual, you’re not wrong, but you’re underselling this a bit. The manual in Tunic features stunning artwork and intricate design. It brilliantly recreates the style of manual we used to see in the days of the NES. It goes so much beyond that, though. This manual gives you the hints and details you need to beat the game.
Most of the manual is in the same made-up language the rest of the game is, but there are again hints of your chosen language and a lot of drawings and images. These will either tell you or hint to you about where you need to go, what items do, and how to solve puzzles. A few elements of the manual, such as the map, even show where you are. Little drawings and doodles, presumably by a former player, even dot the edges of the manual, giving further guidance.
Early on in Tunic, you’ll have to dedicate yourself to getting better equipment. Your stick won’t do much, but quickly finding a sword makes you much more dangerous in combat. Finding a shield is nearly essential to handle certain enemy types. Ranged weapons let you take out enemies who otherwise would be incredibly difficult to take down.
Not only does your evolving set of equipment let you take on tougher enemies, but they’ll also help you take on puzzles. I don’t want to spoil specifics, but Tunic features some of the best puzzles I’ve seen in a game in years. Elements of the game that didn’t seem to matter suddenly do, and you’ll be staring through a page of the manual, and things will suddenly click. It’s like magic. These puzzles remind me of nothing so much as Fez in how engaging with other players of the game can help make it feel like magic. Some of this is pretty esoteric stuff but in the very best way.
Trouble With The Curve
I mentioned another major influence above, though. As you explore this beautiful world, you’ll pretty quickly see that things get tough. Early on, before you get better equipment, even basic enemies are quite tough. Often your best bet will be to run, rather than die and get sent back to the last fox statue you interacted with. If you do, you’ll leave behind a spirit and some of your money. Don’t worry, you won’t lose all of it like in Souls games, but you can return to where you died and retrieve it. Doing so even stuns nearby enemies briefly, a great way to give you a slight leg up against the foes who previously killed you.
You’d think that upgrading your equipment would make things easier, and it does initially. Those early enemies will start falling away easily, but Tunic quickly starts to up the danger and throws increasingly difficult enemies at you. For a while, these are mostly a good challenge but not something insurmountable. Later in the game, though, some of the difficulty spikes are a bit much and are my only real complaint with the game. It feels like the later portions of the game needed one more balancing pass to provide a better difficulty curve. That said, anyone who can solve the puzzles can beat the game. No, not by getting good. While there are no difficulty options, you do have a no-fail toggle in the settings. Some players won’t want to go there, but I’ll admit I used it for a few rough sections late in the game, where the difficulty found itself on the wrong side of the challenge/fun scale.
If you really can’t get through those sequences, I’d encourage you to do so, too because there’s just so much about Tunic that everyone should see. This is an intricately designed world, the type where you’ll need to watch for tiny hints and shadows that indicate where to go at times. Look behind waterfalls, walk around platforms, press yourself against walls even if they’re blocked from sight. You’ll find a lot of cool sites and some very useful items.
While its difficulty spikes could use a bit more balancing, it does nothing to diminish my love for Tunic. This is a masterfully designed game that challenges you to take elements of classics that have become familiar and apply them in all-new ways. Its triumphant in-game manual gave me more moments of stunning realization than every other game I’ve played in 2022. If you’re a fan of any of the titles that stand as major influences to Tunic, you owe it to yourself to check this one out.
Final Verdict: 4.5/5
Available on: Xbox Series X(Reviewed), Xbox Series S, Xbox One, PC; Publisher: Finji; Developer: TUNIC Team; Players: 1; Released: March 16th, 2022; ESRB: E10+ for Everyone 10+; $29.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a retail copy of Tunic.