Tunic took me by surprise. This small, indie game drew me in with its gorgeous, cell-shaded graphics and cute animal protagonist, then punched me in the face with its challenging combat and intentionally obscure progression.
The adventure begins in low-key fashion. You play a fox in a green tunic who is dropped into a beautiful overworld with no tutorial and no overt explanation of what you need to do next. So you explore the environment, fight a few basic enemies, and soon find yourself delving into dungeons, discovering useful items, and finding secrets.
A Link To Gaming’s Past
If the mention of a green tunic made you think of The Legend of Zelda, you’re on the right track. Infact, Tunic’s first couple of hours seemed so closely modelled on classic top-down Zelda titles like A Link to the Past and Link’s Awakening that I wondered if the developer might be risking a knock on the door from Nintendo’s lawyers. There’s a moment early on when you obtain a sword for the first time that strongly reminded me of the umpteen times I’ve pulled the Master Sword out of a pedestal in a wooded clearing.
Fortunately, Tunic mixes its classic Zelda vibes with other influences and fresh ideas of its own. Although I’m not a huge Dark Souls/Bloodbourne fan myself, I soon noticed that Tunic borrows some mechanics from the Soulslike genre. The combat is crunchy and surprisingly challenging. Managing your stamina metre and learning enemy weaknesses is essential to succeed. You revive and upgrade your foxy hero at shrines scattered throughout the world and can recover some of your lost experience points/currency by returning to the place you died and finding your ‘ghost’.
The influence of FromSoftware’s Souls games is also felt in Tunic’s bosses, which are a stern test of skill and patience. These are the kind of bosses that require you to memorise their attack patterns and chip away slowly at their health bar. Dark Souls or Elden Ring veterans probably won’t break a sweat, but I found myself having trouble with several of these (sometimes) screen-filling behemoths. To be fair, I never got so frustrated that I was tempted to give up, but your mileage may vary. If combat ever gets too tough for your liking, there are a few difficulty settings in the menu that will make things easier, including a ‘no fail’ mode which makes you invincible.
As tough as its combat is, Tunic’s real challenge lies in the way it handles the question at the heart of almost all adventure games, namely: where do I go next?. If you’re a gamer of a certain vintage (we age like fine wine, don’t we?), you’ll remember the joy of buying a new game and feverishly reading through the manual on the bus ride home. Well, Tunic has brought back that retro experience... but not in the form you might expect.
As your adventure progresses, you’ll find single pages of the game’s manual scattered around the world. These pages will come to you out of order, but when put together they contain the answers to most of the game's secrets. The only problem is, most of the manual is written in an indecipherable language. There are helpful maps and diagrams on many of the pages, but nothing is spelled out for you and you’ll have to put your grey cells to work to figure out what it all means. There are even handwritten notes and doodles in the margins, as if someone else who owned the game before you made notes to remind themselves of important discoveries and effective tactics.
Tunic’s commitment to no hand-holding is consistent throughout the whole game. Many of the game's signposts and text pop-ups are written in the same indecipherable language as the manual. Found a treasure chest containing a new item or power up? You’ll have to figure out how to use it for yourself. The manual may contain a clue, but you’ll have to scour the pages carefully to find it. And, of course, you may not even have the right page yet. This approach is largely to the game’s credit, although inevitably it meant that on my playthrough I spent a decent amount of time wandering around the environment trying to figure out where to go and what to do next. Even the way in which you upgrade your hero’s basic stats—a core mechanic—is never explained outright. The manual hints at how this is done, but it’s up to you to put the pieces together.
I’d be doing Tunic a disservice if I left you with the impression that it's all about tough-as-nails combat and figuring out where to go without much help. It is about those things, but it's also more than the sum of its parts. It would be a stretch to say Tunic has a great story—there’s hardly any dialogue, NPCs, or traditional questing—yet it manages to tell a tale of death and resurrection that, towards the end of its dozen or so hours, becomes quite moving. The graphics and sound do a brilliant job of setting the mood. The locations you visit throughout the game are impressively varied and beautiful, and there's some great lighting effects that wouldn’t have been possible in the old Zelda games that Tunic takes inspiration from. The downbeat but excellent soundtrack also adds a lot to the experience. The way it all comes together is a little bit magical.
A word of warning: this game isn’t for everyone. Its cute visuals may lead you to think it is perfect for younger gamers, or for someone looking for an easy and relaxing game to play, but this is not the case. Tunic poses a stiff challenge, both in its combat encounters and its intentionally mystifying structure. But for those up for the challenge, there is a wonderful and surprisingly emotional adventure to be found here, which borrows from some well known franchises but manages to stand out with new ideas and a style all of its own.