Tunic’s opening moments fooled us into thinking we were getting into a derivative zelda-like adventure. A small fox-like figure wearing a green tunic reminiscent of a certain hero wakes up on a beach. From an isometric camera perspective, this fox (known as the Ruin Seeker) finds a sword and shortly thereafter a blue and red shield. Sure, it wouldn’t be long before we discovered boomerangs and bows for solving puzzles – but such item-based puzzles never came. Instead, Tunic cleaves its own identity with a handful of brilliantly unique mechanics and combat drawn from that bottomless design source that’s yet to dry up indie devs: Dark Souls.
You’ve seen it before: a stamina bar determines how much you can block or dodge attacks as a Ruin Seeker and when you die – and you will die – an echo of your body can be restored to regain the gold you lost on death. Spending this gold with the right upgrade item in hand will increase Attack, Health Points, Stamina, etc. Her sword has an easy three-hit combo, but the complexity of fighting Slorms and Chompingnoms comes from recognizing attack patterns, using invincibility frames in dodge rolls, and parrying if you’re brave. Throw in a handful of magic items and the battle is never boring in this 15-hour adventure.
However, you’ll spend most of your time in Tunic exploring beautifully detailed environments to a soundtrack that wouldn’t look out of place on a lo-fi study playlist. From ancient forests to underground sci-fi ziggurats, they exist a lot of of little secrets to uncover. Most of the time, the isometric perspective hides secrets and shortcuts under bridges and behind stairs, rewarding the persistent players who explore every nook and cranny. These zones never require pushing blocks onto switches or lowering and raising the water level to advance, but rather detailed analysis of the game guide – by far Tunic’s most unique feature.
Scattered all over the world are lost pages of this manual. Some pages show simple controls like roll, block and the like, while others show maps of specific areas and explain the story. Here, in these beautifully drawn pages, Tunic hides hints and clues as to how to progress through the world; Only by examining these pages can you learn where to go and what to do. It’s an ingenious idea made even more intriguing and mysterious with Tunic’s invented language. It’s not necessary to parse this language, enough is translated to give a rough idea of what’s going on, but it reinforces an undercurrent of old-school difficulty and discoverability that runs throughout the game.
Roughly two-thirds of Tunic plays with exploring and learning from the manual to ring that bell and then find that medallion while fighting your way through a group of enemies, getting destroyed by a handful of bosses, and uncovering more mysteries of the game mechanics. Seriously, we had no idea what was going on with the ability card system for more than half the game, and it took us an embarrassing amount of time to learn how to parry – and we don’t count that as a negative. On the contrary, we loved how few hands the game offered to hold.
In the final third, Tunic flips expectations, both narratively and mechanically, in a way we don’t want to spoil here, but it got us reinvested in the game even though we thought we’d gotten to the end. It all piles up with a final boss fight where we somehow failed to break our pro controller in half in our two dozen failed attempts. A variety of accessibility options, including a “No Fail” mode and reduced combat difficulty, are there for those who find the sudden spikes in difficulty of the bosses too much. Personally, we’ve been satisfied with overcoming these challenges, but we have to admit that some bosses have strayed a little too far into the realm of unfairness.
But how does it all work? Tunic was eventually designed for much more powerful hardware, with 4K output at 60fps. Unfortunately, the Switch port has a few hiccups that make it harder to recommend if you have a different style of play. Namely, the reduced resolution dulls the vibrant world, giving the entire experience a “blurry” sheen in a game that’s meant to have well-defined edges and clear vistas. The handheld mode mitigates this somewhat, and if you haven’t seen footage of the game running on another platform and don’t mind 30fps, these limitations might not bother you either.
However, you will notice when the game freezes for a second or two during the more hectic boss fights; This never happened to us against normal enemies, but quite often in the final fights of each zone. While this didn’t cause us to take hits we wouldn’t have gotten otherwise, nor did it interrupt progression in any way, it still annoyed us. Hopefully a patch or two can fix that.
You would be wrong to assume that the cute fox-like protagonist and the colorful world would make Tunic a relaxing little adventure for all ages – it’s anything but that. Tunic requires a lot of intuitive thinking and patience to get used to its beautiful world with its brilliant game guide to find your way around. Coupled with an unforgiving combat system that punishes impatience and rewards measured study of opponents, Tunic is a game designed for those who enjoy old-school adventure and experience difficult, sometimes frustrating, swordplay. Given all of this and its obvious Hylian inspirations, and despite some unfortunate performance issues and apparent downgrades from versions on other platforms, Tunic feels right at home on a Nintendo console and we recommend it as a creative and incisive adventure that both draws and expands on some prestigious inspirations.
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