I’ve always found Zelda games to be expertly well-rounded in how they encompass everything I enjoy about video games. The Souls series? Well, let’s just say that those titles scratched the difficulty itch I’ve been trying to get at since completing my first run of DOOM on the Ultra Nightmare difficulty setting.
Tunic, then – a microcosm of both the last 20 years of gaming advancements and the best aspects of the aforementioned series – should have been right up my street. Here’s my honest Tunic review.
“It’s dangerous to go alone – take this!”
Well, a sword would’ve been nice, but a stick will suffice, I guess. What more can a washed-up fox on a beach expect, after all?
Tunic starts off like every Zelda game you’ve played – with the tentative foraging of an underpowered protagonist in a dangerous world. There’s plenty to explore as you venture up and over your first hill, but you’ll undoubtedly be stopping first to admire the scenery.
Tunic is a stunningly beautiful indie game. Expressing the same pastel colors and tepid lighting of the most recent Animal Crossing or The Legend of Zelda: a Link’s Awakening (a clear influence), you’ll fall in love with each swishing blade of glass and every glistening body of water.
It’s not just for show, either: the physics are particularly appealing. Chopped trees, planks of wood, and even befallen enemies collide charmingly with the ditsy movements of our apricot protagonist: it gives authenticity to this strange, yet alluring setting.
As opposed to something like The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, this title conjures a comparatively somber atmosphere. The implications of there being practically no benevolent soul in sight certainly aid in giving off that vibe, but I think that much of the game’s overall tone is expressed through its music.
Nowhere to be heard is the sort of epic trumpeting we’re accustomed to that scores our journey across Hyrule; instead, the player is treated to a soundtrack encompassing Lo-fi, electronic ambiance.
Huge, unison pads swell in the background as reverberated synths echo a plucky, distant melody, and the actual sound design rings with the same ghostly undertones. Enemies shatter eerily into an effervescent mist with a distinct, audible ricochet, and when you die, your demise is signified by a shrill, delayed arpeggio. It’s an interesting contrast between the cartoonish aesthetic – and this is a game full of contrasts.
Tunic is decidedly cute looking, and while I tried to avoid parroting the “don’t let the cuteness fool you!” adage you’ve most likely heard if you’ve read anything about the game, the juxtaposition is an unavoidable talking point. The gameplay is a cruel mistress; it draws you in with a gorgeously rendered, claymation style world only to put you on your back faster than the expression “aww!” slips from your lips.
Indeed, your ‘awws’ will get progressively distant from those initial avouchments of adorable graphics to more, “aww nooo, this is the third controller I’ve smashed into smithereens against my own knee caps!”.
You’ll need to be made of tough stuff to see this one through to the end. The gameplay hinges on your due diligence to master a small array of essential movements: feats that are not much far removed from Ocarina of Time’s ‘Z targeting’ – which is possibly the most replicated fighting mechanic in the medium at this point.
You have a stamina bar, a health bar, and a magic bar, and managing these components simultaneously is of utmost importance. It’s not long before you’re able to toss your trusty stick aside in favor of a sword and shield and, unsurprisingly, it’s here where the combat comes into its own.
Dashing shares stamina with blocking with your shield, and you’ll need to ensure you learn the specific movement patterns of each enemy before taking a stab at them. There’s no chance of button mashing your way to victory here.
It’s all fairly standard stuff that we’ve seen a hundred times before, but overall, it works well. I say overall, because while I welcomed and enjoyed the difficulty of combat, I don’t think they fully nailed it.
Fighting was certainly satisfying on the whole: attacks and blocks connect with the cracking impact you expect, and the way your foe’s swipes and fired projectiles can collide with other enemies makes for fluid, tactile combat sequences.
From bombes to magic staffs, there’s also a variety of handy items to procure along the way, and these do a good job at spicing up your battles. Where things slip up a little is when there are multiple enemies attacking at once.
No matter how efficient your multitasking skills are, there are certain combat situations that I found seemingly impossible to think through with the required wait, block, attack strategy.
I specifically recall one moment when these crocodile things swarmed me, and while the technique to beat them was one I knew well, you can’t efficiently attack and block several of them simultaneously.
It’s possible to beat them, of course, but when your tactic involves running away and frantically throwing bombs behind you, perhaps it signifies there’s a bit of an issue with what is meant to be an intelligent, chess-like fighting system.
The mechanics work great with one, two, or even three enemies and, thankfully, fights like these represented the majority of encounters. Ultimately, though, the system was overwhelmed when there were too many enemies on screen.
Given how practically every adversary can shred your health in a matter of seconds, the issue occasionally made what was an otherwise clever approach to dungeon design a bit of a chore.
Checkpoints are triggered at these shrines that are dotted about the world, and if you die, you respawn back there with every enemy you killed popping right back up – an otherwise well-designed mechanic that once or twice represented as a point of frustration.
I think the problem stems from the relative simplicity of the A.I. Each enemy continually comes straight at you and attacks with a timed move set. In many games with the same approach to swordplay, some enemies hang back while one or two come at the player – even if several are technically ‘attacking’ you at once (think The Witcher 3).
It isn’t exactly realistic, of course, but this sort of staged setup is required to give the player room to breathe, and with Tunic’s enemies being of a particularly ruthless variety, it would’ve been nice to have been offered a bit of leeway at times.
It’s an issue, but not a deal-breaker. As stated, the situations where you’re pounced upon by a ton of enemies are few and far between: I only encountered the problem a handful of times in what was a 14-hour experience, so I think it can be forgiven.
Even though the A.I. could’ve been tuned a little better, Tunic cleverly makes you treat each combat situation like a puzzle rather than an individual fight. Every dungeon had its set enemies, and figuring out how best to deal with them without taking too much damage was great fun. Considering the ever-present risk of being sent back to the beginning of the dungeon, the game makes you much more thoughtful of each and every move.
You’ll quickly memorize the different rooms of a dungeon in order to plan your route efficiently, and A.I. issues aside, it has to be said that the way enemies continually chase you from room to room was especially cool; dungeons in these types of games are often compartmentalized into their respective four-walls, but little touches like this make Tunic’s world feel board in scope and infinitely connected.
The seminal combat sequences are, of course, the boss fights, and these were exquisitely designed and thoroughly satisfying to beat. In what was a refreshing departure from the typical ‘hit glowy thing three times’ objective, each offered a unique, distinct challenge, and not once did I feel the game was rehashing old ground.
Unsurprisingly, these were by far the most challenging sections – each fight necessitating a real mastery of the skills you’ve learned up until that point. Without spoiling anything, the setup to some of these sequences are truly breathtaking – often menacing – run-ups and the game does a great job at instilling a state of pensive intrigue regarding the beast you know you’re going to have one hell of a task fighting.
The normal enemies are also noteworthy in their distinctiveness from one another – each being varied in their approach to smiting you down and in their ability to keep you on your toes.
At the end of the day, difficulty can be a difficult thing to discuss. There’s a large degree of subjectivity in what is considered ‘too hard’, and I think your enjoyment of Tunic will hinge on where you fall upon that spectrum.
I, personally, relish difficult games, and aforementioned blips aside, I had a blast beating every new enemy type and new boss. But I do think the game will be a tad too difficult for some players.
There’s a fine line between frustrating difficulty and a rewarding challenge, and in the same way some won’t enjoy From Software’s proclivity for punishment, Tunic does cater to a specific type of player.
Looking at the game’s promotional art – our butter-wouldn’t-melt looking hero beaming triumphantly with sword held to the sky: no pictorial semblance present of the horrors he is to endure on his journey across this rather bleak world – most wouldn’t conjure mental assumptions of brutally hard combat. Yet, that’s also what makes the game special – its distinction from your pre-conceived notion is what makes it interesting.
I think a lot of people will go into this expecting a Zelda experience and, by all accounts, this is very far removed from anything Nintendo puts out. Whether that’s a negative or positive will be down to personal preference.
I can see why they haven’t done this, but I think the option of an easier mode wouldn’t go amiss. There are a couple of accessibility features – an option for infinite stamina and a no deaths mode – but, in my opinion, neither of these strikes a good enough balance.
Having more stamina only marginally lessens the difficulty, and not being able to die takes most of the thrill out of the game. Hopefully, we’ll see an update at some point offering more of a middle ground.
A Book Between Worlds
I had the occasional niggle with the combat, but I wholeheartedly adored Tunic’s approach to puzzles. The game tells you everything you need to know to successfully decipher its world, but it probably won’t seem that way at first.
The entire premise hinges on collecting pages for a digital rendition of a classic game manual. To have any semblance of what’s actually going on, you’ll need to put this booklet together piece by piece.
It’s an affectionate tribute to gaming’s past: hitting the back button pans the camera out to focus on the player’s point of view – as if they’d physically put down the controller and picked up a guide for the game.
The meticulous level of detail is amazing; you can see your paused game on a supposed CRT screen in front of you – complete with RGB sub-pixels – and zooming in on each of the beautifully designed pages reveals not only dog eared paper and coffee stains but also the dotted texturing of laser printed images.
It’s a feature that harkens back to a pre-internet methodology of puzzle-solving: a time when whispered rumors of strategy billowed through school corridors: when pouring over your own scribbled notes presented the eventual path to success.
But it’s not just the nostalgia trip that makes this central element so cool. There’s something inherently satisfying about progressively building your knowledge of the game’s world in this sequential yet disjointed fashion.
The developers doubled down pushing the player’s ingenuity; Tunic doesn’t patronize you or spoon-feed information, and while I think a fully-fledged easier mode would benefit the combat elements of the game, this aspect is perfect the way it is.
The game presents as one large puzzle rather than a selection of smaller ones, and its seamlessly connected world extends beyond anything the games it took inspiration from accomplished.
The magic of this form of puzzling is difficult to put your finger on, but I think, crucially, it stems from the distinct way it manages to connect the player to the setting. While you’re ultimately only looking at a digital rendition of your Tunic bible, there’s a joyful physicality to it all – a juvenile sense of adventure you don’t get from traditionally tutorialized games.
It’s the best bread crumb trail I’ve followed in a long time: a superbly realized trifecta of level design, world-building, and written context – filled to the brim with secrets but presenting nothing superfluous.
Owing to this unique approach to game design, refreshingly, there are no traditional Zelda-style puzzles. The puzzles mostly surround getting to the dungeon, and once you arrive, it’s then a test of your capacity for fighting. This is a balance that functions very nicely.
On one hand, the game tests your skills at solving complex riddles, intentionally ambiguous map design, and enigmatic pictograms. On the other, it puts you through these Souls-Esq combat arenas – each new room presenting its own distinctly separated endurance challenge.
Naturally, this subtractive approach can be a little too obscure at times, but it’s splendidly realized. No two puzzles are the same, and the game is constantly switching things up with obscure objectives. As previously mentioned, there’s a noticeable dearth of narrative – but this doesn’t really matter.
Despite practically no spoken dialogue or even the reveal of our character’s name, the whole thing still manages to keep you intrigued. There are multiple endings and, while I’m still somewhat uncertain of what actually happened, the ending cutscene presented a gratifying, poignant finale to what was a truly intimate journey.
Compared to the past, we’re spoiled by complex stories in even the smallest of games, but Tunic is proof that sometimes, solid game design can stand on its own.
We’ve seen an abundance of games that have attempted to both recreate and reinvigorate the styles of old. Owing to its mixture of on and off-screen puzzle-solving structure, this game has innovated those concepts further still, and I hope we see more titles build upon its successes.
A Love Letter to the Past
Tunic isn’t perfect. I don’t think such a thing exists in this or any other artistic medium. But the small flaws that exist are only accentuated on account of how good everything else is.
The developers managed to channel the appeal of Dark Souls-style combat within the confines of an isometric setting – even if sometimes it was a little too much to cope with; they created a beautiful, self-contained fantasy world with expertly crafted puzzles that necessitated a nostalgic, yet novel methodology for solving them – despite the fact that, occasionally, things could get a little obtuse.
I think the game would have a broader appeal if it offered some sort of easier difficulty mode, but that doesn’t take away from the thrill of the challenge at hand if you’re up to it.
It’s been a long time coming, but Tunic is, pretty much, everything we were hoping it to be. This is a marvelous little indie game in its own right, and it’s yet another example of how indie developers are the ones pushing the envelope of interactive entertainment.
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