As with most recent hit indie games such as “Cuphead,” “Celeste” and “Stardew Valley,” “Tunic” feels like a near-impossible labor of time — seven years worth, to be exact. The mysterious action-adventure title took me by surprise when it was released on Steam and Xbox last week, even though it’s been five years since it was first announced at E3 in 2017. Though I currently have no intention of playing this year’s other exploration-fueled fantasy RPG, “Elden Ring,” something about the game’s premise of mysterious treasure, and its undeniably cute fox protagonist, piqued my curiosity. It turns out that “Tunic” feasts on this sense of curiosity, presenting players with an intricate world that slowly reveals itself as you peer deeper and deeper into its cracks and crevices.
The main method that “Tunic” uses to tell its story is through exploration. I won’t spoil any of it here, but what few details you are given about the game’s events are subtle. Without a single line of dialogue, the game trickles out bits of the story as you explore its beautiful environments. Crumbling, mossy structures give way to grand palaces and areas filled with strange and futuristic technology as you investigate more and more of the world’s map. The level of detail in each area is astounding, and each one is effective in communicating mood to the player. A grand library filled with heaping piles of books feels lonely and forgotten, while an ancient temple filled with the game’s runic language conveys that you are somewhere both alien and vaguely familiar. There is a real sense of progression created from these transitions that continues to drive the story forward and makes exploration all the more exciting.
Exploring also rewards you with a wealth of secrets, of which the world of “Tunic” is crammed full. Each of these secrets is prompted to you in some way, whether it be through clues on the game’s maps or subtle hints in the environment. A cliff that seems impossible to reach or the dark corner of a crumbling temple gains a new feeling of wonder and speculation that only builds as the game progresses. There were countless times when I would follow a path for longer than I felt I was “supposed” to, only to be rewarded for my curiosity with some sort of treasure. Each secret is so deliberately placed that you instantly feel rewarded, and I never felt that my exploration was a waste of time.
It is impossible to ignore the influence that “Tunic” draws from the Legend of Zelda series. I mean, when your game features a small protagonist in a green tunic carrying a sword and a shield, I’m not sure how much more obvious you could be. Yet this inspiration goes far beyond visual mimicry: It’s clear that “Tunic” holds its source material in high regard. The in-game manual that you collect as you progress through the game is a beautiful callback to older video game manuals, with wonderful illustrations and helpful hints. Most of the instructions are written in a strange language that often leaves the player trying to piece together their meaning. The manual is also made to look like it has been used by someone before you, with coffee stains or pen marks left on almost every page. These details made the game’s mysteries feel alive, as though I was just picking up right where someone left off.
The Dark Souls games are another clear inspiration, as “Tunic” uses common mechanics from the series such as dodge rolling, single-use health potions and a stamina bar that you must constantly manage. These features shine in the game’s several boss fights: The fights are tough, sometimes taking me upwards of 30 tries. One of the bosses brought me close to throwing my controller in anger, as they alternated between a shotgun and sword attack with such speed and unpredictability that it barely gave me time to get a few hits in. As is the case in the Dark Souls games, finally beating these bosses brought a great sense of achievement, but there were a few times when I felt I had won because I was lucky the boss didn’t use a certain devastating attack, not because I had become skilled enough to beat them.
The final few hours of “Tunic” are filled with a series of challenging puzzles, most of which have clever solutions that can be reached after spending a few minutes with them. However, there were a few that felt a bit more unfair than the others, requiring me to look up an answer that I would have never guessed on my own. One puzzle in particular required that I study how tiles were grouped together to find the solution, and after half an hour of staring at my screen I finally turned to the internet for help. This should not be taken as a detriment to the game’s…
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