Delightfully difficult combat and meaningful exploration make Tunic a retro-inspired modern marvel.
On the surface, Tunic’s delightful art style and charming tone bear a striking resemblance to The Legend of Zelda series. But below its cheerily disarming exterior lies a game intent on testing your resolve. Tunic’s seemingly warm and welcoming world is teeming with enemies who are all too willing to knock the stuffing out of you. Prepare to die. A lot.
Beyond an abrupt opening that sees our fox friend wash up on a beach, there’s little in the way of storytelling. And what scant plot Tunic does have is purposefully vague. This world’s wider mystery is a nice addition to the game rather than a compelling reason to play. Just delving into its fascinating surroundings, doing battle with its unsavoury inhabitants and uncovering its many layers is a riveting story all of its own. This beautifully constructed isometric world is nothing short of joyous to explore. Both the overworld and the game’s many dungeons offer intricately designed and varied environments. Some are filled with hazardous obstacles, such as the Quarry’s life-guzzling goop, while others provide a more straightforward search for treasure, shortcuts and a way forward.
In true Metroidvania fashion, you’ll need the right tools and abilities to reach certain areas. A lot of the game’s locations can be explored straight from the beach, but either difficulty or a lack of equipment prevents you from deviating too far from the game’s intended path. For instance, you have access to the Dark Tomb early on, but good luck tackling its skeletons and spiked pits without first finding the lantern. I enjoyed revisiting areas with an expanded inventory that allowed me to claim previously inaccessible treasures.
While the green outfit and simple sword and shield may make Tunic’s anthropomorphic fox seem like a fluffy red Link, many of the game’s mechanics are straight out of the Souls series. Strange statues provide a place to restock your health potions and magic, but they also respawn enemies. You drop your gold when you die, and to reclaim your lost wealth, you must make it back to the spot where you fell. Interacting with your fallen riches also produces an area of effect attack that damages enemies and pushes them back, sometimes making a tactical death your best option. The prospect of losing gold adds a surprising level of tension, as you need a considerable amount of cash to not only purchase items but also to level up. And gaining levels makes a big difference to your ability to stay alive in Tunic, with each increase feeling like it really adds some oomph to our foxy hero.
There’s a meaningful sense of progression as you expand your arsenal to include bombs and magic. But as everything else has limited uses, a lot of the time, you’ll rely on your trusty sword to take down the game’s foes. Battles require careful timing of your swings and mindful use of your stamina as you dodge between enemy blows, looking for the opportune moment to attack. Enemies don’t go easy on the fluffy fellow just because he’s adorable. They are more than willing to kick his tail right back to the last checkpoint. Each of Tunic’s enemy types is well designed, and there’s a nice variation throughout. Fast and snappy crocodiles do massive damage if they catch you in their jaws, while Fairies—floating pieces of wall—use a blast ability that freezes you in place.
In terms of combat, though, the real highlight is the boss battles. Every encounter is a spectacle, although you won’t have much time to appreciate the artistry as you dodge powerful slam attacks and flee from devastating lasers. You’ll be yelling things that don’t suit Tunic’s innocent tone when these fearsome foes best you for the umpteenth time. They require patience, but they’re also tremendously enjoyable to tackle—overcoming each feels like an achievement.
Some games go to painstaking lengths to explain the ins and outs of their mechanics before letting you roam free in their worlds, Tunic does not. The most important lesson you learn—probably after your little fox has spent a lot of time hopelessly lost—is that the game actually does offer guidance in an inspired way, by having you collect pages of an old-school instruction manual. While the first few pieces can easily be dismissed, you soon discover their importance. If you’re stumped about where to go next or need some guidance on how a particular mechanic works, it’s all there in those beautifully crafted pages if you look closely enough. The manual itself is something of a puzzle, its cryptic design a clever way to tease out the game’s inner workings. This makes it more engaging to unpack than a traditional tutorial.
Tunic’s niggles are, thankfully, as small as its fuzzy main character. All of your offensive capabilities can only be mapped to three buttons, which is fine in the beginning but rather limiting when you want to use an array of consumable items in combat alongside your sword and magic. Occasionally, when transitioning between areas, the isometric levels can take considerably longer to load than you’d expect for a game of this nature. Enemies also sporadically clip through the environment, and flying foes often back away just out of reach of your sword swings, making them incredibly irritating until you’ve got access to ranged magic attacks.
While it draws inspiration from many of gaming’s greats, Tunic has a uniqueness and sense of wonderment all its own. Its simple and colourful graphical stylings and focus on good old-fashioned fun make for an undeniably captivating experience. At the same time, the contrasting challenge it presents adds an extra level of immersion and satisfaction that makes this enchanting adventure one you’re not likely to forget anytime soon.
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