As a kid, the excitement of coming home with a new video game was second to none. Such was my bursting childlike excitement that in the 20 or so minutes it took to drive home I would be in the back of the car staring at the game’s cover box, analysing it front and back, combing over the entire instruction manual to get even a slight taste of what I was about to play once I got home, studying the game’s controls and every so often exclaiming to my mum or dad who no doubt couldn’t have cared less that “this one has a double jump and a glide!”. A simple kind of childlike excitement and magic that I don’t tend to get in a digital age where I can buy and stream pretty much whatever I want in an instant, and learn all I need to about a game through Twitter or YouTube before I ever touch it (if I indeed ever do thereafter).
Back in those halcyon days the instruction manual to a game was your bible for that brief 20-minute period, and the discovery of both what the game was and how to play it was all the scripture you needed.
Tunic, developed by Andrew Shouldice and published by Finji, is a game that perfectly understands that, encapsulating all that childlike glee and excitement for the journey of discovery that only a videogame can hold.
Discover How To Play
In Tunic you play as a red fox who wakes up on a small beach adorned in, conveniently, a tunic. Straight from the off very little is given about where you are, what you are supposed to be doing, and quite how you are supposed to do it. It’s on to you to merely start exploring as you would in any old adventure game.
Through exploring you will find scraps of paper which possess very small pockets of information and images that at the very least hint toward something you should be doing or how to do it. After collecting a couple of these you’ll soon realise that what you are collecting is pages of an instruction manual for a videogame – the game that you are in fact currently playing.
The only issue is that these pages are out of order when collected and each only offers a small scrap of information that sometimes needs its next page to actually make sense. Plus, the book itself is largely written in an indecipherable script to make matters more difficult; you can only surmise some meanings from images given or the small pen scribblings across the manual that evidently someone who has played the game before you has left. To complete Tunic you quite literally just need to learn how to actually play it.
This is the key to what makes Tunic so wonderful and unique. You’re charting a journey through a videogame that others have played before you, but for one reason or another perhaps didn’t quite manage to complete and left only small hints to success for the next player – i.e. you. Because learning the game is also the way its progression works Tunic also then possesses these wonderful moments of jaw-dropping discovery when you realise that there have been things you have been able to do all along, you just didn’t quite know the right controls or order of operation.
If that sounds vague it’s because to give anything away would entirely betray the whole enjoyment of the game. The secrets squirrelled away throughout Tunic are incredible, each one more astonishing and intricate than the last. Just when you think you have a handle on everything one page collected might well just throw an entirely new curveball which changes how you view just about everything in the world.
I would highly encourage staying away from any guides and just fully throwing yourself into the experience of discovery, trying everything as it comes. I know there was a ridiculous controversy over the mere suggestion that a notebook would be handy for playing Elden Ring, but Tunic would certainly benefit even more so with some of the puzzles it holds. Deciphering the small scraps of information that the instruction manual gives is just as fun as any battle, if not more so, and also makes for a wonderful harkening back to those adventure titles of childhood when an answer on the internet wasn’t just a click away; where instead the various button combos for unlocking secrets and cheats was the stuff of rumours and small scraps of hastily drawn codes on paper, passed around and cemented to memory for when you got home from school. In magnificent style Andrew Shouldice has somehow captured all of that in what is on the face of it a straightforward indie adventure title.
Simple Gameplay And Exceptional Design
The game is presented in a 3D isometric style with some nice art to it, charting light, tranquil forest scapes to more ominous cave dwellings and dank sewer spaces. Each environment possesses a distinct personality to it with the vibrant art style helping to create their aesthetic. The 3D isometric style is also aptly chosen to help adorn the world with plenty of secrets, since the locked in camera means that some areas are impossible to see unless you search thoroughly enough through every nook and cranny. If you reckon a wall corner might be hiding something behind it is almost always worth checking anyway – be rewarded for doing so near enough every time. The art style and world design of Tunic is also ingeniously linked to help guide exploration as well. Light is used in clever ways to often denote when an avenue is worth searching just a little more down, or where you should be looking. It’s thoughtfully planned out and expertly executed.
Exploration is much like a typical Metroidvania. The whole map is more or less fully open to explore at any time, but certain areas will require items and abilities gained later to fully access or even survive in. As you accrue abilities and discover more of the instruction manual, far more of every area will open up, even beyond what you might have thought an area already possessed in terms of explorability and scope. You can also unlock shortcuts once you have been through an area once to make future navigation quicker and easier.
Since Tunic is all about discovering quite how to play, it’s very base gameplay is actually fairly simple with later additions providing a nice texturing to it. At any time you can hold three items each taken up a slot denoted by the X, Y, and B buttons (on an Xbox controller). It’s up to you what goes into those slots, but you’ll pretty much always have at least a melee weapon along with a combination of a ranged weapon and perhaps a potion.
You can also dodge and later down the line will be able to block with a shield. These and any melee actions take stamina which rebuilds over time, but if your stamina bar is ever low you both won’t be able to fully complete actions and any damage taken will be harsher than usual. Range attacks tend to take magic to use, or are of finite use if it is something like a bomb.
The combat is good fun and takes a beat to get the hang of since the stamina management is such an important factor. Because of this, taking on groups of enemies at once can be a tricky task, especially if you let them surround you. Taking them on one at a time or at the very least keeping them mostly in front of you will be a huge help. Boss fights are also a difficult challenge to get a grasp on at first, but once you learn their patterns you should be able to make it through.
If you die you will lose some of your gems and your soul will drop where you perished. You’ll respawn at the last checkpoint station you sat down at (these work much like Dark Souls bonfires with enemies respawning anytime you use them) and can then get back to your soul to regain some of your lost gems.
This just about scratches the surface of Tunic’s core gameplay but to give much more away would detract from the experience. Even some of the simplest aspects of the game are covered as in-game secrets to be discovered through experimentation and exploration, so I would not want to haphazardly ruin that. The core gameplay is good, feels solid, and leaves plenty of room for the game to then spurn out in all kinds of wonderful directions. That is all you need to know.
A Magical Experience That Can Only Be Captured Once
Tunic is forever changing and defying expectations, so just go in as in the dark as possible and let the journey sweep you away. The game unravels further and further in magnificent style; just when you might think Tunic has played its last trick it unveils a new card that changes everything else you have already experienced and how you view the game going on. It is such a skilful piece of design and a magical experience that I cannot help but be in utter awe of this magnificent work.
Complaints are very few, with only some small quality of life suggestions for re-treading through areas, but that is extremely minute for what is otherwise an incredibly well put together game.
Tunic is the kind of game that only ever comes along every once in a while wherein you’ll be annoyed that you can’t experience it for the first time ever again after playing. It is a wonderful ode to the adventure titles of our childhoods, stylishly harkening back to the classics of Zelda, Jak and Daxter, Banjo and Kazooie; perfectly recreating their sense of mystique, wide-eyed wonder, and seeming miraculous wizardry that that child in the back of the car, poring over his newest instruction manual from front to back, fell in love with all those years ago.
Final Score: 9/10