Review – Tunic
Tunic has felt like a long time coming with it being five years after the initial announcement at E3 2017. However, it is understandable considering it is made by a single developer, Andrew Shouldice. Tunic immediately caught my eye with its art direction and bold color palette, but most of all it was the inspirations to one of my favorite franchises, The Legend of Zelda. Well, it’s finally here (despite some of my team still not believing it), but I can confidently say that the wait was certainly worth it. Without further ado, since we have waited long enough, let’s dive into the simultaneously adorable yet menacing tale.
The first thing you’ll notice about Tunic is the lack of any introduction, opening cutscene, or any kind of brief story snippet that may give you an idea of the story. You literally wash up on the shore of a mysterious island, with signs in a different language, and enemies that want to kill you. This theme rings true throughout the adventure and it felt really nice not having it hold my hand, it felt like a real adventure in a strange place. Certain things will not make sense until you discover more clues or items and Tunic lets you piece a lot of this together as the story goes. This may be a bit divisive for some because there are points where you really need to remember where certain things are within the world, and since there is no quest or custom map markers it falls on you to figure it all out.
Now, you aren’t always completely in the dark. As you progress you will find pages to what looks like one of those game manuals you would find in physical copies of a video game retail box. This acts a bit like a tutorial and a notebook for the player, and since most of it is in another language you do have to decipher a lot through the images and context clues. What I found most neat is that all the things that I found around the world that seemed like something were actually accessible the entire time, I just didn’t know the correct way to interact with them. This level of discovery and mystery made it very enjoyable as I made my way through this world and its story, slowly piecing it together myself. No narrator, no exposition dumps, no main character talking to themselves to inform the player about everything.
Despite none of these traditional storytelling techniques being present, Tunic still has an interesting tale that kept me going. Obviously its storytelling is through the world, characters, and enemies within it, so there was no way for it to get ahead of itself with foreshadowing or hints to give away the narrative. It’s hard to talk about the story without spoiling it since so much relies on your own progression and uncovering it yourself. Revealing anything here would be a great disservice. However, I will say that despite not having the big “what the hell?” ending I thought it was going to pull, there were still a few moments that had me say to myself: “oh, what!?” There are a ton of secrets to uncover, which I did not do all of, so perhaps there is a true ending I’m missing.
With Tunic taking heavy inspiration from The Legend of Zelda, its progression and gameplay structure may feel a bit familiar. While it may feel familiar, it doesn’t feel like you’re just retreading the same games, and ultimately its really the only familiar feeling you will get with the game. Since so much is shrouded in mystery and no direction, having that structure lets you at least work things out a bit easier. As you explore the world you will start noticing areas that are locked out from you. Then when you collect a new item or a new book page that allows further progression, and things start putting themselves into place. You will continually have that back and forth moment as you uncover more things that unlock your next path. However, certain things later on the game will not be as easily laid out, and this may get a bit frustrating for some players.
The combat in Tunic, much like its art style, is simple, but has a lot of layers to it. You have an attack move that does a simple three attack combo, a roll to dodge that uses stamina, and a block button that also uses stamina. Pretty simple and straightforward. If you run out of stamina, you go into a critical state where you will take on 150% damage, making it dangerous to spam dodge or block. You can also do a roll/attack move as well as a shield bash move that I didn’t know I could do until almost the end of the game. As far as I know, the manual pages don’t even give you a hint of a shield bash move, so this is my one tip to you: double tap the shield button.
Besides the basic move sets, you will also start obtaining other magic weapons and tools that use up your magic meter, and other items that have finite uses. Some of the story-based weapons will also have alternate uses for progression, like the sling that can be used to grab enemies or hooks to pull yourself to otherwise unreachable areas. Now, you’re going to see me call some items by very basic names, and that is because none of the items actually have English names or descriptions. This also means that there are some items that have an obvious use and others that you’ll need to use first to see how they function. For example, the dynamite looking sticks and fire pots are going to be pretty self explanatory. However, the fox statue will likely require you to use it to understand what it does.
This again goes back to the entire game’s philosophy of letting the player discover what things are, instead of the game simply telling you. Early on in the game you will start collecting items that you’ll have no idea what they do, but through exploration or a small hint in a new book page you have found you will uncover what these things are intended to be. This entire time you could use these items, but more than likely you just won’t know what to do with them at the time. Or you figure it out yourself and feel a little smarter. This happened to me with the upgrade items that will increase your health, strength, stamina, magic, potion potency, and defense. I just happened to figure out what to do with these things and later when I found the book page, I had a moment of happiness knowing I did it without this hint.
At any one time you will be able to equip up to three different items which were bound to the “X”, “Y”, “B”, buttons on the Xbox controller. For me “X” was always tied to my sword, while “Y” and “B” were either consumables or other magic items. While there is a good variety of usable items and weapons, I found that I was only using a few of them for combat. This is definitely the weakest part about Tunic because despite the variety, a few of them I never bothered using. Specifically the gun and the sand timer.
The gun is a large wide blast but uses so much of your magic that I didn’t bother. The sand timer slows down time, but it also slows you down so there was no discernible advantage to using it. Perhaps others will find uses for these, but for me it was just wasted. The only other issue I have with the combat is that the sword combo’s could be a bit tighter. There were times where I needed to land that three hit combo, but for some reason it wouldn’t register all my hits and it would start the combo over. It’s nothing game ruining, but when you only really have that three hit combo with the sword, it was noticeable.
Another thing I will note about Tunic is that unlike its welcoming art design and adorable main character, it is no walk in the park as far as difficulty goes. I already touched on the general difficulty of it not holding your hand and letting you do some brain work when it comes to puzzles, but the combat itself won’t let you simply walk through. It can be unforgiving when it comes to the boss fights in particular, but regular mobs can easily take you out if you’re sloppy. Your best bet is to try and bait enemies so you don’t aggravate a group, and get use to the invincibility frames during your dodge. This is ever so true during boss fights.
You will die, during most of the bosses, but learning attack patterns and equipping the right items and tools is key. Exploration is a must to make sure you’re leveled up enough to take on the bosses. When you do die, you’ll leave a little ghost fox at the location of your death, but unlike the Souls games you only lose a portion of your currency if you do not collect your ghost. Speaking of Souls type games, enemies will respawn when you rest at one of the alters that refills your health and health vials. Don’t worry, Tunic isn’t as unforgiving as a Souls game, but it’s not as easy as The Legend of Zelda.
You’ve seen me talk about Tunic’s art design now a couple of times, but that’s because I absolutely love it. The art design itself is simple and doesn’t use any textures, but there is plenty of detail here. It somehow can simultaneously be adorable, yet menacing and ominous. A lot of this has to do with the art direction and tone in a lot of sections, and it portrays a lot of feeling and heart through those visuals. The lighting work and the use of a large bold color pallet helps set the mood of the scenes, and it works really well. At no point did I feel like the visuals let down the presentation of the game.
The sound design of Tunic is another aspect of the game that I thought was pretty much flawless. There may not be any voice acting, but this is mostly a solo journey anyway. Just you the player getting absorbed in this mysterious land, and the sound design helps bolster the various feelings you will have. Much like the art direction, the soundtrack (recorded by Lifeform and Janice Kwan) really sets the mood of all the levels, battles, and even the simple exploration. It hits all the right notes, from the playful themes to the intense story moments. The various ambient noises and sound effects are also very well done with none that felt out of place or low quality.
Tunic may have been a long time coming, but the wait was absolutely worth it. This little indie game has so much heart, and challenged me in more ways than I was expecting. The complete mystery of the world and how it lets the player discover things naturally without the hand-holding nature of most games is a breathe of fresh air. Its difficulty and lack of pushing the player through may turn some off, but trust me when I say that accomplishing the puzzles in this game are rewarding. For me, Tunic is an absolute must have.
The visuals may not sport any textures, but the art design is flawless with great designs. It can be equally adorable and menacing at the same time.
I absolutely loved how Tunic does not hold your hand and really lets you discover this world as you piece it together yourself. Combat has depth to it, but I would have liked to see it a bit tighter.
There is no voice acting, but the sound design is fantastic from the ambient world sounds to the various combat sound effects. The soundtrack by Lifeformed and Janice Kwan hits all the right spots.
I enjoyed every moment of Tunic, from the complete mystery of its world and how it expands as the player learns new things to the combat and bosses. While the story didn’t have the impactful ending I was hoping for, it did give me a couple of “oh, what?” moments.
Final Verdict: 9.5
Tunic is available now on Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, PC, and Mac.
Reviewed on PC with an i7-9700k, RTX 2070, and 16gb of RAM.
A copy of Tunic was provided by the publisher.