The opening moments of Tunic fooled us into thinking we were in for a derivative Zelda-like adventure. A diminutive fox-like character wearing a green tunic reminiscent of a certain hero wakes up on a beach. From an isometric camera angle, this fox (known as the Ruin Seeker) finds a sword and not long after a blue-and-red shield. Surely, it wouldn’t be long before we discovered boomerangs and bows to solve puzzles with – yet such item-based puzzles never came. Instead, Tunic cleaves its own identity with a handful of brilliantly unique mechanics and with combat pulled from that bottomless well of design that indie developers have yet to run dry: Dark Souls.
You’ve seen it before: a stamina bar dictates how much you, as the Ruin Seeker, can block or dodge attacks, and when you die – and you will die – an echo of your body can be recovered to regain the gold you lost upon death. Spending this gold with the proper upgrade item in hand, increases Attack, Health Points, Stamina, and so on. Your sword has a simple three-hit combo, but the complexity of combat against Slorms and Chompingnoms comes from recognising attack patterns, making use of invincibility frames in dodge rolls, and parrying if you’re brave. Throw in a handful of magic items, and the combat never grows stale in this 15-hour adventure.
You will however spend the vast majority of your time in Tunic exploring beautifully detailed environments to a soundtrack that wouldn’t be out of place on a lo-fi study playlist. From ancient forests to underground sci-fi ziggurats, there are a lot of little secrets to uncover. Much of the time, the isometric perspective hides secrets and shortcuts beneath bridges and behind stairs, rewarding the tenacious players that explores every nook and corner. These zones never require pushing blocks onto switches or lowering and raising water levels to advance, but rather detailed analysis of the in-game instruction manual – by far Tunic’s most unique feature.
Scattered throughout the world are lost pages of this manual. Some pages show simple controls such as rolling, blocking, and the like, while others depict maps of certain areas and elaborate on the story. It’s here, within these wonderfully drawn pages, that Tunic hides hints and clues on how to advance through the world; only by examining these pages can you learn where to go and what to do. It’s an ingenious idea made all the more engaging and mysterious with Tunic’s made-up language. It isn’t necessary to parse this language, enough is translated to give a rough idea of what’s going on, yet it reinforces an undercurrent of old-school difficulty and discoverability that runs throughout the entire game.
About two-thirds of Tunic plays out exploring and learning from the manual to go ring this bell and then find that medallion while fighting through a cast of enemies, getting wrecked by a handful of bosses, and uncovering more secrets of the in-game mechanics. Seriously, we had no idea what was going on with the Ability Card system for more than half the game, and it took us an embarrassing amount of time to learn how to parry — and we don't count this as a negative. On the contrary, we loved how few hands the game provided to hold.
In the latter third, Tunic flips expectations both narratively and mechanically in a manner we won’t spoil here, but it reinvested us in the game despite believing we had reached the end. It all accumulates with a final boss fight during which, somehow, we refrained from snapping our Pro Controller in half over our two dozen failed attempts. A host of accessibility options, including a ‘No Fail’ mode and reduced combat difficulty, are there for those that find the sudden difficulty spikes of the bosses too much. Personally, overcoming these challenges left us satisfied, yet we have to admit some bosses strayed a little too much into the realm of unfairness.
But how does all this run? Tunic, after all, was developed for much more powerful hardware with 4K output at 60fps. Unfortunately, the Switch port comes with a few hiccups that make it more difficult to recommend if you have another way to play. Namely, the lowered resolution muddies the vibrant world, giving the whole experience a ‘fuzzy’ sheen in a game clearly meant to have defined edges and clear vistas. Handheld mode alleviates this somewhat, and if you haven’t seen footage of the game running on another platform, and if 30fps doesn't bother you, these caveats might not bother you either.
You will, however, notice when the game freezes for a second or two during the more hectic boss fights; this never happened to us against regular enemies, but it quite often did with the final fights of each zone. This didn't lead to us taking hits we otherwise wouldn’t have, nor did it interrupt progress in any way, but it annoyed us nonetheless. Hopefully, a patch or two can fix this.
You’d be wrong to assume the cute fox-like protagonist and colourful world implies Tunic is a relaxing little adventure for all ages – it’s anything but. Tunic requires a lot of intuitive thinking and patience to navigate its beautiful world with its brilliant in-game instruction manual. Coupled with an unforgiving combat system that punishes impatience and rewards measured study of opponents, Tunic is a game designed for those versed in old-school adventuring and experienced in difficult, sometimes frustrating swordplay. Given all this and its evident Hylian inspirations, and even with some unfortunate performance hitches and obvious downgrades from the versions on other platforms, Tunic feels right at home on a Nintendo console and we recommend it as a creative and concise adventure that both draws and expands upon some prestigious inspirations.