TUNIC PC Review
You’d be forgiven for believing TUNIC is nothing more than a feel-good isometric exploration action game heavily inspired by the likes of Zelda titles. Or even a light souls-like due to the heavy combat, refilling health potion, and recovery mechanics. The marketing does a lot to promote that. Heck, even our protagonist themself wears a familiar green tunic to seemingly sell the idea that It’s up to this petit fox knight to fight through a land wrought with baddies, find the three pieces of the magical macguffin, and restore… something! However, what we have here is so much more than the dungeon-crawling hack-and-slashing that it first appears to be. Don’t get me wrong, that good stuff is all present, it just seems to act as a cover for a far more interesting world that you may not have expected. I certainly did not. TUNIC is indeed a classic hero’s journey set in a stunningly beautiful world, packed with monsters to defeat and secrets to discover but, when you least expect it, your naivety is used to pull the rug from beneath you, sending the player careening into a much darker world that poses a myriad of moral questions and opens one’s eyes to a whole new universe of hidden meaning and veiled mystery.
It does this in two ways: one – a wonderful and unexpected narrative shift that uses your own expectations of the genre and style of game against you; and two – by layering its ingenuity to reward the player over and over if they are just willing to dig a little deeper, look a little closer, and think a little harder. The crazy thing is that so much of this shrouded second reality is there all along, staring you in the face and just waiting to be unmasked, almost mocking the player’s ignorance. Being a metroidvania-esque open world means backtracking through these locations until they become familiar enough that it would be reasonable to guide someone through them blindfolded, making it even more shocking when they hold more than you could have expected. Never in my life have I had my mind blown so many times, which takes masterful design and great passion.
That’s not even the best bit. The greatest part of TUNIC is the ‘Instruction Booklet’ mechanic. See, kids, video games used to come with lovely little inspiring booklets in their packaging that were chock full of cool stuff that any kid would be entranced absorbing on the way home from the store (oh yeah, games also used to be bought at stores. Like, physically). These booklets would not only teach the game, killing the need for boring in-game tutorials, but they would also share lore, art, and information about their development. I miss them dearly, as I suspect most people over thirty do. So when I saw that a big part of TUNIC is collecting pages of a manual that can then be read through in-game I was hit by a tidal wave of nostalgic endearment. It was a nice trick. Until I looked closer. Whilst most of the text is in some ‘fake’ runic language, the readable text and accompanying images hint at what effects consumables have and other actions that can be done, such as ‘making an offering’. This is seriously important information wrapped in deduction puzzles of what may initially be confused with simple collectibles. That’s not even the start though. This book, this beautiful little digital representation of a time gone by, is overflowing with enigmas that, once you start to uncover and learn from, also begin to appear in the game world.
OK, OK, I like the game. Love the game, actually. And it does all of this cool subverting of expectations by taking advantage of its colourful world and being smart enough to allow players to underestimate it, but how does it actually play? Firstly it’s important to know that this isn’t your usual four-to-five hour indie romp. TUNIC is closer to twelve hours and that’s if you fail to recognise certain patterns or pull at the thread. Personally I have a whopping twenty-five hours poured into it, with those last five being me banging my head on my desk as I try everything imaginable to solve what I imagine are the last few puzzles that were meant to be solved solo (we’ll get to that). Being a game of two halves, I’m sure the player base will also find themselves split into two categories. One side running through a classic-feeling sword-swishing good time, getting swept up in a few hidden shortcuts and treasures until they hit a few twists and go out in a big climactic conflict. It’s a good time. The other side, which I find myself a part of, will get to experience that same thing at first. But then something will click, a puzzle that was a little more cryptic than expected reveals a unique reward and opens the doors to a mountain of possibilities. More solutions that seem impossibly clever make way for yet crazier still ciphers, until you find yourself scribbling through pages and pages of a notebook engulfed in a game that once seemed so innocent, always clawing at the next answer and, perhaps, a new language?
I’ve likened TUNIC to Fez, a similarly brilliant game that also shattered expectations, hid riddles in a new alphabet, and had an entire community rally around some of the larger secrets. I believe we’ll see the exact same here. The difference, however, is that TUNIC seems to be available to everyone, not just puzzle-minded nerds like me. As already mentioned, it’s a game of two halves. How deep the fox hole goes entirely depends on what the player wants to extract from the experience and I think that is just excellent. Not only is it one of the biggest surprises you can expect this year but it sets a new bar for design and minimalist storytelling, allowing players to slowly pick away at the world as new manual pages slowly drip-feed enticing clues about the true nature that lies beneath the cutesy surface. Like Pony Island, Doki Doki Literature Club, and Frog Fractions before it, TUNIC is going to be opening many people’s eyes to what a video game can do.