Tunic Review: Zelda Veers Off The Beaten Path

Tunic is an Action / Adventure game developed by Andrew Shouldice and published by Finji. It was released in March 2022 for PC and Xbox and will be released in September 2022 for the PS4 and PS5. MSRB is $30. I played the PC version.

I’ve already reviewed several Zelda-like games on this blog, including: Hob, Hyper Light Drifter, and Chicory, just to name a few of them. And I’ll likely review many, many more in the future. Usually when I play Zelda-likes, I’m looking for some comfort food. I might see a few new ideas, but it’s all within a familiar structure. I rarely find anything that surprises me. Tunic, however, did more than just surprise me — it flipped the entire concept of a Zelda-like on its head. It creates a refreshing meta-narrative about what it means to play a video game and what it means to be inspired by another creator’s work. It also reminded me that my first playthroughs of every Zelda game is always more rocky than I remember afterwards. It was a standout indie title, despite the major problems I have with it.

I tried, I really did, but I just never truly enjoyed the combat.

Before I launch into my list of praises, I want to get Tunic’s biggest flaw out of the way right now: its combat is an absolute chore. In Tunic you play as a little fox that wears a green tunic (big surprise) and wields all sorts of items to solve puzzles and fight enemies. It’s true that Zelda combat has never been its strongest element, but at least it gets the job done and has decent controls. Tunic’s combat, on the other hand, is bogged down by poor game feel. The lock-on blocks your ability to run, the dodge roll moves you too far away from the enemy, and your weapon never has enough reach, making combat feel slow and tedious. To top it all off, Tunic has a Dark Souls stamina system and death mechanic. Later on I’ll explain how Tunic creatively reinvents its Zelda mechanics. However, the same can’t be said for its Dark Souls mechanics – those feel more like hollow imitations. Even after I looked up combat guides, slowed down and learned the enemy patterns, and attempted new tricks, I never felt satisfied with any of the fighting. The player’s movement and enemy movement just never made sense to me.

I acquired a powerup late into the game that made my dodge roll able to move through objects, including enemy attacks, and this one tweak made combat so much more enjoyable. This confirmed my hunch that it wasn’t entirely user error — the combat system needs an overhaul. Honestly, I almost put the game down due to how unfun combat felt, but then I found an accessibility option where you could turn on invincibility. Normally I try to complete a game based on its intended difficulty, but the combat was so unbearable that I decided to turn it on.

I don’t regret it. Once the combat was relegated to a minor inconvenience, I could focus on the rest of this game, and the rest of it was spectacular.

While I disliked the combat, Tunic’s real beauty comes through in its unspoken mysteries.

You begin Tunic by waking up at the shore of this cute yet haunting isometric world with hardly a button prompt to help you get started. Eventually you’ll stumble across a page to a mysterious book that will give you a few more clues about what you’re supposed to do. Like I said in my Carto review, video games used to come with these charming manuals that explained the story, showed how the controls worked, and gave you direction about where to go. In Tunic, the manual is the main collectible, with pages scattered throughout the world. The only problem is, the manual is in a completely different language. Only a few isolated key words are translated.

Deciphering the clues of this manual — evocative of the one that came with the original Zelda — was my favorite part of the game.

Reading this manual and deciphering its clues is the main difference between Tunic and other Zelda-likes. Whereas most indie games imitate the more popular and accessible A Link to the Past, Tunic leans more into the first Zelda game. This makes a big difference in how the game is played. The original Zelda is quite obtuse, embracing open exploration with practically no hand-holding. It is much harder to progress through, but it also makes every discovery feel earned. In that context, Zelda’s manual was just as vital to the player as their sword, and the same is true for Tunic. Every page of the manual is filled with colorful yet crude illustrations evocative of the NES era, making it easy to want to flip open again and again. I believe almost one-third of my entire playthrough was spent thumbing through it. Now you technically don’t need the manual (you can get through the game by experimenting on your own), but some critical paths are so cryptic, it’s practically impossible without it. You could say that Tunic is the first “true” Zelda-like in that emulates the entire experience, not just what was inside the cartridge.

In Tunic, you really need to pay attention to every detail of your surroundings and try all sorts of things. My one clue for you: These monoliths are very important.

Based on that description, I’m confident to say that your enjoyment of Tunic will depend entirely on whether or not you like the original The Legend of Zelda. Even with the manual, exploration is like a Rubik’s cube — you wander this way and that, and you might spend 30 minutes without making much headway, until you finally discover something. The initial frustration gives way to a euphoric breakthrough. I remember I once discovered what to do with the big black towers scattered throughout the world just by pressing buttons, and it was a revelation. I later found a page in the manual that explained what to do, and I felt clever, like I broke the game a little bit. If you’re patient, this game will reward you. If you aren’t, then you’ll likely think the exploration as tedious as I thought of the combat. However, if you like uncovering a game’s world like an archeologist, layer after layer, poking at every crevice and wall, then this game is for you.

You can see the TV behind the manual, yeah?

The further you explore, the more the game slowly unravels and begins to feel more surreal, like the video game is having an out-of-body experience. For example, if you move the manual far enough to the side, you’ll notice an old TV behind it, with a pixelated version of Tunic on the screen. I don’t want to spoil the surprise, but I interpreted the game as if I was helping the game itself, as well as those who were perhaps stumped by its mysteries in the past. I quite appreciated this novel take on the genre, and I hope that Andrew Shouldice takes this meta-narrative approach further in whatever game he works on next.

Tunic has fantastic atmosphere.

Topped off with a beautiful art style and an atmospheric soundtrack, Tunic is a lovely adventure with a frustrating combat system. It’s an NES game released in 2022, with all the ups and downs that that style of game would carry. If you’re looking for a mystery-filled world that will try its best to hide its secrets, then Tunic is the game for you.

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