Initially, I thought Tunic was little more than a reverential homage to The Legend of Zelda. Its isometric viewpoint might skew from the top-down perspective used in early Zelda games like A Link to the Past, but the other similarities will be immediately familiar to anyone who’s ever embarked on a Hyrulian adventure before. Both Link and Tunic’s adorable fox protagonist have a proclivity for wielding a sword and shield while donning green clothing and exploring all manner of abandoned temples and dense woodland.
Tunic’s first 30-minutes or so do little to dispel the comparisons. Gradually, however, this begins to change. Before long, you’ll find yourself desperately fighting to survive, emerging from tense and engaging battles with only a sliver of health left, all while uncovering the compellingly abstruse secrets of this mysterious world. As it turns out, Tunic has less in common with Zelda than it initially seems. Instead, it’s a genuine Souls-like.
Combat might capture the familiar look and feel of Link’s fisticuffs–the camera zooms in as you lock-on and swing your sword from side-to-side to vanquish your foes–but it’s all stamina-based. A meter determines how often you can roll out of danger and absorb damage with your shield before being knocked back, leaving you wide open to a devastating counter-attack. Managing your stamina is key to staying alive since once the meter runs dry, any wounds you sustain do 50% more damage than they usually would. Fortunately, attacking doesn’t consume any of your stamina, it only halts the refilling process, creating a compelling incentive to be proactive when the situation calls for it.
There are a variety of enemy types, too, each with their own unique attack patterns and defensive maneuvers. Learning their routines and knowing when to attack, dodge, and block becomes the core of Tunic’s combat. It’s all fairly simplistic on the surface, with one button used to perform a basic three-hit combo, but when you’re in the heat of battle, forced to manage groups of diverse enemies despite your ever-dwindling stamina meter, it’s nail-bitingly tense and, ultimately, rewarding when you manage to emerge victorious.
Like other games in the genre, Tunic is punishingly difficult. While this is partly due to how demanding its combat often is, it’s also because it adopts a familiar structure to From Software’s games. As you explore Tunic’s varied world, you’ll discover shrines that refill your health bar and replenish your healing items. The catch is that resting at these shrines also respawns all of the enemies you may have previously defeated. Falling in battle will return you to the last shrine you visited, costing you all of your accumulated wealth unless you can return to the site of your death and recover it before perishing again. This is all derivative, of course, but this structure still works in Tunic’s favor. Knowing you could lose all of your precious upgrade materials because of a fatal mistake in combat increases the tension of each fight, just as discovering a new shrine is uplifting after venturing through a lengthy dungeon.
The level design is also excellent, with shortcuts hidden throughout its interconnected world and labyrinthine dungeons cleverly obscured by the game’s isometric point-of-view. Boss fights are a particular highlight, too, demanding a proficiency of Tunic’s combat while increasing the sense of scale to make for some truly spectacular battles. You’ll be ducking and weaving between scything blows from a ruined sentry, using your shield to block a scavenger’s rifle fire, and clashing swords with an ethereal figure.
One of the key areas where Tunic deviates from the Souls-like genre is by adding a couple of difficulty options. By entering the game’s accessibility menu, you can choose to either remove the stamina mechanic altogether so you can attack and defend ad infinitum, or turn on god mode so you can never die–and this doesn’t disable achievements either. Although both options alter the game considerably, they help to remove the barrier to entry if you’re interested in Tunic but don’t want to get stuck on an insurmountable boss or a particularly tough dungeon. You can turn both options on or off at any time as well, making them a perfect way to get through the game’s most trying moments. They’re not something you should lean on straight away since they do impact the satisfaction of combat by removing much, if not all, of the challenge. But if you want to see the game through to its conclusion and can’t, it’s worth toying around with these options.
However, none of the difficulty options help when it comes to Tunic’s overt opaqueness. From the game’s earliest moments, you’re given no direction, and all of the signposts use a language you don’t understand. To make sense of where you are and what you’re supposed to do next, you’ll need to find the lost pages of an instruction manual–remember them?–scattered throughout the world.
These pages are utterly fantastic, both in their execution and ingenuity. Each one looks like it was pulled from an instruction manual from the early ’90s, complete with coffee stains and handwritten notes–presumably from the person who rented the game before you. They’re still mostly in this obscure language, so you’re left to interpret what they’re telling you by the images and the few recognizable words that exist. In a lot of ways, it’s reminiscent of flipping through the pages of an instruction booklet from an imported game, trying to decipher its mechanics when you can’t read Japanese.
I didn’t initially realize the importance of these pages until it was too late for my own good. After throwing myself at the first boss over 20 different times, I defeated the mechanized pain-in-the-neck only to discover the instruction manual’s page of contents. With this in hand, I noticed that one of the pages I’d already collected was titled “Increasing your power,” which detailed how some of the items I found weren’t used to provide temporary buffs like I originally thought, but could be used in conjunction with Tunic’s currency to permanently upgrade various attributes at any of the game’s shrines. With an increased health bar, improved defense, and a more potent attack, the first boss’ sudden difficulty spike made a lot more sense. Don’t get me wrong, Tunic is still challenging, but you can at least keep up with the power curve when you know how to decipher this meta-game layer.
With this knowledge in my possession, I started paying closer attention to each of the pages I uncovered. Most of them display maps for the various locations you’ll visit, while others offer combat tips and enemy descriptions. The most interesting pages, however, delve into Tunic’s many secrets by offering subtle hints and clues. Figuring out these conundrums is particularly rewarding, not least because it means you’ll be exploring every nook and cranny of Tunic’s gorgeous environments.
Much of the game looks completely tactile, almost like it’s an extravagant diorama. Grass and bushes are reminiscent of foam, gently wobbling from side to side when you brush by, and many of its structures appear as though they were molded from clay. The overall art style is simultaneously simple and detailed, with modern effects like realistic lighting and shadows–or the way water reflects off the walls in the sewer–adding a contemporary edge to an aesthetic that’s otherwise evocative of the 16-bit era.
These secrets–and Tunic’s level design, art style, and pacing–capture a fantastic sense of discovery and wonder. That could be because you figured out how to teleport to a looming tower that features a boss battle on its roof, high above the clouds; used a classic cheat code to open a locked door that’s been bugging you for hours; or descended into the murky underground depths where reanimated skeletons and magic-wielding frogs rule the roost. The only downside to exploration is that fast travel is oddly restrictive, which makes returning to previously visited areas and searching for secrets more arduous than it should be. It’s also somewhat common to find yourself stuck behind obstacles, requiring a restart to the beginning of the area.
A few blemishes aside, the eight-year wait for Tunic has been completely worth it. If you could lay out all of its pieces separately like a broken puzzle, each one might seem derivative. However, when you put all the pieces together to create a full picture, they make for a game that’s quite unlike anything else.
Most Souls-likes tend to adopt a grimdark fantasy aesthetic, but Tunic harkens back to the 8- and 16-bit eras by presenting a vibrant and colorful world that also offers a fiendishly difficult challenge. It’s not simply evocative of games from the late ’80s and early ’90s because it creates facsimiles of their graphics or gameplay, but because it manages to capture a tangible feeling of exploration and difficulty, where an instruction manual is your tool to deciphering everything. It’s the kind of game you would’ve purchased because the box art looked cool, eagerly flipping through the pages of its manual on the car ride home, not quite understanding it all but getting excited at the possibilities all the same. In Tunic’s case, this grand adventure lives up to the expectations.