I am very small and I have no money
In Tunic, you awaken on a shoreline as a tiny fox with a stick. You don’t know who you are, what to do next, or how to do it. And yet, being given almost the opposite of assistance, you find yourself on a familiar adventure where everything slots into place.
Initially, everything in Tunic is indecipherable. Item descriptions, signposts and even the HUD are in a strange runic language that is only decoded after you pick up mysterious pages of an old game manual – this game’s manual. Gradually as you collect these pages, items and UI begins to make more sense, but the brilliance of the initial opening is that you don’t need it. Potion bottles holding red liquid, bombs with a long fuse, an artefact shaped like a heart; we’ve all used and played with these items all our lives. Tunic first asks you to follow your muscle memory from all adventure games: find items, find the sword, hit the baddies. It was a remarkably fresh exploration of my understanding of video games, and made the whole world feel alien and familiar simultaneously.
As the game progresses however, this growing manual does become more practical as new items crop up achieving different goals. Only by flicking through mismatching pages collected out of order could I discover how to bring certain objects to checkpoint shrines, up my stats, or get an edge in battle. The arrival of a game map is a breath of fresh air, only for you to discover a map you won’t need for hours of gameplay later, or a guide for a weapon you’ve not even picked up yet. Tunic isn’t the meta experience that’ll melt your brain, but it does play with the idea of immersion and creates a level of self-awareness I loved. The manual even includes tips and tricks, making it not just a gimmick but often a vital tool I had to open again and again to re-orient myself and understand what to do next. Also, it looks lovely.
The feeling of discovery doesn’t end in its drip-feed of information, as discovery and curiosity seems to be built into the DNA of the entire experience. Tunic has a lot, and I mean a lot, of secrets. As a player who adores finding them, this felt tailored to me. Is there something behind that waterfall? Of course there is. That dark corner looks suspicious, is it a secret passage? You bet. The game’s isometric camera comes with a tilting feature that often gives you the slight edge to spot things you normally wouldn’t: chests round the corner, an underlying shortcut, or an enemy about to get the jump on you. Tunic rewards the player for doing that extra check, using our adventure gaming intuition to find those nooks and crannies we’ve been searching around for decades.
These secrets aren’t isolated to what you find along the way: the world of Tunic widens to allow hours of further exploration, finding secrets through more difficult methods primarily involving various puzzles. I am not close to discovering all of these, and it’s viable to cut through the middle of the game sticking to your quest. However, it’s very difficult not to stray from the path and have the urge to know what’s in that cave, or round that corner.
The main quest and gameplay of Tunic at the core of these manual pages and charming secrets are not quite as adventurous. While I believe these mechanics add a new flair to the classic Zelda experience, you won’t get much change from swiping with your sword, blocking with your shield, getting frustrated with target lock-on, and popping a dodge-roll every now and then. Bombs and other items give you an edge, and I did enjoy a lot of the enemy designs, but combat generally felt quite flat. Difficulty seems to shift up and down randomly, with some dungeons presenting themselves as your worst nightmare, but then keeling over like a puppy. Meanwhile, I’d move onto a new area and find myself frustrated with enemies along the way presented as light chores but hit like a mini-boss.
As evidenced from the screenshots I’m plastering across this review, Tunic looks incredible. The 3D art has a physical texture to it, and lighting through foliage onto charming environments never failed to put a spring in my step. Its blend of ancient ruins and purple magic has a classic Zelda feel, but with a high quality that makes every frame look like a university student’s 3D art project. Enemies have an often adorable, lumbering physicality that have distinctive looks to tell everything apart, and recognize attacks. Its bursting with colour, and each zone had a unique tone that can strike you when accidentally stumbling across them far too early in the game, as I sometimes did. While I wasn’t thrilled by Tunic’s combat, exploration definitely steals attention when you’re exploring a world just this beautiful.
Tunic takes the adventure gamer’s perception of genre, rips it up, and asks the player to stitch it back together. Not just winky meta fun, but a truly joyous new look into old Zelda tropes we thought were dead and buried. While the core mechanics don’t evolve much from its reflected classics, the amount of curiosity and improvisation proved to be a recurring well of entertainment. You truly feel like a tiny fox in a video game trying its best, and answers the question: what if every waterfall had a secret?