Jhis long-awaited indie game stars an adorable little fox, and his green clothes leave no doubt as to where the game’s affections lie. Aesthetically and structurally, he’s a homage to Zelda, with cute but menacing villains to strike with a sword and repel with a shield as you gradually discover a sprawling world that stretches deep underground and up into the snowy mountains, through dark dungeons illuminated by mysteriously glowing pools. But this is not a pale imitation. It’s a bit of a reinvention. Tunic not only displays a deep love for Nintendo’s adventure classic and similar games, but a deep and even subversive understanding of what drives them.
The tunic is surprisingly tough, drawing inspiration from Dark Souls just as much. The world fits together like a clockwork model, full of pleasant shortcuts and hidden paths, and so pleasant to navigate that I felt compelled to draw it in a notebook to see how it connected. Bonfire checkpoints give you a safe place to pick yourself up after a death, but resting there also causes any monsters around you to respawn. And like Dark Souls and Zelda, Tunic has immense respect for both player ingenuity and the unique magic of video games – their ability to tell an unscripted story fueled by your own curiosity, unlikely triumphs and sudden revelations.
This game means nothing to you, you see. There are no on-screen prompts telling you how to fight or where to go. You always come across things that you don’t yet understand. You’ll pick up a blue berry or find a coin in a chest and won’t know what to do with it until you start experimenting. You make sense of the world of Tunic by putting together the scattered pages of a manual, which you can then sift through for clues about what you should do. But most of this manual is written in incomprehensible runic script, with just one odd English word, leaving you to guess the meaning.
This is going to sound obtuse to some gamers, but I was over the moon because it reminded me so exactly of what it was like to leaf through the manuals for mysterious Japanese SNES and N64 games I had bought on the cheap when I was exchange student. , and could only spot the occasional word here and there among the screenshots. You must study the pages looking for illustrations, clues, handwritten notes, small symbols that might mean something. If you’re old enough to remember the little booklet of sealed clues that came with 90s adventure games – and manuals, which I read in bed as a kid until they s are collapsing – this will probably mean as much to you as it does to me. .
When I wasn’t sure what to do next, I scoured the map to find areas I hadn’t visited yet, or places I had already visited that I could now see differently. Parts of the world of Tunic are locked behind obvious barriers, but it’s usually knowledge you need, rather than a specific tool, to progress. The game left me hanging at times; I’ve definitely missed some man pages somehow, and arrived at a few crucial solutions or locations through aimless backtracking or sheer luck. The manual does just enough to point you in the right direction, but you have to figure out the game’s many secrets for yourself. This is one aspect of games that has been ruined by the existence of Google and online walkthroughs and even on-screen minimaps: the mystery.
It will be tempting to pick up your phone and start looking for a solution when you get stuck in Tunic, but resist the impulse if you can. Just… being stuck for a while. The resulting wandering and thinking will take you to an unexpected place, and before you know it, you’ll have found the way forward on your own. It’s like a luxury to play a game that doesn’t constantly push you towards the next goal, and instead gives you space to dream.