Tunika’s first moments confused us into thinking that a derivative awaited us Zelda-like adventure. On the beach, a tiny fox-like figure wakes up, wearing a green tunic resembling a certain hero. From the angle of the isometric camera, this fox (known as the Ruin Seeker) finds a sword and soon a blue and red shield. It certainly won’t be long before we discover boomerangs and puzzle arches – but such item-based puzzles never came out. Instead, Tunic combines its identity with a handful of ingeniously unique mechanics and combat pulled from that bottomless well of a project that independent developers have yet to dry up: Dark Souls.
You’ve seen it before: the stamina bar determines how much, as a Ruin Seeker, you can block or avoid attacks, and when you die – so do you will be die – the echo of your body can be retrieved to recover the gold you lost after dying. Spending this gold with the appropriate upgrade in hand increases Attack, Life, Endurance, and so on. Your sword has a simple three-hit combo, but the complexity of fighting Slorms and Chompingnomes comes from recognizing attack patterns, using invincibility frames in dodging throws, and parrying if you’re brave. Throw in a handful of magical items and you’ll never get bored in this 15-hour adventure.
However, you’ll spend the vast majority of your time in Tunic exploring beautiful, detailed surroundings for a soundtrack that wouldn’t be out of place on a lo-fi learning playlist. From ancient forests to underground sci-fi ziggurats, they exist a lot of little secrets to discover. Most of the time, the isometric perspective hides secrets and shortcuts under bridges and behind stairs, rewarding persistent players who explore every nook and cranny. These zones never require you to push blocks onto switches or lower and raise the water level to move on, but rather a detailed study of the in-game manual – by far the Tunic’s most unique feature.
The lost pages of this manual are scattered all over the world. Some pages show simple controls like turning, locking and the like, while others show maps of certain areas and develop the story. It is here on these wonderfully drawn pages that Tunic hides tips and tricks on how to navigate the world; just by browsing these pages you can find out where to go and what to do. It’s a brilliant idea that’s even more engaging and mysterious thanks to the invented Tunic language. You don’t need to analyze the language, just translate it to give you a rough idea of what’s going on, but it strengthens the old school undergrowth and discovery that runs through the game.
About two-thirds of Tunic is exploration and learning from the textbook to ring that bell then find that medallion by battling a group of enemies, smashing through a handful of bosses, and uncovering more mechanics secrets in the game. Seriously, we had no idea what was happening to the skill card system for more than half of the game, and it took an embarrassing amount of time to learn pairing – and we don’t consider that negative. On the contrary, we liked how few hands the game provided.
In the second third installment, Tunic reverses expectations both narratively and mechanically in a way that we won’t spoil here, but has reinvested us into the game despite believing we’ve come to the end. All of this stacks up in the final boss fight where we somehow refrained from breaking our Pro Controller in half over our two dozen failed attempts. Multiple accessibility options, including “No Defeat” mode and reduced combat difficulty, are available for those who find the bosses’ sudden spikes in difficulty too great. Personally, overcoming these challenges has given us satisfaction, but we must admit that some bosses have strayed a little too far into the realm of injustice.
But how does it all work? After all, the Tunic was made for much more powerful hardware with 4K output at 60 frames per second. Unfortunately, the Switch port does have a few issues that make it hard to recommend if you have a different way to play. Namely, the reduced resolution darkens the vibrating world, giving the whole experience a “fuzzy” sheen in a game that is clearly intended to have defined edges and clear views. Manual mode alleviates that a bit, and if you haven’t seen game footage running on a different platform, and if you’re comfortable with 30fps, those caveats might not bother you either.
However, you will notice when the game freezes for a second or two during more hectic boss fights; it never happened to us against ordinary enemies, but quite often it happened in the final fights in each zone. It did not cause us to receive blows that we would not otherwise have received, nor did it interrupt our progress in any way, but it irritated us nonetheless. Hope a patch or two can fix this.
You are wrong to assume that the cute fox-like hero and colorful world suggests that Tunic is a relaxing little adventure for all ages – that’s all else. The tunic requires a lot of intuitive thinking and patience to navigate its beautiful world thanks to the ingenious in-game instruction manual. Combined with a merciless combat system that punishes impatience and rewards balanced research of opponents, Tunic is a game made for people familiar with old school adventures and experienced in difficult, sometimes frustrating sword fighting. Considering all of this and its obvious Hylian inspiration, and even with some unfortunate performance issues and obvious drops compared to versions on other platforms, Tunic feels at home on the Nintendo console and we recommend it as a creative and concise adventure that both draws and develops on several prestigious inspirations.