TUNIC review: "An undeniable gem of wondrous action-adventure"
The thrill of adventuring through strange and foreign lands should be familiar to most gamers, but very few games get the right balance of discovery and mystery. TUNIC is a title that harkens back to classic action-adventure titles like Zelda, throwing you into its world and leaving you to put together the puzzle of what to do and where to go. Simply put, this kind of game design isn't for everyone, and it can be easily frustrating if you don't click with it quickly. Consequently, TUNIC feels like it's on a tightrope throughout, but does it successfully walk the line or fall off along the way?
Big little world
TUNIC gets straight into things as the game begins, with your character - a little fox - waking up suddenly on a beach as the sun rises over the land. You're given a clear path forward at first, which leads you through the Overworld to find your first weapon and discover the environmental objects that you'll eventually become very familiar with. There's no immediate objective, but you'll quickly gain a vague idea of where you need to go while unveiling your overall purpose.
It isn't very forthcoming with information, and demands the attention of the player in a few ways to really figure out its objectives and mysteries, but this has the advantage of forcing you to engage with the world on a deeper level. It's not as opaque as something like Elden Ring, though it can be very easy to get lost and confused, but this rarely feels like a detriment to the experience. You're always given the tools you'll need to find your next goal or location, and the world is designed in a way that naturally funnels you toward the right areas.
A Link to the Past
One of the key aspects of uncovering TUNIC is its in-game instruction manual. This is very reminiscent of a trend that is long-lost in gaming, where physical manuals would provide key information like tutorials, maps, direction, hints for secrets, and more. They are treated as collectibles, and over the experience you'll have the chance to form the full guide which essentially gives you the keys to finding everything in the game. The importance of the manual is made clear as soon as you come across your first page, as it provides a quick tutorial on the game screen, and informs you of your first goal in the game - ringing two bells on each side of the world.
This makes TUNIC feel like the product of a different time, and a game with design ideas taken from before the 21st century even rolled around, but that's not to say it feels archaic. It's a very natural fit for an experience built around uncovering mystery and piecing together your interpretation of the events unfolding, and handholding the player too much would have watered down the sense of accomplishment that arrives from these eureka moments.
Another result of these design choices is a large feeling of nostalgia. Despite the games that TUNIC draws most of its inspiration from being way before my time, it recreates that feeling of revisiting an older game you loved through rose-tinted glasses, where the graphics look better and the gameplay is smoother. This is illustrated most clearly when reading the instruction manual, as it changes to a first-person view with the manual physically held in front of you. The background switches to match this, simulating the moment you were paused at on a CRT monitor that makes TUNIC look like a NES game.
TUNIC is also gorgeous to look at, from the industrial ruins of the Quarry, to the dense forests in the east. It feels similarly toy-like to the recent remake of Link's Awakening, with simple but bold colour schemes that help to clearly define each region you can explore. This is paired with a minimal aesthetic that again captures the feel of the classics that TUNIC emulates, but evolved and modernised.
Might makes right
The other side of your exploratory adventure will see you taking part in a lot of combat against a myriad of enemies and bosses. It's a simple combat system with only a few inputs, letting you attack, block, and dodge as your primary actions. You also gain a few magical items to utilise as part of your kit, like a grapple, freeze attack, and the ability to slow time. Only one of these is actually necessary to move forward through the game, but the options are nice to have in terms of carving out your own style of battle.
On top of the obvious allusions to old Zelda, there's some inspiration from the soulsborne genre in the combat. The focus around choosing to block or dodge while maintaining your stamina metre is a clear one, along with the fact that on death you lose a number of the currency you have, which needs to be picked up by returning to the location of your demise. You don't lose much each time you die so it doesn't really raise the stakes, and collecting your currency back actually causes an explosion, which can turn death into a tactical option for some encounters.
The biggest problem with the game's combat is the very sudden shift of difficulty that happens later on. Through the beginning and middle of the experience, there is a slow ramp upwards relating to how difficult the enemies and bosses are, with the pacing of this working well. You might struggle when first taking on newer challenges, but you learn the patterns and tactics you need to employ to achieve victory, with your upgrades and growing skill working in tandem. Then one of the late-game bosses completely sullies this pacing, proving for an encounter that borders on being unfair, before a large section removes all your upgrades and places you against the toughest enemies yet. This turns the end stretch into a chore to work through and after finally overcoming this section, I was too annoyed to even feel pride at working through it.
The Legend of TUNIC
TUNIC is a type of game that feels increasingly less common in this industry, and its dedication to upholding a mystery that it lets the player figure out themselves is commendable. It has an enchanting world that's well worth exploring for yourself, and the way it asks you to use the instruction manual is a breath of fresh air for engaging with a game. While it doesn't fully stick the landing thanks to some later combat sections that sour the experience, it's an undeniable gem of wondrous action-adventure.
Reviewed on PC. Code provided by the publisher.