At the time of writing I have finished but not completed Tunic. Cryptic. I urge you to play it with as few spoilers as possible.
When was the last time you felt a genuine sense of wonder? It is a feeling often associated with memories of childhood. Wide eyed children encountering something for the very first time loom large in our stories and popular culture. We strive for that feeling. We yearn for new experiences. We try to recapture that feeling from childhood. The truth of course is that it comes when we least expect it. For me it came in the form of a game called Tunic from Tunic Team, published by Finji.
You wake up on a beach, yawn and stretch and try to come alive. You brush the sand out of your bushy tail and sort out your ears. You smell the sea and forest on the wind, feel the sand between your paws, the breeze ruffles your fur.
A set of stairs leads off the beach, the only way off this bit of land and you don’t really fancy a swim. You make your way inland. The landscape seems to steer you in certain directions. Pushing your way through grass, you find your way blocked by a thicket you cannot pass. The local wildlife objects to your presence.
You backtrack to the safety of a small house, seemingly abandoned. Inside you find a hefty stickl, maybe enough to deal with some of the creatures you’ve met. You find a locked door to the east, past a sign marked “Hero’s Grave” with a picture of a sword on it. A sword could surely make short work of those thickets you’ve found. You search deeper inland and find a key. The door clicks open and you make your way to the east. A glowing object lies in front of you. You pick it up. Is this a manual? A guide? A puzzle?
I hope I have given you a brief sense of the feeling of exploration and discovery that Tunic gives its players. I can tell you no more of it without spoilers so let’s look at it by way of comparison. It has been put alongside games like Zelda, Dark Souls, and Fez and certainly there are elements of all those games in this odd world. It’s a world that does not hold your hand, cares not for moments of frustration, and rewards you at every turn for engaging with its spirit of exploration.
I have never played anything like Tunic. It does evoke some of the reveals and exploration of Zelda, the brutal difficulty spikes of Dark Souls, and the odd little puzzles of Fez. However it really is its own thing, and some of those comparisons feel unfair.
Fez for instance I liked but you really had to spend some time outside of the game trying to figure out some of its tricks. It was snooty in the way it looked down on players that did not want to spend ages solving its esoteric puzzles. Tunic keeps information contained within its boundaries, slowly teaching you what you can do through the pages of a manual. The manual evokes that of 90s computer games, full of straight information, hidden secrets, and cryptic messages. The manual is not even written in a recognisable language, the same runic script present in the game, is the language of the manual. The occasional English word or sentence guiding you to the meaning of each page. Is the manual part of the game world? Is it outside of it? Is it both?
Many games have been compared to the cultural phenomenon that is Dark Souls, often without much warrant. It has become a shortcut to say a game is incredibly difficult and unforgiving. Tunic does have some brutal difficulty spikes, I cannot deny that is the case. One of these was so bad that I thought it might be an optional sidequest. That said I never felt the game was ‘unfair’ just that I needed to learn a little more, play a little better, pore over the manual once more to see if I could gain an advantage.
The Zelda comparisons are certainly easy to see the reasoning behind. Adorable cartoon world? Check. Open World? Check. Cute green clothed protagonist? Check. Other things I can’t tell you about without extensive spoilers? Check. It’s a beautiful game that wants to be explored. Demands to have its buttons pushed and its secrets uncovered.
Tunic is a game about asking you to explore. It truly feels like a new world you have arrived in with only an inkling of the language, and no real idea what you want to do or achieve. Strange signs point towards destinations you don’t know how to get to. If there once friendly people here they seem to have been replaced by creatures bent on your destruction. You’ll discover treasures you don’t know what to do with, but may become the most important thing you possess. You’ll discover new tools, new paths, strange places, and the hidden history of the world.
Tunic has made me laugh, swear, gasp in wonder, feel intense frustration and glorious success. The design team behind it had a clear vision for what they wanted to build and executed it perfectly. There is not one unnecessary detail, no pixel out of place, not a word misused. If Tunic isn’t my computer game of the year I’ll be very, very surprised.
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