This long-awaited indie game stars an adorable little fox, and his green apparel leaves no doubt as to where the game’s affections lie. Aesthetically and structurally, this is a Zelda tribute, with cute-yet-menacing baddies to bash with a sword and repel with a shield as you gradually uncover more and more of a sprawling world that stretches far underground and up into snowy mountain reaches, through gloomy dungeons illuminated by mysteriously glowing pools. But it is not a pale imitation. It’s a bit of a reinvention. Tunic displays not only a deep love for Nintendo’s adventure classic and games like it, but a deep and even subversive understanding of what makes them tick.
Tunic is surprisingly tough, taking just as much inspiration from Dark Souls. The world fits together like a clockwork model, full of pleasing shortcuts and hidden paths, and so pleasing to walk around that I felt compelled to draw it out in a notebook to see how it connected. Bonfire checkpoints give you somewhere safe to arise again after a death, but resting at them also respawns all the monsters around you. And like both Dark Souls and Zelda, Tunic has immense respect both for the player’s ingenuity, and for the unique magic of video games – their ability to tell a story that’s unscripted, and powered by your own curiosity, unlikely triumphs and sudden revelations.
This game doesn’t tell you anything, you see. There’s no on-screen prompt directing you how to fight or where to go. You’re always coming across things that you don’t yet understand. You’ll pick up some blue berry, or find a coin in a chest, and have no idea what to do with it until you start experimenting. You make sense of Tunic’s world by collecting the scattered pages of a manual, which you can then pore over for clues as to what you ought to be doing. But most of this manual is written in an incomprehensible runic script, with just the odd English word, leaving you to puzzle out the meaning.
This is going to feel obtuse for some players but I was in heaven, because it reminded me so exactly of what it was like paging through the manuals of mysterious Japanese SNES and N64 games that I picked up on the cheap when I was an exchange student, and was only able to pick out the occasional word here and there among the screenshots. You have to study the pages for illustrations, clues, handwritten notes, little symbols that might mean something. If you are old enough to remember the little sealed hints booklet that came with 90s adventure games – and the manuals, which I used read in bed as a child until they fell apart – this will likely be as evocative for you as it was for me.
When I wasn’t sure what to do next, I’d scour the map for areas I hadn’t yet visited, or places I’d already been that I might now see differently. Parts of Tunic’s world are gated off behind obvious barriers, but it’s usually knowledge you need, rather than a specific tool, in order to progress. The game did sometimes leave me hanging; I definitely missed out on some manual 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 an aspect of games that has been ruined by the existence of Google and online walkthroughs and even on-screen mini-maps: the mystery.
It’ll be tempting to reach for your phone and start looking for a solution when you get stuck in Tunic, but resist the impulse if you can. Just … be stuck for a while. The resultant wandering and thinking will lead you somewhere unexpected, and before you know it you’ll have found the way forward by yourself. It feels like a luxury to play a game that isn’t constantly prodding you towards the next objective, and that instead allows you the space to daydream.