It’s been over thirteen years since the first Souls game was released and I am yet to play a single entry. This has been a source of much frustration to those at JDR who adore the series but until now I simply haven’t had the spoons to commit to something that seemed so utterly brutal. And in truth, I still don’t. However, Tunic makes a decent case for diving in. It isn’t anything to do with the Soulsborne genre, but it cribs so much from Miyazaki’s playbook that it might as well have a membership card to the AGM. Call it a “gateway to the Soul”, if you like — I certainly do and, honestly, it’s bloody excellent.
You are a fox. I mean that literally in this case, though that shouldn’t stop us from loving ourselves. Your foxy aim is to rescue your foxy mother from a dome-like energy prison by ringing bells, unlocking doors and collecting gems to activate monuments. Why is she there? Why are you the one championing this cause? Who knows, that’s not important. Like the series Tunic riffs off, discovery of the world’s lore is part of the fun. Will you get all of the answers? Probably not, unless you’re willing to invest serious time in deciphering the game’s completely unique runic language (one Reddit user has already given it a decent go). Even without that step, progression is still possible thanks to the pages of an instruction manual you’ll find perfectly spaced out along your journey. This is constructed like a NES booklet, should there be any doubt about the inspiration for the colourful isometric aesthetic, and it comes complete with scribbled notes to assist you — like the ones you made as a kid before learning you’d wiped £40 off the game’s resale value.
Playing Tunic will be familiar to anyone who’s picked up a Zelda game. You have a basic sword attack, a shield, and a whole load of different consumable items to wreak havoc on the game’s enemies. Later on you’ll get magical items with charges, but their usage and effectiveness varies. You can only map three items to face buttons at once which means that you need to be very careful not to accidentally spam one of the rarer items you have equipped. Sure, you can buy more from a shop with the currency you get from killing monsters or opening chests, however, relying on this will lead you into grind mode. Dying, like in Dark Souls, will leave a spirit version of your foxy corpse where you fell. Getting back to the point of death and interacting with it will recoup the twenty tokens you lost when you were slain. If you don’t make it back before dying again, say goodbye to that cash. And as with Dark Souls you can save at specific markers — in this case, a shrine replaces a bonfire — but doing so will regenerate all enemies you’ve killed to that point except bosses.
All of this adds up to a challenging game, and players expecting a Link’s Awakening vibe are likely to baulk at the difficulty. There is no in-game map, of course. You’re expected to either make a mental note of where you’ve been or write it down. This did cause me some early frustration when I found an item I needed to use in a previously discovered location but couldn’t for the life of me remember how to get back to. My real-life sense of direction is shoddy at the best of times; asking me to recall a series of routes in a fantasy world is a recipe for disaster. Thankfully, shortcuts are frequent enough to make backtracking less of a burden. Bridges can be lowered and ropes dropped to help you climb or trudge back later, cutting out swathes of monster-infested areas. In some cases this resulted in head-slapping moments where I’d gone through a sewer crawling with spiders multiple times, only to realise I could have taken a more direct route via a rope I’d found earlier. Moments like this really cement the expert construction of Tunic’s puzzle box world.
Along with smart navigational choices in its design, the fixed isometric viewpoint means it is almost always worth scouring every crevice of a screen.The developer has hidden chests, shops and paths out of your sight line; squeezing the left trigger will give you a slightly skewed angle of the game world and open things up a little, but ultimately it’s down to you to sniff out goodies as much as possible. And this is often necessary since you won’t get stronger unless you find consumables. Even working out how to use these is a puzzle in itself, and one that I won’t spoil here. However, the sense of progression is real as your HP, defence, attack and other stats slowly get punted up and the creatures you come across get gradually easier to handle.
While the majority of enemies have either standard melee or ranged attacks and can be pummelled into submission (or blocked and then pummelled), the boss fights are another thing entirely. Both huge and beautiful, they serve up multiple attack patterns to learn and avoid. Your dodge roll grants you invulnerability for a second or two and you will be very grateful for it. However, bosses are relentless. The camera will spin around their arenas with the kind of frenetic energy that results in hand cramp as you desperately wait for your moment to jump in and strike at their weak spots. All of this action is accompanied by marvellous earworms of various tempos and no voice acting at all — it isn’t needed and would puncture the game’s mystique. It does mean that the RPG elements are incredibly light. You won’t be hitting up NPCs for quests or a general natter. The world is you and a bunch of enemies. Deal with it.
What’s more, it looks truly gorgeous. Both overworld and underworld are distinct and the overworld areas in particular are markedly different. Enemy types in each are distinct enough not to feel like reskins and the puzzles for navigating them are varied and cleverly signposted through colour and sometimes sound. Telescopes give you a zoomed out view of the current locale but, in general, you’ll be relying on your smarts.
What this means is that Tunic is a game full of secrets waiting to be discovered. The order in which you discover them can result in success or disaster, since most areas are accessible from the outset and the difficulty won’t be apparent until you’re one-hit killed by a spear-wielding git. You can hit up a walkthrough if you desire, but I found the exploration to be refreshing and the game world was not so large that backtracking became a burden. Every new button press I discovered through the manual pieces became a delight. Even when I’d accidentally found a way to make my foxy companion do something, it wasn’t clear how that action was used until I’d read the page which discussed it. And at that point, whole other areas were opened up to me. In short, developer Andrew Shouldice has created a genuine sense of wonder and possibility in Tunic which I’ve not felt since playing Disco Elysium.
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