Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Tunic Review

Developer: Isometricorp Games
Publisher: Finji
Platforms: PC, XBO, XBSX
Price: $30
Version Played: PC

Tunic takes me back to when I first played Zelda on NES. I lived in Puerto Rico and only knew a few English words, so I didn't understand what most of the text in the game said. There was no Internet, and I didn't have a Nintendo Power subscription yet, so my brother and I figured everything out on our own. That's what Tunic is all about. It's a game about discovering things on your own by piecing together the little bits of info the game gives you.

Simply put, Tunic is Zelda AF. Zelda as fox, that is! It's an action adventure game that takes inspiration from everything from the original Zelda on NES to Skyward Sword. It has 5 multipart dungeons, boss battles, items, rupees, and a huge interconnected overworld to explore and cut grass in. The overworld also has sections that play like dungeons and spill over into the dungeons. It's that thing Skyward Sword tried to do but never got quite right.
Tunic gives you the freedom to go wherever you want, as long as you have the items to get you there, but there is also an LttP Light World style main quest that has you collecting 3 medallions to open a door. It's a nice balance between the freedom of Zelda I and the structure of LttP. There is a story in Tunic, but the game is nowhere near as story-driven as Zelda LttP or OoT.
Dungeons have that sort of Castlevania SOTN feel to them because they're mostly about battling through rooms full of monsters to get to the next save point. Saving refills your mana, health, and potions, but also makes all the enemies respawn. That's not as bad as it sounds, though. Since dungeon layouts often loop around and have you dropping down ladders, ropes, and bridges to open paths back to the same save point you started from, you're also opening shortcuts through the dungeon when you get to a save point.
The thing that makes Tunic feel unique is its manual. No, there is no physical version. The manual in Tunic is part of the game. It's built into the UI. You find its pages all over the world, just like you'd find heart containers in a Zelda game. You don't find them in order; though, you find them around where you might need the information on them. It's not just a written tutorial, it's also your guide through the game. It looks just like an NES game manual. It's in the same shape, it's held together with staples, and it’s full of little details, like tears, folds, and little notes written all over it. It also has lots of cute drawings of the Fox hero, which look a lot like the drawings of Link in those old NES manuals. It has maps, tips and hints, and lists all the moves and items. It's a beautiful thing, but it requires effort to understand.
Tunic isn’t a game that doesn’t tell you anything, it just wants you to put some thought into it. Both the in-game text and the manual are mostly written in the game’s runic language. There are only enough English words in it to give you a hint or point you in the right direction. This is why I say it reminds me of when I first played Zelda without speaking English. This language barrier can lead to situations in which you go through a lot of the game without knowing about something you could have been doing the whole time, but that’s part of the fun of it. That's what makes this game feel like it has multiple layers to it. For example, I went through the first 2 dungeons and beat 2 major bosses without upgrading any of my stats. It made the game a lot harder than it should have been, but it taught me that I should really be looking at the manual and menus more closely. This type of design also makes the second and new game + playthroughs very different experiences.

Even though Tunic is constantly referencing Zelda, exploring this world feels different. You can't always use Zelda logic to overcome obstacles. Tunic has its own way of giving hints and guiding your eyes. Breakable walls aren't cracked, for example. While there are definitely switches to pull and keys to find, this game is more about paying attention to the way the environment is laid out and finding paths behind waterfalls, bushes, and in dark corners. Tunic has an isometric camera angle, which rarely changes, and you have very little control of, so you have to think about the environment in 3D. This mechanic of finding paths in places that aren't visible from your camera angle is used a lot, so it does become predictable very early on in the game. It got to the point where I checked every dark corner in every room of every dungeon because it just kept working. That’s just how the game is designed. Walking through these obscured paths is like fumbling around in the dark, so it's not the most fun mechanic, but these sections never last more than a few seconds, so they aren't too annoying. I wish there was more variety to the puzzles, though. An old fashioned block pushing puzzle now and then wouldn't hurt.
Combat in Tunic is more like 3D Zelda than 2D Zelda. It has a lock-on button, dodge rolls, and you have to hold down a button to use your shield. It also has a stamina meter, which is the resource used for rolling and for blocking. If you run out of stamina, you won’t be able to do either. You can still run, though, which you usually do by holding A while coming out of a roll. Blocking is useful early on in the game against enemies that shoot magic at you, but combat becomes more about rolling and using your items in creative ways as you get further into the game. I don’t want to give away any solutions, but there is a type of candle carrying enemy in one dungeon, and you can use items to put their candles out and make them a lot easier to deal with. I did have some trouble with the way rolling works since it changes depending on which way the camera is facing, and the camera constantly rotates during boss fights, but overall, I really enjoyed the combat in the game.
Tunic isn’t the most graphically impressive game, but it has style. Its low poly models and flat colors make it look like an N64 game in HD, but it looks good because of its consistent style. It's also really cute! It’s like what makes Lego sets look cool. The game also has amazing lighting, which makes everything look realistic in a toy-like way. I turned off the depth of field, but that's an option if you feel like it adds to the look. I find it distracting. I played the PC version and I did notice a little bit of stuttering at times, but I think it was just loading. It ran locked at 165 FPS and 1440p most of the time.
Tunic has a very soothing and catchy soundtrack. I think it works perfectly for the game and it often got stuck in my head. It’s not something I’d listen to on its own, though. Well, maybe if I was looking for beats to relax/study to. The sound effects are also pretty well done, but there’s definitely room for improvement. All the enemies and items make some kind of sound, and you can hear water flowing and wind blowing, but not all surfaces have unique footstep sounds, and sometimes things in the environment don’t make any noise at all, which is very noticeable when you’re dropping down a bridge or ladder.

I don’t want to oversell it, but I think this game is amazing! I’ve played great Zelda-likes in the past, but I think this might be my favorite. It’s the way the game integrates the manual that I love so much. It’s not just a great Zelda-like, it’s also replicating that experience my brother and I had playing Zelda for the first time and discovering everything on our own. It’s 2 great experiences rolled into one. I’ve never played anything quite like this. I'd buy some kind of special edition with a physical manual in a heartbeat, and I hope there's more Tunic in the future.