This isometric adventure shares similarities with Nintendo’s recent Link’s Awakening remake, borrowing its soft visual style and central premise of a tunic-clad hero waking on a mysterious island. A great power dwells nearby, but to find and wield it correctly, three magical keys must be obtained from the island’s furthest reaches – Tunic’s equivalent of the Triforce shards, more or less.
Despite this, Tunic isn’t a brazen clone of Link’s re-awakening. Far removed, in fact. Its fundamentals are far more unique, making for a remarkably different experience; one that’s also able to ‘link us to the past’ in some surprisingly innovative ways.
Inducing a great sense of mystery, in-game text is primarily formed from a fictitious ancient language, with only key locations and abbreviations (MP, HP, etc) shown. This recalls the days of playing untranslated import RPGs – the kind championed in the likes of Super Play magazine, regardless of the language barrier. This isn’t as counterintuitive as it may initially seem – the basics easily to decipher; an extra layer of intrigue simply surrounds the rest.
As bizarre as it may sound, the whole experience is designed around the game’s digital manual. How this idea came to light is nothing short of ingenious – it singlehandedly makes Tunic stand apart from its peers. Pages from the manual – a full colour affair, clearly intended to resemble an NES/Famicom instruction book – are scattered around the island, with a focus on finding them all.
As you’d expect, the first few pages, found within the opening area, are enough to get you started. Then, more complex elements are slowly introduced, whether it’s an ominous structure found within the environment or a sealed doorway. To understand their purposes, you’ll need to seek additional pages – some of which are well hidden.
This drip-feed of new information further enforces Tunic’s impeccable design, later teaching how to use powers that have been available from the outset. The map screen is invaluable, in particular, compensating somewhat for the absence of a quest log or guide. If you’re unsure where to head next, or feel like you’ve overlooked something, scouring the manual – right down to the hints within its margins – will likely put you back on track, with a renewed sense of purpose to boot.
Again, the manual is a great source of nostalgia, recalling the days when instruction books included way more than just a controller layout. It’s brilliantly drawn and very well observed, being a mixture of ‘Pigeon English’ and simple diagrams. Some of the smaller details will likely raise a grin.
The use of a fictitious language and the reliance on using a manual to progress are two ideas that work in tandem harmoniously, complimenting the other in ways unimaginable prior to experiencing Tunic for yourself.
The isometric perspective allows for a magnitude of secrets, hidden passages, and shortcuts. And yes, this includes treasures located behind waterfalls. Almost every screen has at least one secret to find, some of which can be discovered by taking advantage of the lock-on feature that raises the camera slightly. You’ll soon learn to check behind walls for possible hidden stashes, some of which contain vital upgrade tokens. You may even have to allocate time to treasure hunting – the bosses are tough, requiring a supply of consumables to beat.
The skewwhiff perspective does create a handful of problems, however. It’s very easy to overlook routes to new locations, with the bleak quarry location – which ushers in a sense of dread and despair – also requiring an adjustment in the contrast settings to help find paths. When coupled with the lack of prompts, its likely some unnecessarily backtracking will occur. I do wonder how younger gamers will find Tunic as the cute lead character and vibrant visuals soon give way to a surprisingly dark and challenging experience. There are at least accessibility options to mitigate the difficulty spikes found within boss battles and general combat.
The combat system takes time to master, too, open to some welcome experimentation. Our hero can roll and lock- on, and their actions are governed by a stamina bar. When low, damage becomes more substantial. Enemies have attack patterns and it’s vital to study these instead of going in blind. Bombs and firecrackers can kill some enemies instantly – it’s possible to ‘aggro’ large crowds and deal with them with a single well- timed bomb. Turrets will harm enemies too. Throw a lure into the mix, and you’ll find plenty of chances to leave situations unscathed, no matter how unnumbered you are.
Adding a few modern touches, health can be replenished via consumable flasks – refilled at checkpoints – and every death results in leaving a shadowy remnant behind. Collect this, and you’ll regain some lost currency. Yes, we’re in Souls- like territory – another reason why the early comparisons with Link’s Awakening aren’t entirely valid. Tunic has some hefty visual clout too and is accompanied by a stirring musical score. The idyllic island spans seashores with visible fish, ruined villages that nature has reclaimed, and dense forests where sunlight can barely penetrate the canopy of leaves.
The fact that the initial sense of intrigue never really passes makes for an unforgettable experience – so little is spelled out, and your hand held so loosely, that even within its final moments an air of mystery still lingers. Tunic is nostalgia, yet modern. Simple, yet complex. You will get lost at some point, and there may be moments where want to admit defeat, but this only serves to make eventual victories all the sweeter. Like Dark Souls, and more recently Elden Ring, every player will have their own unique tales to share. The only thing missing is the distinctive smell of a fresh manual.
Tunic is out now on Steam, Xbox One and Xbox Series.