In today’s media landscape, it’s rare we are allowed to discover something on our own. Trailers are ubiquitous, often going far out of their way to give potential consumers a run down of nearly the entire movie, TV episode, or videogame in their ever-lengthening runtime. With so many things fighting for your limited time and attention, it’s an understandable if regrettable dilemma to face. Going in without any prior knowledge can easily lead to disappointment, but sometimes it enhances the experience, shattering your expectations and leading to something truly special.
I’ve been lucky enough to have this experience with the recently released Tunic, and you should too. In a perfect world my review would end there: “Don’t listen to a single thing and just play it,” I say, shoving you off the website sticking both thumbs up. But I know that for some people, that isn’t enough; you want to make sure this game is truly worth your time and money, and I do understand. So without really getting into the mushrooms and plums of the game, I’d like to explain to you why Tunic is an experience unlike any other.
Created over the past seven years almost solely by Canadian developer Andrew Shouldice and published by Finji, Tunic yearns to remind players of the golden days of gaming. The action-adventure title will certainly draw comparisons to the Legend of Zelda series, and for good reason: One look at the green-clad fox you control promptly divulges Shouldice’s love for the Nintendo franchise. The adoration stems far beyond a simple outfit homage though—the game’s oblique design evokes the same feelings of wonderment and exploration found in the ‘86 original.
Without so much as a text scroll for context, Tunic drops you into its mysterious world and forces you to roam. Everything you do after waking up on a beach is up to you; although many paths forward present themselves, you often lack the item or ability to use them. Throughout the many hours of play—my playthrough ran around 12-13 hours—a narrative does tease itself out as you gather collectibles and familiarize yourself with the world, but talking about it would be a major disservice to those who want to suss it out for themselves.
That’s the issue with discussing Tunic: the experience is so focused on discovery that spoilers feel more destructive than usual. A lot of my enjoyment came from bumbling around the world until I stumbled onto a secret that, in retrospect, was perfectly obvious. A hidden pathway, a unique combination of items, the blatant solution to a puzzle I had spent valuable minutes and brainpower to solve all produced this euphoric anger within me. A sort of cocktail of “how the hell does someone think this shit up” mixed with “I’m a genius for solving this” with a splash of “I’m an idiot for not getting this sooner.” Everything in the world is meticulously designed around this cycle, creating an addicting loop of puzzle-solving that hooked me more than I would care to admit.
The world feels worn and lived in, the many open treasure chests and broken pathways indicate that you’re not the first explorer to pass through. Enemies litter your path, constantly reminding you that you are an invader in their habitats, a strange fox in a strange land. The dubious trailblazing pairs perfectly with the ethereal and hypnotic score by Lifeformed and Janice Kwan, illustrating the simultaneous grandiosity and intimacy of the journey. The isometric view and diorama-esque design cultivate the sense of running around a toy-box, which uncomfortably juxtaposes with the underlying darkness lurking just out of reach.
The locales you pass through range from forest to deeper forest to cult church to illegal mining facility, each one distinctive and teeming with secrets. Although there are other ways around it, the overworld is small enough to traverse entirely by foot, and the roll/sprint mechanic modernizes the otherwise retro-inspired experience. Even the upgrades you acquire seamlessly fit themselves into your playstyle, making exploration a joyous breeze near the endgame.
Tunic isn’t all cute and vibrant graphics though: it’s a difficult experience through and through. Although combat is relatively simple—you swing a sword, chuck various elemental bombs, and cast magic here and there—it also demands specificity, forcing players to think through each encounter rather than mashing toward victory. You freely place weapons or items on the X, Y, and B buttons, and A controls the life-saving (if sometimes finicky) roll mechanic. Basic enemies can kill you if you act recklessly, but fights never feel unfair; even the most frustrating bosses have countless solutions, you just have to be willing to experiment.
This is around the point where you may be going “hold on, this sounds a bit like Dark Souls.” Yes, FromSoft’s games clearly influenced Shouldice: you lose currency when you die and can reclaim it upon respawn; you heal using single-use magic potions that recharge when saving at vigils, which also causes enemies to respawn; and you open new shortcuts throughout the overworld to make your life easier. Wrap all that up with the obscure level design, difficult combat and cryptic lore, and it sounds like people will refer to Tunic as the new Dark Souls of indie games. But this categorization does the entire experience a disservice—the game lacks the ambivalence and grit of a true Soulsborne because it wants you to succeed.
Much like a child, Tunic wants to let you in on its secrets; it entices you to resolve its riddles and excavate its enigmas. Shouldice places nearly everything required in plain sight, you just often lack the understanding of what you’re actually looking for until he provides a clue. This is mostly done through the charming game manual, an in-game guide that contains your maps, lore, and other essential tidbits throughout the playthrough. You find pages scattered about the world, each one spoon-feeding you information and tugging you toward the right path. Their answers and paths are rarely clear, but they provide the slight comfort that you’re never truly in this alone.
Every part of Tunic feels like a piece of a larger dialogue, one begging you to collaborate with others. You can hear Shouldice through his work; the notes and cyphers are his way of talking directly to you as a player. If you’re like me you’ll constantly mumble as you play, a stream of expletives pouring out of your mouth during a eureka moment as you grab yet another piece of paper to jot notes onto. The puzzles themselves provoke conversation with other players online and in real life, recreating the feeling of trading secrets at recess, as everyone vibrates with excitement while comparing our progress.
Shouldice and crew looked back to the past and pulled from the present to craft an endlessly engaging puzzle-box that’s chock full of secrets, many of which I still haven’t found. I can already hear the siren call of discovery pulling me back, and it sounds a lot like ambient techno. Are you curious enough to heed it?
Tunic was developed by Andrew Shouldice and published by Finji. Our review is based on the Xbox Series X|S version. It is also available for the Xbox One, PC, and Mac.
Mik Deitz is a freelance writer and Paste intern. They inhale stories in videogames, films, TV and books, and have never finished God of War (2018). Yell at or compliment them on Twitter @dietdeitz.