Tunic is a game that slowly reveals its true nature. On the surface, Tunic is a simple action adventure game with some soft Legend of Zelda elements. You explore the game world and delve into dungeons for some light puzzle solving and combat using a variety of tools, including items like bombs and a hookshot. It’s a simple and charming little game that doesn’t overstay its welcome. If you’re willing to dig deeper, however, Tunic is more akin to something like Fez in the sense that there is a lot more to it than meets the eye, a game full of ever more complex puzzles and mysteries that steadily unfurl.
Tunic starts off on an unassuming note. The game begins with the protagonist, a small and very cute fox, waking up after seemingly having washed ashore wherever it is they are. From there, it’s off into the world. They start with nothing but the clothes on their back. Your starting weapon is a simple stick you find tucked away in a chest before being given a lead on where to find a sword.
Exploring the world of Tunic is very much a matter of following vague leads. Every sign is written in some cryptic language, iconography and the rare word in English the only points of clarity you receive. It is a very straightforward game even so, a way forward never being difficult to find. It has a clearly intended progression, but it’s open-ended enough that you can technically subvert it here and there.
Hidden pathways can be found everywhere throughout Tunic. They aren’t the sort that have to be unlocked, nor are they found through some arcane means. They merely exist in the world waiting to be found, sometimes along the main path. Most of the time they’re just shortcuts to make it easier to get around, but often they lead to treasure or other fun secrets. Every time I came across one, I was usually surprised by how I’d missed them. They’re simultaneously well hidden and not particularly difficult to find because they merely require you to be thorough in your exploration, to check every nook and cranny, no matter how small.
Combat is based largely around stamina management. It’s not quite Souls-like to the degree that every action costs stamina (only rolling and blocking do), but Tunic has its own twist that makes it just as important. See, if you run out of stamina ever, until the bar is fully refilled, you’re in a much more vulnerable state. You can still take actions, but those actions are weaker: The fox’s dodge roll becomes a small forward hop with no invincibility and stalls your stamina from recharging, the shield can’t block anything, and any hit you take does more damage than normal. That last one matters most because of how quickly a few good hits can end you even without that extra damage. Upgrading your attributes helps, certainly, but even then, a couple careless mistakes can spell disaster.
Most regular enemies didn’t prove to be much of a problem with that in mind, but the bosses? Very much so. With the sole exception of the first proper boss, each and every fight was challenging in a way I didn’t expect. For as straightforward as Tunic‘s combat is, the actual rhythm can be quite demanding. You can cut through most hordes of foes without a sweat as long as you can get the first hit in. A single combo is usually enough to slay most enemies. I often struggled to keep my stamina use in check, however (too much rolling), and usually paid the price for it. (Should be noted that Tunic does have a nice spread of modifiers to adjust the difficulty as you see fit.)
The battles themselves have quite a bit of spectacle and bombast. Fighting a vast war machine that regularly litters the field with bombs and lasers to dodge while you try and stay close to attack the one weak point it has is tense and thrilling. A fight atop a small rooftop high in the sky is a test of patience as you wait for the few moments where the opponent is close enough to strike between constant volleys of magic and spectral foes. Combat shines in these moments. They demonstrate the elegance
The core of Tunic‘s many mysteries lie within the in-game manual. The manual is exactly what it sounds like: it’s a guide on how to play. It actually has plenty of useful information to share regarding the basic mechanics (such as the exact window you’re invulnerable while dodge rolling), and even maps and hints, presented in the classic form instruction booklets did when they were still a thing games included. It’s a clever way of doling out mechanics, steadily revealing the full breadth of the game’s scope. You collect the pages out of order, however, so you’re only getting small glimpses of its contents, the game being careful not to reveal too much too fast.
As you collect more pages, you’ll quickly notice all the little notes and scribbles throughout. At first it comes off as simple flavor text — someone writing down little observations and notes from their time playing. They, like everything else in the manual, provide hints regarding certain items and areas if you pay close attention. They’re a little more vague than the rest of the manual’s contents, but there is a reason for that. After a certain point, some of them start to take on additional meaning. They become part of a bigger puzzle, discerning their meaning itself another puzzle on top of that.
For the purposes of review, everyone who got a review key was given an invite to a private Discord server to exchange information and theories, such is the complexity of the bigger puzzles. I didn’t get too deep into solving the bigger mysteries myself because I’ve never been particularly good at the kind of puzzle solving Tunic goes for (once I started having to take physical notes on paper to help figure out a puzzle, I knew I wasn’t going to get very far), but the few I did, and seeing the lengths my peers had gone to uncover as much as they could, was exciting.
Playing Tunic alongside Elden Ring, it’s hard not to consider the ways they both encourage collaboration with other players. The two games are largely dissimilar — Tunic being a small adventure/puzzle game and Elden Ring being an unfathomably massive role-playing game — but they’re both games that are much harder to “solve” alone. You could take on the task of trying to figure everything out yourself, but they both strongly encourage cooperation with others. In Elden Ring, that largely manifests within the very game itself via messages and co-op play (along with people chatting with one another about their experiences). In Tunic, that manifests entirely outside the game in the sharing of knowledge, everyone working together to find and test new theories and discussing their findings. All the pieces of the puzzle are contained within the game, but the act of solving it is made to be a communal affair.
Watching my fellow critics piece together the clues was instructive of just how deep and involved the game’s mysteries are, but it was also fun to see the process firsthand. The discoveries they were making and the leads they pursued: I can’t imagine anyone tackling them solo. There is so much to find and see — much of which I never even found myself! Only by lurking in Discord did I learn about them. I haven’t found all the pages of the manual yet. I’ve barely scratched the surface of the hidden puzzles and content the game has. And that’s exciting.
Tunic is defined by its mysteries. It’s a game that purposefully obfuscates much of the experience. Its world is packed full of secrets to find and hidden puzzles to solve. It gives back as much as you’re willing to invest. It can just be a simple adventure starring a cute fox. Or it can be a really involved puzzle that requires a ton of patience and fortitude to solve. I’m very excited to see everyone else get their hands on Tunic and start figuring out its many mysteries. I expect everything will be cataloged and be a quick google search away in due time, but until then, the process of discovery should be a fun one.