We had the impression that TUNIC would be special, but perhaps not how special. When it was first showcased on the Xbox stage at E3 2017, it was clear that TUNIC was going to wow us with its visuals, looking like a close cousin to the Link’s Awakening remaster, but it was harder to get a handle on the gameplay. And it was – effectively – a one-person project, developed by Andrew Shouldice as his debut project, so how good could it be?
The answer is, inexplicably, very good indeed. How one person could produce the majority of TUNIC, drafting in contractors to plug the gaps that they couldn’t fill themselves, is a mystery, and it will make TUNIC one of the Gaming Wonders of the World. It’s clearly a pact with some kind of fox-faced devil.
Let’s start with the stuff that impressed us when TUNIC strutted onto an E3 stage: the game’s presentation. TUNIC is nothing less than gorgeous. The comparisons with the recent Link’s Awakening remaster are fair: both games have a tactile, crafted feel to them, as if you could pick up and admire the individual pieces of the world. TUNIC is going to have no problem porting its characters into figurines or amiibo: they already look like them.
But TUNIC goes even further than those Link’s Awakening comparisons, because it has such an eye for Ori-style lighting. Levels lurk in the shadows and then ignite with luminescent bloom, and the contrasts are remarkable. As a baseline, TUNIC is pastel and sunkissed, but it passes through every single shade and colour on its journey.
Perhaps surprisingly, TUNIC doesn’t really bother with a story. There are edges of lore, some world-building here and there, but there’s very little in the way of dialogue, plot or anything to really get your teeth into. It’s a small gap, and we would have taken some narrative if we were offered it, but it allows mystery and a sense of loneliness to live within that omission. It has a strange, ethereal effect on the game, making you feel alone and insignificant, with the whole world seemingly out to get you.
Which is appropriate, as the second thing that surprised us about TUNIC was how challenging it was. TUNIC has all the trappings of a family-friendly outing. The toy-like world, the cute fox main character, the colourful palette. But holy moley, TUNIC is capable of being a bastard. The difficulty gradient is hard to perceive at first: the opening is leisurely, and slowly new enemies are introduced that need some finesse. Destiny-like sparks need you to master the roll if you’re going to even get close to them. Shield-bearing orcs need a parry and attack approach. Crocodiles are just pains in the arse, and need to be handled one-at-a-time – if you can get them alone at all.
It’s a lazy but appropriate comparison, but TUNIC borrows from the Souls series. Die – and you will die – and you are returned to bonfire-like hubs in the world. An echo of you will be left at the point where you died, along with a portion of the crystals you have collected, so it’s a long, lonely trudge back through the enemies to get to it. If you fail, the crystals are gone.
But, like the Souls series, TUNIC has mastered the feeling of progression even through death. Get an increment further than you did before, and you will open a switch and drop down a drawbridge that will allow you to bypass the section you’ve just defeated. Perhaps a new bonfire will be unlocked. Suddenly, the world has opened up and you have a new challenge.
More impressively, TUNIC never feels like its difficulty is truly out of reach. There are extremely rough patches, but the challenge is just, and there are always power-ups – rare though they may be – that can give you a leg-up for that specific moment. Even more welcoming, and rare for a Souls-like, is the option within the Accessibility Menu to give yourself infinite health. There’s a statement in the war over whether games should be exclusively difficult or not.
We’ve been keeping back two of our favourite elements of TUNIC, so we can have room to get gushy over them. Let’s go for the world, first.
There’s no doubt that TUNIC has been influenced by Legend of Zelda, with its vast open world occasionally slipping into dungeons, and some areas locked behind certain abilities. But while Legend of Zelda is patterned and ordered, designed to offer a dungeon challenge every hour or so of play, TUNIC’s level design is an absolute masterpiece of chaos. There are few clear paths or directions to follow: you are often walking over or under a section you have already cleared out. Other times, you are finding important paths that are hidden behind waterfalls or around the corner. It tucks exploration into every corner of the world, and a hidden path is just as likely to lead to a critical dungeon as a collectible, and there are legions of collectibles.
That might seem like too much chaos, and on occasion it is. At several moments, we didn’t know where on earth TUNIC wanted us to go: without a map, and only a dusty in-game instruction manual to consult, we didn’t have the information needed to progress. It meant a lot of back-tracking, which we could have done without. It’s TUNIC’s greatest failing, and a world map is essential for a sequel.
But, for the most part, it means that TUNIC’s world is endlessly rich. We’re sure that we haven’t covered every inch of the landscape: some chests are still frustratingly out of reach, and they’ve probably got a heart container in them. We’ll get them eventually. But sidling down a hidden alley, only to find a dungeon, is a feeling that will never get old.
The second gushable element is a single collectible. We’re going to go out on a limb and say it’s our favourite collectible from the past five years. It’s that good. Occasionally, you will trip over white diamonds in the environment, and these represent pages from an instruction manual. Well, part instruction manual, part strategy guide. That’s right: you are finding pages to a guide that reveals TUNIC’s secrets. That might have been too revealing on its own, so TUNIC makes the masterful decision to encode it. It’s locked behind an alien language, and only through play will you find translations, allowing you to read it. Suddenly, you have information on hidden entrances, and strategies for defeating certain enemies. It’s glorious: the idea of slowly and literally piecing together the secrets of the game is fantastic. And it’s executed like a long-lost Nintendo Power strategy guide, all hand-drawn illustrations and maps, and it almost makes up for the lack of map in the game. Almost.
If you haven’t guessed from our fawning review, TUNIC is absolutely worthy of your time. Its presence on Game Pass means that many Xbox owners will have no excuse for avoiding it, and the cutesy presentation should be in no-way offputting: this is a devious, cantankerous little game that will delight in challenging you, tucking some fantastic rewards around the corner as compensation.
We’d use one word to sum up TUNIC: delightful. Few games will make you feel so skillful and clever, and fewer still will have the ability to slap a grin on your face.
You can buy TUNIC from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S