Saturday, April 30, 2022

Tunic - Thoughts

Ignorance is the double-edged sword of childhood. You are born into it and made happier by its presence, albeit unwillingly. As one grows older so too does their pool of knowledge, aging into wisdom like a fine wine. But with that maturity comes (or should come) the loss of naiveté, the juvenile fount of joy. Childlike glee dulls—if not fades entirely—over the years, an arduous realization that will cement itself into late adolescence and early adulthood. Though man is made better, surer, by the loss of ignorance, it takes with it an enviable bliss, one he may find himself devoting a considerable amount of his adult life toward reclaiming.

Basically, it's nice finding stuff that can turn us into a kid again. What I find common among media that evokes this is that they often challenge expectations, opening a door on your ignorance to reveal brand new possibilities. Despite being eagerly sought out, examples for this are numerous: the provoking layout of House of Leaves, Undertale's messages directly to the player, the gruesome deaths in Game of Thrones, the slow-boiling scenes of 1979's Stalker, the crushing waves of Nadja's Radiance of Shadows, and hundreds, if not thousands more. Yet foolishly, after each invigorating experience, one wonders if anything can drop their jaw like that again.

So let's talk about Tunic.

Tunic's inspiration is nakedly obvious—it's an isometric adventure game modeled after the original Legend of Zelda. Its references to Link's debut are plentiful, from the items you'll acquire, to the location of secrets, to the adorable art found inside the game's manual. Sprinkle in some Soulslike combat (stamina meter, health flask, corpse runs) and Tunic doesn't just make nods towards its idols—it full-on headbangs. Yet despite Zelda and Souls being perhaps the most trite combination for an indie dev to mash together, there are two more things about Tunic that propel it from mundanity into sheer brilliance.

The first is its presentation; Tunic is a really good looking game. Note that I played it immediately after finishing Elden Ring too, a veritable giant of unparalleled art direction! But whereas Elden Ring goes big and wide, Tunic aims small—its world is simultaneously soft and vibrant like polymer clay, inhabited by creatures as adorable as their chibi renditions in the manual. You play through Tunic as you would explore a diorama, peeking around its handmade nooks and crevices for secret paths and hidden goodies. And the cherry on top of this stunning sundae is Kwan & Lifeformed's equally gorgeous soundtrack, providing not only a lush and mysterious ambiance, but one that is piercingly meditative—if not mournful—most of the time.

While Tunic's aesthetics alone are plenty laudable, the second thing it has going for it is where the game truly shines: its in-game manual. To anyone that hasn't played the game, that probably sounds as unexpected as it does bizarre—and that's merely the first surprise Tunic has in store! The entire game doesn't just emulate Zelda out of adoration, but with mischievous purpose: Tunic recreates the experience of playing an imported Legend of Zelda game, with your only guide being a paper manual written in a foreign language. But it unveils its secrets slowly, meticulously doling out one double-sided page at a time. You'll first be given tips on your controls, then the surrounding map, then the items you've been gathering—all while trying to parse gobbledygook that could be hiding important information. And those precious few pages are just the tip of the iceberg—Tunic is a treasure trove of secrets, some of which can actually change the way you play.

A little ways in, Tunic will reveal its third—and arguably largest—inspiration: Fez. A big chunk of the game hinders on navigating Tunic's dense world, rewarding you not just for memorizing pathways but pushing against the game's boundaries in the hopes of a new discovery. Like Fez, its camera (albeit static) doubles as a hurdle to hide puzzles and pathways, provoking the player to question everything. Similarly, there's an unexpected endgame squirreled away inside of Tunic that a majority of players probably won't access, even with the cryptic language being an optional challenge to decipher. The more similarities I describe the closer I inch towards spoiler territory, so let me entice you with one more tease: the enigma that lurks at Tunic's heart is probably the best puzzle I've ever solved in a video game.

If the manual serves as Tunic's splendid soul, then you might be wondering how its body—the gameplay—fares in comparison. My answer is noticeably less enthusiastic: not too bad. Traversal is a bit slow at the start but gradually picks up as you uncover secret roads and unearth new items. Combat on the other hand feels unrefined, mostly due to your character's weighty roll. Tunic provides you with i-frames but you'll find them lacking compared to the swift and wide-reaching attacks of your enemies. Upon encountering the Garden Knight you'll see exactly what I mean—and battles only get more complicated and ruthless from there.

The final act in particular features a hyper-aggressive gauntlet, one that will undoubtedly waylay folks drawn to Tunic for its serene atmosphere. Combat-hardened players will be able to muscle through it (as well as the brutal last boss), but that doesn't prevent the endgame from feeling like an unprecedented spike in difficulty. It's important to remember to play Tunic more like Zelda than Dark Souls—your items are often more impactful than your sword, so don't be afraid lob grenades and blast away with magic. Tunic's insistence on the player utilizing their entire arsenal is what keeps me from deeming its combat as "poor", as you're given plenty of options to neutralize annoying enemies and dangerous threats. Plus, like with Zelda, combat is mostly an auxiliary diversion to the game's main draw: Grade-A Adventuring.

Anyone over thirty has likely played a fragment of Tunic before, whether it be roaming the grassy overworld of The Legend of Zelda, engaging in the dodge-centric duels of Dark Souls, or busting out the ol' pen and paper for Fez. But to reduce Tunic down to its core inspirations does a disservice to how skillfully it combines these aspects together, creating an experience that's constantly clever, unique, and fresh. It's a decent game for intrepid explorers but a must-play for the puzzle connoisseur, especially if you like thinking outside the box. Tunic may not be for everyone—players that frequently find themselves lost in games will undoubtedly suffer—but for anyone that sticks with it, you're guaranteed a memorable experience at the very least.

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