Ill-fitted

They don’t make games like Tunic anymore. Games about adventure, about a journey. Sure modern games are happy to take you on a ride, but that’s just it, they’re a ride on well paved paths. What many folks miss, myself included, are games like the first Legend of Zelda. To be set loose on an uncharted map armed with nothing but what you find. Games with an emphasis on freedom, no reins, just discovery. This is the experience Tunic promises, and in many regards delivers. So why is it that finishing Tunic left me more relieved than happy?

I want to start with the positives. Tunic is gorgeous to the point where I could understand folks loving it for that alone. Each area you explore looks unique, with at least one moment of gorgeous spectacle per location. A major source of my motivation to complete the game was the desire to see wherever it was going to have me hike through next, filling in more of my mental map. Everything looks like the coolest toy set you’ve never seen, not unlike a less plasticy riff on the Link’s Awakening remake. Combine this with the gradually filled in manual that you collect lovingly crafted pages for throughout your trip and you’ve got one of the prettiest video games I’ve had the pleasure of looking at in recent memory. More games should look so playful.

Combat is a constant. The presentation continues to shine here, with flashy visuals and punchy sound punctuating attacks. Swings always go swipe-swipe-thrust, with the thrust being the best attack as it hits harder and farther than your stumpy arms normally can. Your dodge is a tiny roll that’s invulnerable for about the first half of its animation, and it eats a chunk of stamina. Where things get spicy is that you can actually dodge faster while your stamina is empty, but you take considerably more damage until it refills and each overdrafted dodge drops your gauge back to empty.

There is a decent base for a combat system here, but there’s so very little built on this foundation and there is so very much combat. Most of the games Tunic takes inspiration from have intentionally low stakes fighting, asking you to simply thwack enemies out of the way or ignore them entirely while walking to the next screen. Tunic‘s enemies are persistent, chasing you to the ends of the earth unless you enter a dungeon or the like, which are far more rare than switching screens in a 2D Zelda. You will end up fighting constantly and the combat isn’t nearly interesting enough to justify the amount of time spent on it.

More importantly, enemies are as hard hitting as they are plentiful. Your lifebar is typically only good for 2-3 hits and deaths force you back to the sporadically placed bonfires, meaning you get to hike all the way back down your current progression path. If you had the option to switch between quick swipes and the thrust many enemies would be more manageable, but you can’t, so the only choice availed to you is to play as defensively as possible until you can ignore the sword entirely. Your discovered combat items end up taking the lion’s share of use because they’re low risk/medium reward, letting you fight from far safer positions. This is intended to be mitigated by limits on mana, but there are plenty of ways to work around that from about midgame on. With the exception of some boss fights that can eat more shots than you have mana, the best choice in combat is to make it as boring as possible or else Tunic will constantly hit you where it hurts most – your time.

Speaking of wasting time, it cannot be understated how much Tunic delights in giving the player exactly zero feedback. At first this comes across as the game playing coy, requiring curiosity and thoroughness more than anything else, but by the end it will straight up place invisible progression barriers in your way that require you to rub your face against everything every single time you need to locate a small path to progress. The world map is a big plate of navigation spaghetti and most of its noodles are one-way. Mixed metaphors are on the menu tonight, folks.

Tunic‘s favorite trick is hiding things out of sight. Behind walls, under the ground, you get the idea. This is a fairly standard level design technique that makes for exciting discoveries when used in moderation, hence why everyone loves finding goodies behind a waterfall. Unfortunately Tunic doesn’t use any of its ideas in moderation. Not only are there a ton of hidden widgets to track down, but in many cases necessary progression paths and items are nooked away from where the fixed isometric camera can see. A particularly memorable example was in the lategame, where the only route to a mandatory area was a blind leap off the edge of the screen, followed by another, followed by walking on an invisible bridge for one more jump. I want to be clear here: this wasn’t a path for a niche collectable, this is “you can’t finish the game until you transcend your flesh and meld with the dev’s mind” territory.

The game is very cleanly divided into 3 acts. Act 1 is a journey of discovery towards a pair of clearly defined objectives thanks to their noticeable landmarks. The journey is never a straight line, but because you more or less know where your goals are your efforts remain focused. It feels like it’s being the kind of game Tunic wants to be. Act 2 is a scavenger hunt for 3 hidden macguffins, each of which requires traversing through areas within areas. It lacks the prior act’s sense of direction, instead preferring to have you wander in search of anything you haven’t seen yet, and while it does contain the game’s strongest individual sections it takes so long to get through that it feels more exhausting than satisfying. It’s also filled to bursting with walking, walking, and more walking, as every area you need to check out is large and the routes between them are anything but short. It isn’t much of a spoiler to say that there are shortcuts and quicker means of travel, but without a more defined goal than “find some hidden stuff” this doesn’t do much to alleviate the boredom.

Act 3 is where the game completely fell apart for me. Explaining why is hard to do without detailing massive spoilers, but it’s when the game decides to fully lean into its storytelling and fundamentally changes the flow of play in such a way that it went from entertaining despite its frustrations to just plain frustrating. It rips a massive amount of progress from you, forcing you to retread mildly remixed areas hunting for collectables in order to progress. The blind jump into invisible bridge section I mentioned earlier? That’s here. It’s monotonous, ambiguous, and painful.

Those collectables are why my motivation for completing Tunic transitioned from genuine interest to pure spite. The game’s favorite puzzly trick is hiding button combinations inside environmental cues. I won’t elaborate much on these as there are several enjoyable “aha” moments to be had, but the majority are not nearly so gratifying. Keep an eye out for anything that could be interpreted as directional and you’ll ferret out many hidden chests. You don’t need to find literally all of them – I abandoned one or two that I just couldn’t wrap my head around and still managed to get the good ending – but you will need several, and I would not be surprised to learn that very few players find more than a couple before hitting the game’s first ending. Many of them are buried deep, and they’re spread all over the world, meaning they’re most easily searchable during act 3 and require even more aimless retreading.

It’s impossible to thoroughly critique Tunic without addressing its Golden Path. It’s the game’s largest puzzle, one that demands all but total completion to reveal its solution, but that’s the crux: the solution is revealed. You do not “solve” the Golden Path, the answer is given to you. Granted you have to assemble the answer from many pieces, and it takes the better part of a minute to enter the sheer quantity of inputs (which, again, are not confirmed until you get them 100% correct in one shot), but Tunic‘s grandest puzzle is at best a drawn out jigsaw puzzle and at worst a fa├žade. Put simply, it’s a progress gate that checks your collectables and demands a list of button presses in order to be able to see the good ending. Moreso than any other moment in Tunic, this reveal left me feeling cheated. The puzzle quality throughout varies wildly and that’s to be expected, but to have its largest and longest puzzle turn out to be nigh substanceless was a dagger to the heart.

The full realization of Tunic‘s commitment to standing in your way didn’t hit me until after I saw both endings. Out of morbid curiosity I started up a new game + run. It carried items and stats over, yes, but with one omission: the game’s most critical traversal tool. The one the game forces you to use while retreading the entire map again, the one that makes combat just a bit less of a chore, the mechanical focal point of the third act, the game’s final and best ability. At that point it was made clear that even on a replay, after already seeing everything Tunic had to offer, there was nothing left for me but to pause the game, quit to menu, and uninstall.

The thing is, all of these frustrations? These sticking points? They’re intentional design choices, and obviously so. Tunic doesn’t just aim to confound and confuse you, it revels in it. From its refusal to communicate anything but the barest essentials in text, to hiding necessary paths behind walls or off screen, to ardently refusing to ever give the player feedback until they’ve already succeeded at a task despite that task being literally 30+ inputs long, Tunic stonewalls you at every turn. Discovering an item or finding a progression path eventually stops feeling like a reward and merely becomes a brief reprieve from beating your head against a wall. More often than not, especially later in the game, the reward is just a brand new wall with slightly harder bricks.

Tunic is not “for you”, the player. Its world and language is not yours, its hero is not as it appears, its world is layered with secrets and deceptions all the way down. I respect the steadfast commitment to that central conceit. Unfortunately this also meant that Tunic was not for me and I’ve made my peace with that. I just hope I’m in the minority, because there is something beautiful here that I wanted nothing more than to enjoy.

They don’t make games like Tunic anymore. I still wish they did.

Reviewed on Xbox Game Pass.