Tunic is by far my game of the year. What looks from afar like a cute Zelda clone, like half a dozen produced in the indie world every year, quickly turns out to be a well thought-out little gem that challenges its player on the most basic of all levels – and at the same time produces several interesting effects.
If you wanted to be particularly brief – which I am inclined to do, because everyone should have experienced this mixture of helplessness and eureka amazement for themselves – you would describe Tunic as one big mystery. Because it starts with the fact that it doesn’t reveal how you actually play it. Of course: the basics are clear. Sword, shield, key, statues to pray, these are all familiar sizes. But what exactly works and why… figuring that out in Tunic is part of the journey and the puzzle that the game itself is here.
Like many mystery games, Tunic can only be played once. All subsequent passes are less intensive because you already know what’s behind it. Outer Wilds is another one of this ilk. While that’s a bit sad, it also makes these games special.
In one of my columns, I compared discovering Tunic to the experience of playing a Zelda in Japanese for the first time without much gaming experience. Where modern games can assume the most and therefore have to delight with their stories, worlds and challenges alone, Tunic undoes a good part of your familiarity with the genre and thus effectively transports you back to a more innocent time: an era when you didn’t yet match your avatar had decades of heroic experience ahead of him. When Tunic starts, it’s not just the little fox who’s supposed to be his hero who’s left with nothing. You, too, basically only have the clothes on your bones and your reasonably skilled fingers. All your accumulated adventure knowledge is of little help here.
So you go into Tunic as a nobody, you still have to learn its rules and therefore stick your nose to the lovingly digitized instructions pages full of secrets, which developer Andrew Shouldice made the central game object in a meta stroke of genius. Each new page you find reveals something new—through the flower of cryptic script, illustrations, and pen notes from a player who came before you—makes you look differently at an area you’ve just completed, or draws your attention to a place you’re ahead of for a while in passing on the Kieker.
The only catch: the fights are not precise enough. But you deal with that.
Sometimes, and more often than you’d think, a realization completely knocks your feet out from under you—the solution to a riddle you didn’t even know was one, for example. There are things in Tunic you can be in the dark about for 20 hours, puzzles you stare at forever not knowing what you’re looking at, and when the penny drops, the echoes get louder. They are flashes of inspiration, like the ones that happened with Fez, Braid or The Witness and that people will still talk about for years to come. They make the difference between good, competent game design and a truly inspired work of art. So Tunic, in a solid gaming year for me the best of all games – and an adventure not to be missed.