These Far Shores Demand Your Full Attention
I was seven years old when I first booted up The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Being a Dutch kid and wanting to play this extensive action-adventure game was exciting, but there was a barrier that was hard to overcome. Unlike Mario and to a certain extent the Pokémon games, I was struggling with playing Ocarina of Time. Not because of its controls, but because of the enormous amount of text. Sure, the monsters were scary, the Great Deku Tree was confusing and traversing Hyrule Field felt like a dangerous task, but it was language that prevented me from understanding what was actually going on. Only with the help of the au-pair, who was able to translate an online guide of the game, was I able to grasp what Link’s quest was all about. The lack of understanding the text made the adventure alluring in my mind. I kept thinking about the world of Hyrule before I went to bed and I saw all these mysteries that the game seemed to keep from me, just because I didn’t understand a word of what was being said by the characters inhabiting this world. I felt like a stranger in a strange land, slowly but steadily uncovering and understanding more about this game that had a grip on my mind like no other. It’s an experience that’s near impossible to recreate in the modern era. Even with something like Breath of the Wild, which evokes much of that feeling, my understanding of English and language in general takes away so many of the secrets that I felt were kept from me as a kid. I cannot understate how much Tunic made me feel like this lost kid again. This game hides so many secrets behind layers of language, experience, and growth that it clicked with me unlike any other this year. It has now finally arrived on Switch and I’m so incredibly excited to see others explore these far shores with this little Fox.
Calling Tunic another ‘Zelda-like’ is in my opinion cutting the game and its approach too short. Are there clear and noticeable influences from the original Zelda-games here? Sure. In as much as most action-adventure games have taken inspiration from the series. Waking up on the shores of a strange land, you play as a tiny fox. This world is not only dangerous, but hides a mysterious power that was sealed away. You set out to find this power and uncover the mysteries behind this world. What was the civilization like that lived here long ago and erected statues to foxes? Who is the fallen hero that has multiple shrines? And above all, what is the fox’s role in all this? The game provides very little information, but slowly unravels its own mysteries through both gameplay and non-verbal communication. As the fox you find new items, learn new techniques and face off against a large variety of foes. Dying isn’t necessarily the end, as the game allows you to recover your soul and some of the money you’ve lost.
What makes Tunic stand out right away is its gorgeous artstyle. Using soft 3D-art from a (mostly) fixed isometric perspective gives it immediately its own flavor. The character designs of the fox and most enemies are immediately recognizable and easy to differentiate. The bosses especially have formidable and imposing designs that make them intimidating the first time you are face to face with them. The art-style is complemented by the secret trick that Tunic has up its sleeve: the manual. As you explore more of the world, you come across pages that start filling up as an old-school videogame manual. You can open up the manual at any time and flip through the pages. The manual not only contains some backstory of the world, characters and items, but also explains the core mechanics of the game. This feeds into the larger design of Tunic where most hidden items, techniques and locations are accessible to you at the beginning of the game. I stopped counting the “oh shit” moments I’ve come across, because the game is so elegant in its design that I kept saying it out loud each time I found new shortcuts or alternate routes to locations and paths. The manual has some lovely imagery and it really feels like an actual companion on your journey that is feeding into the desire of a player to keep exploring. If the world design of Tunic is what got me engaged, it was this little manual that truly sunk its teeth into me.
So what is the gameplay actually like then? Well you guide the little Fox to find several keys in order to break that seal. You are free to go wherever you want and tackle any boss or obstacle in the order that you desire. At the beginning the game may feel a tad lineair teaching you the basics, but it quickly opens up to showcase all the different regions of this world. Enemies can be defeated using sword swings or using other items you collect along the way. You can throw magical bombs that have fire or ice properties or use other magic items to try and defeat them. The game is not easy though. That doesn’t just go for the bosses, who are definitely an uphill challenge, but even regular enemies can easily gate progression or exploration. Thankfully there are additional ways to improve your little Fox, by collecting items that upgrade your attack, defense, stamina and magic. Tunic also takes a lot after the soulslike games and has replenishable potions to recover some health, as well as using dodges and shields to block enemy attacks. Combat feels very fluid and snappy, but don’t expect it to be as laid back as you might see in a Zelda game.
What’s really hard to explain about Tunic is that most of its progression is tied to your understanding of the game as a player. Advanced mechanics hit like a truck once you understand them either via experimentation or finding a helpful page in the manual. There were so many times that I was uncovering new dungeons, locations or items because a new form of interaction was revealed to me. There’s nothing more I’d wish for than to re-experience this game for the very first time, because those revelations stick with a player and make this strange and hostile world feel a little more understandable. That’s before we even get to elements like the game’s use of a secret language, the ways in which the game tries to communicate directly with the player and the optional secrets that are hidden all throughout the world.
I also want to take this time to praise the absolutely wonderful audiowork that accompanies Tunic everywhere. From the incredible sound design created by Power Up Audio to the simply phenomenal soundtrack from Lifeformed and Janice Kwan. The music evokes mystery in every track and balances it between playful tracks, anxiety inducing combat medleys and peaceful calming pieces. Simply put, I cannot wait to add this wonderful soundtrack to my personal vinyl collection because I consider it to be a modern masterpiece.
So let’s get into the Switch specifics. I was very hesitant when Tunic was first revealed in the Nintendo Direct earlier this month. The framerate in that trailer looked quite rough and visually I wasn’t convinced that the beautiful particle systems and lighting would be feasible on Nintendo’s outdated hardware. Thankfully I have come away very very impressed. Comparing the Switch version graphics to my Xbox One S-version of the game made the consolidations that were made for this version seem very minimal. The framerate is a consistent 30 fps in both handheld and docked mode. The one downside is that you’ll often have to deal with slightly long loading screens when moving between regions or locations. On the visual aspect the game holds up fairly well compared to the xbox one s-version of the game. A noticeable difference is the ambient occlusion, which is of a significantly lower sample quality. This means you get a lot of flickering artifacts in corners and in pockets of shade around bushes out in the overworld. If you ask me, Switch owners have nothing to fear by playing Tunic on their consoles. Is it the best version of this game? Definitely not, but it runs like a charm and can be enjoyed on the go without too much of an issue.
Tunic has become a very special game to me. Its approach to game design is something I haven’t experienced in years and truly harkens back to a time when games felt off putting and mysterious. A time where Luigi just could’ve been hiding in Super Mario 64 and copypastas could be real. Tunic shows that its creators understand what made these games so special but doesn’t feel like a retread of other games. It has its own identity and makes use of so many clever techniques to engross the player into its world that there’s simply nothing quite like it. I have put in the hours to fully complete Tunic and it's a journey that I could recommend to almost anyone. If the difficulty proves too much for you, the accessibility options are a godsend and there’s no shame in using them. You may have to get out your actual notepad to keep track of the hints, puzzles, and clues you find along the way, but if you follow that journey to the very end you are rewarded with a game unlike any other. Tunic is a modern masterpiece and its mysteries, secrets, and puzzles will stay with you for a long time after the credits roll.