Nostalgia is a powerful tool. It’s often used in marketing as a way to tug at heart strings and service fond memories and familiarity when rebranding a product or service. Remember in Futurama when the Slurm Queen says they’ll market Leela’s ‘commoner’ Slurm (should she be turned into a Slurm slug) as “New Slurm” where the public will hate it, only then to reintroduce the Slurm we all know and love as “Slurm Classic”?
“We’ll make billions,” the Slurm Queen says with maniacal laughter.
There’s something intense about the power of nostalgia. In gaming, it’s often touted at specific genres, such as the Metroidvanias or Roguelikes of the space; pixel-powered knockoffs or homages to our favourites of yesteryear dotting the proverbial Indie landscape, servicing a wistful bit of throwback while also cashing in on its powerful pull.
"Nostalgia isn’t something you’d constructively think of as malleable, as a system, to use gamer speak...”
But more often than not, nostalgia isn’t a tangible aspect to the experience. A game can look and play like something of old, but at its core it’s either a like for like experience to something that came before. Or something new, dressed up in dusty old visuals. And there’s a reason for this -- nostalgia isn’t something you’d constructively think of as malleable, as a system, to use gamer speak. And so its power actually remains largely untapped outside of a visual cue for players seeking an experience or a reminder of gaming from a different time. Certainly in my many years of covering games I haven’t seen a lot of nostalgia toyed with in a gameplay sense (except maybe Mr. Game & Watch in SSB), and so it was with great flourish I discovered that Tunic -- a game now available on Game Pass and for PC and the Xbox family of devices -- had pulled me in with the promise of a Zelda-inspired jaunt, in terms of its presentation and basic setup, only to be blown away at its total subjugation of my senses through the power of nostalgia, now become gameplay.
Beginning Your Adventure
For the youth out there whose immediate go-to when stuck in a game is YouTube or online walkthroughs, back in the day all we had were the manuals that came with our game. And these were made up of expected parts; an intro to the game’s almost-always lite-on trope-laden kidnapped princess or sword of power narrative setup, accompanied by a piece of cool art, a minor description of tools and collectibles, some info on enemies and powers, a map, and then sometimes a page of ‘helpful hints’. Good games would bury secrets and guides within the design of the manual, and so more often than not when stuck in our Golden Era adventures, we’d find ourselves pouring through every page of the game’s manual, scribbling notes and being as gumshoe as possible with the very shortform information available.
"Her sitting next to me acting as game manual maester while we tried to collectively decipher the limited, cryptic particulars...”
In my personal early gaming days, my fondest memories centre around playing NES or SNES at my late Nan’s, her sitting next to me acting as game manual maester while we tried to collectively decipher the limited, cryptic particulars of whatever adventure we were on at that time. Every impediment overcome through this teamwork felt Turing-levels of magnitude. Like we’d solved a Diophantine equation and were the only two people on the planet who knew the answer. It was experiences like this that prompted my tilt into this caper as a full-time job, and I cherish every one of those missions I embarked on with her.
Tunic plays with this to a Herculean degree.
From the outset, the game gives you very little, yet most everything is already set in play. What this means is, things you learn a bit later in your journey, you’ve been capable of from the very start. There’s no tutorial here, Tunic relies heavily on your own knowledge of games to at least get you your first sword and to work out its basic rules. And on that first little Forged in Fire trek you’ll learn a few things about this game-world. One: A lot of trust is given to the player and their assumed gaming knowledge. Your (eventual) blade can cut grass and shrubs, the world as you shape it is permanent, but enemies can be respawned after you use a save/reset point, meaning there’s risk-reward involved in that aspect. There’s also an economy tied to combat and that save/reset mechanism. And two: not everything here is as it seems.
That second point becomes the game’s carrot on a string moment, exemplified by the first page you discover from its manual. An old-school videogame manual, that you find... in-game. It’s an incredible moment when you realise there’s a quasi fourth wall-slash-meta element affixed to what you initially assume is the game’s tutorial. But when you realise the manual is a part of your journey; a part of your purpose and discovery, and that piecing it together is an integral aspect of the gameplay loop, that’s when Tunic really becomes something else.
That trust in the player I mentioned earlier is a wholly true aspect of the game’s progression system and its exploration and discovery. Like any game with rules, it’s assumed the player will stretch those rules to the nth degree and more often than not, also work to break them. In Tunic, it becomes apparent the world has been designed in such a way as to build on its overall sense of mystery and wonder, while featuring many hidden parts. It forces the player to thinkEscher when scanning the environment as progress through the world will unveil many, many cleverly designed nooks, crannies and backdoors. And amidst this, myriad systems allow the life that fills these scapes to generate unique outcomes if exploited in the best and most dynamic possible way.
"There are also planes beyond the physical one, as well as depths far creepier than you can imagine...”
Moreover, narratively, the trail you walk has been walked before. Signs of other adventurers -- another endearing aspect of the journey you find yourself on -- exist, but they’re clever and assuring. If you’re the sort of person who knows this type of game, that is, an adventuring title with action and potions and magic and the like, you’ll be at home here. And while all of this might sound familiar, the way in which it has been constructed is anything but, especially when you start to really peek through the game-world’s deliberate cracks.
How you play Tunic is on an isometric plane. Old-school style. There are different biomes as well as numerous interiors and well thought out subterrains. But there are also planes beyond the physical one, as well as depths far creepier than you can imagine, and all of this is artfully crafted from a visual perspective and brought to life even more with an incredible lighting system. In fact, light and dark play huge parts in the game and gameplay systems, and add even more to what is already a densely layered experience. Tunic simply offers so many ways to enjoy its world across multiple fronts, and it is a forever surprising affair because of this.
There’s a lot that goes into the mechanics of Tunic. The game features an upgrade system, while its combat relies on a tried and tested evade and strike setup, where perfect timing tied to a stamina bar makes up part of the overall skill floor. You also gain different weapons with different abilities, as well as items such as bombs and incindiery projectiles. And outside of your stick first, followed by your sword, Tunic never really forces you anywhere towards your next weapon or item. In fact the whole game-world is structured in such a way that you’re not wholly funnelled in one direction. There is gating, but it’s not a strict ‘level 1, level 2’ type of setup, and more than anything your desire to reach unreachable areas becomes the necessity tipping point for certain item discoveries.
Of course, a lot of the gating that does exist is helped by the game manual pages out in the world, but even what it offers up is cryptic or only half revelatory. And again, all of this simply adds to the mysterious expeditionary aspects of the game.
"An ice Fairie might freeze a Chompignom, inadvertently helping you crowd control...”
As far as challenge goes, there’s definitely a skill beyond patent mash here, where timing, proper planning and environmental tact is concerned.
Earlier in the review I mentioned that systems allow life to flourish, and that exploiting these in dynamic ways could result in equally dynamic outcomes throughout the game-world. What I meant by this is things like luring a mindless sword-swinging Rudeling towards another enemy could result in his swipe helping you out. An ice Fairie might freeze a Chompignom, inadvertently helping you crowd control. Propagating fire might hurt you, but it might also stop a mob in its tracks while also revealing something hidden in the environment. And these are basic, basic examples from the early game, Tunic has a steady incline of complexity and dynamism at its design and call, and as you learn to understand its rules, you’ll be able to truly make the most of emergent opportunities.
If You Seek to Increase Your Power…
Don’t be fooled by the game’s marketplace “My First Zelda” artwork, which makes me feel like I’m picking on TUNIC Team and the game’s creator and near solo dev, Andrew Shouldice. Which I’m not, but it honestly fooled me, hence this review coming in a bit colder than we’d have liked. Tunic is the perfect representation of what Zelda and many other adventure-RPG games of the late 80s and 90s did to a number of creators, and sits alongside that other Zelda-like we loved, Death’s Door, as an absolute must-play. And it has very little I can honestly fault it on.
"Perhaps its only other biggest flaw is that it’s not (yet) on PlayStation or what would be its spiritual home, Nintendo Switch...”
Maybe position-in-time over-privilege has me wishing some of the re-trekking wasn’t so far, but I can’t laud a game’s throwback nature and sensibilities, then scold it for staying true to them in terms of save points or reset sections of the game. And honestly, that’s me reaching for something in the camp of negatives to mention anyway, and it’s not that big a deal. Perhaps its only other biggest flaw is that it’s not (yet) on PlayStation or what would be its spiritual home, Nintendo Switch, purely so more people can play it. But again, that’s just me reaching.
Tunic is a near-flawless experience that celebrates games and gaming from a bygone era in one of the boldest, most confident displays of game-design and creation I’ve ever experienced. Its nostalgia game is strong and my heart strings have been well and truly tugged, strumming a tune(ic) of thanks and adoration for an adventure truly elevated and engrossing; challenging and full of surprise and wonder.
What we liked
A perfectly weighted throwback title with a modern sense of self
Its fourth wall-breaking game manual component is perfection
Challenging and charming to a fault
Non linear play and almost no tutorial makes for an engrossing adventure with agency
What we didn't like
Perhaps some of the distances between save shrines can make for an annoyance should you perish between them