My birthday was last week (March 17th, St. Patrick’s Day, I do accept PayPal), but it wasn’t the only occasion worth celebrating, as it very nearly coincided with the release of TUNIC, which finally came to PC and Xbox on March 16th. I’ve been following this game since the start of its development 7 years ago. I remember when it was called Secret Legend, and at times simply, ‘Cute Fox Game.’ With its final, official release now as TUNIC, I excitedly grabbed the game on Steam the night before my 29th, eager to dig into this gorgeous world.
I’ve put in just over 10 hours, and folks, I love it. I’ll go ahead and give that away right up front, I don’t mean for this review to be exhaustive anyway. The game has absolutely captured me.
For starters, TUNIC is gorgeous. I love this art style. The look and feel of the world are beautiful, soft, and tactile. For me, this comes down to both some really effective, warm lighting that makes everything shine brightly on one side, and cast long, sharp shadows on the other, and also the quality of the game’s textures. Each grassy expanse, rocky cliff, and empty ruin is covered in a sort of grainy, brushy texture that makes everything look…crunchy? For lack of a better term? Along with a little touch of tilt-shift focus, it all looks like a little diorama that you could reach out and touch.
What really solidifies my feeling on this game’s aesthetics as “love,” though, is the fact that the game also feels great to play. The movement and combat all feel really grounded, and nothing ever feels too floaty or detached from what you’re seeing onscreen. It really feels like some careful consideration was put into the feeling of each button press and flick of a thumbstick, which really pulls me into the world that much easier, and that much further.
This was an issue I had with last year’s Death’s Door, which I also thought was gorgeous. I watched my girlfriend play through the entire game, and only personally played through a little bit myself, but what I did play felt like it could’ve used just a bit more time to cook. That game didn’t run the smoothest to begin with (which may just be down to our playing on Switch), and every now and then a movement or dodge roll, or attack, or some other action would seem to just not quite line up with how my brain expected it to play out.
It’s an issue that tends to pop up in a lot of smaller, and especially indie titles, and it can really spoil an otherwise great game for me. Luckily, this is not the case with TUNIC. It’s been fine-tuned with the best of them.
Also of note is TUNIC’s excellent soundtrack. Produced by Lifeformed (who also scored Dustforce, one of my favorite games and game soundtracks of all time) and Janice Kwan, the soundtrack is buzzing, ethereal, peaceful, mysterious, and a perfect fit for everything TUNIC is and more. Video game music is very important to me, as important a piece of the puzzle as graphics or controls. I’m not one of those people who can put on a podcast while playing a game, at least not with the vast majority of games I’ve played. The soundtrack is too much a part of the experience, and TUNIC’s soundtrack does a great job of bringing me into that world, and putting my brain in the right state to press forward. Big Fez vibes here.
It’s even joined the ranks of video game soundtracks that I’ve purchased and continue to listen to outside of playing the game itself. Not that that’s much of an exclusive club. ‘Video Game’ is probably the most populous genre of music in my iTunes library.
Finally, if none of that has convinced you to run out and buy the game for yourself, or even sounds terribly exciting, I’d just like to talk about the core element that makes TUNIC such a special experience, and that is — speaking of Fez vibes — its dedication to secrets. This game is one big love letter to video game secrets, and the way games used to make you feel as a kid. There’s hardly any story to speak of (at least not up front), there aren’t any NPCs to talk to, no lore-heavy cutscenes, and even most of the game’s text is in a made-up language that you don’t know how to read.
The way that we used to learn about the world inside the cartridge was via the little full-color, illustrated paper instruction manuals that used to accompany them in their boxes. Much ink has been spilled over the loss of this lovely, old practice, so I’ll not spill any more of my own here except to say that it absolutely ruled. TUNIC thinks so, too.
You see, TUNIC has its own full-color, illustrated instruction manual contained within the game itself, just a button press away, complete with a layout of controls, details about the world, movement and combat strategies, abilities you wouldn’t otherwise know about, and — praise be — maps. But it doesn’t give it to you all at once. You need to find each page (or sometimes a group of pages) individually throughout the game’s world.
In this way, TUNIC gets to have its cake and eat it, too. The game can have its beautifully detailed homage to video game manuals of yore, laying out all the little things you might ever need or want to know about the world and how best to play in it, and it can also keep a sense of mystery by making you work for those little tidbits one by one, strategically placing them throughout the world such that a sort of pseudo-story is created by the sheer fact that you are learning new and sometimes revelatory information only when the game is ready for you to know it. It’s kinda genius. And it makes me feel like a kid again. Maybe it’s just nostalgia poisoning, but I think that’s too cynical a take. It’s really smart and lovely.
In closing, all those years spent developing this cute little fox game clearly paid off. Three cheers for developers taking the time they need to make their game everything they want it to be. I’m delighted that TUNIC is a good game in any sense at all. It made recovering from a root canal that much more bearable (this is almost turning 30). But for it to have turned out to be something so special, and refreshing, and different? Something so good I just had to write about it? Indeed, something that I didn’t know I needed? That’s GOTY material.