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When I first booted up Tunic, it took me a few minutes to understand its intentions. When I took control of the player character, an adorable fox, I instinctively waited for the game to give me an instruction. I’m so used to seeing tutorials or other onscreen tips. So when I didn’t receive that, I thought at first that I was missing something. So I proceeded to explore a bit and still didn’t get any information.

Then I came across a piece of paper. It was a piece of an old-school game manual, which came with instructions on gameplay. But here was the catch: They weren’t in English. Instead, I had to figure out the gist from the pictures. That was when I realized Tunic would not give me more than that. I was going to have to figure the rest out for myself.

I did, and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Tunic has some control problems, and sometimes it revels too much in being difficult to understand. But it is a beautiful and fun game all the same, and I’d recommend it to fans of puzzles, exploration, and Dark Souls. Yeah, you read that right.

Fox-like cunning

Tunic is an isometric open-world game that bears a noticeable resemblance to The Legend of Zelda. You play the Fox, a green tunic-wearing sword-and-shield wielder who is stranded in a ruined world. You must wander the land, picking up pieces of the game’s instruction manual to help guide you through the journey.

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You’ll explore verdant forests, pitch-black caves, snowy mountaintops, and more. The environments are beautiful, with my favorite being a sunlit library with books as big as the Fox. Tunic’s art style may be a bit of an acquired taste, but I found it adorable and particularly welcome after weeks of more realistic (and darker) open worlds.

As you might expect if you played any similar fantastical indie game, it has no dialogue, and all the writing appears in an inscrutable runic language. Even the majority of the manual pages you pick up are in this language. It’s not uncommon for an indie game to start with “You are a small creature on your own in a ruined world with no dialogue and only the suggestion of a story and larger conflict.” Off the top of my head, I can think of a half-dozen games with that exact premise.

What sets Tunic apart from those is how it presents this scenario as a part of the challenge. It wants you to figure everything out with context clues and guesswork.

The secret of Tunic’s charm is the quiet way it rewards creative thinking and thorough exploration. When you find a hidden way of navigating the world, you get no fanfare, but your reward is a shortcut through a difficult area or a hidden treasure chest. It’s designed to make you feel clever for having explored, for having tried.

Carry a big stick

The game’s combat is another part of it that looks simple, but it is more complex if you’re paying attention. The Fox carries a melee weapon and a shield, along with a few other magic-based tools. Typical combat consists of melee attacks and rolling, with the occasional use of an explosive or elemental item.

You get a sense of satisfaction from determining what kind of weapon or item is best for each encounter. As always, the game gives you no instructions or clues. You get the simple pleasure of dropping a freeze bomb in the middle of a massive group of enemies and realizing, “Oh yeah, that works much better than just slashing and dodging.”

The boss battles are a treat. You don’t face many of them in the game, but every boss is massive, hits hard, and has a big health bar. It’s trial-and-error as you figure out their attack patterns and where best to hit them (and what to hit them with). These are the only parts of the game I found truly difficult, but not in such a way that I stopped or became frustrated.

It’s obvious the game is trying to look and feel like a Zelda title, but it played more like a Souls game. The checkpoints, the enemy respawn patterns, returning to the area where you’d previously died to retrieve a lost item – it all feels more Souls-like to me. Then again, this might be because it released in such close proximity to Elden Ring. I don’t think I’m the only one who will jump from playing one to the other.

Running in circles

But it’s not really in comparison where Tunic struggles. Instead most of its problems center around the UI or controls. Also, its stubborn refusal to give more than the barest hint is sometimes more of a roadblock than a delight.

Sometimes I wanted to give the game a figurative shake and say, “Yes, Tunic, you’re very clever, but seriously, what do I do now?” This is particularly true when Tunic is so choosy about what it will and won’t show in the instruction manual and its included maps. Even something as simple as a little tick mark to show that I’ve explored an area in full would have made the experience much more enjoyable.

One of the biggest problems with Tunic is that the lock-on function often doesn’t work how I want it to. It’ll frequently become “stuck” to an enemy or point of interest that is either not close to the Fox or, in combat, not presently attacking them.

This becomes especially problematic later when the Fox obtains a grappling hook. The grappling function is tied to the lock-on function, meaning you have to lock on to a grappling point. More times than I can count, I would have to make the Fox pace up and down near a grappling point to try and get the function un-stuck from an enemy on the other side of the screen.

Too much stuff, not enough hands

Another problem is that the game stubbornly tries to keep its controls limited to as few buttons as possible. I understand this is likely because the game was designed to be used with a controller – I played on mouse and keyboard – but it does gum up the works in certain situations.

For example, while healing potions are mapped to their own button, healing items are not. In order to use a healing or restorative item, I had to open the inventory, map it to an active slot (which usually meant unmapping a weapon or projectile), exit the inventory, then press that slot’s button to use the item. Then I had to open the inventory, remap the original item or weapon, etc. I never found a faster way to do this.

I think you can see why this might feel clunky, especially since opening the inventory does not pause the game. This system of inventory management has been done better by other games. In Tunic’s case, its effect on gameplay is akin to having to unpack your entire purse just to find your keys.

A beautiful adventure

I enjoyed Tunic, and I was pleased during most of my time with the game. It’s challenging, but it’s also tranquil. It’s a little slice of puzzle-y goodness in the middle of multiple massive open-world releases, and for that I’m grateful it exists.

I just wish sometimes Tunic would meet me halfway and not leave me frustrated either with the controls or with the exploration.

Tunic launches on March 16 on PC, Xbox Series X/S, and Xbox One. Finji provided GamesBeat with a code for this review.

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