With an adorable fox in a little green tunic–brandishing a sword and shield in its quest to save the world–it might have been easy for Tunic to wear its influences too proudly on its sleeve. From a high-level perspective, it’s got all the trappings of a classic Legend of Zelda adventure, from color-coded McGuffins to collect, to distinct biomes that require certain tools and tricks to navigate through. For much of the game’s opening, it sticks strictly to a formula you’re mostly familiar with, inviting the desire for something new just as it introduces it with generosity. From that point on, Tunic is entirely its own thing, eschewing any assumptions you might have made about its structure and delivering an engrossing, surprising, adventure.
Central to this feat is a core mechanic that feels unique to Tunic: an in-game manual. When you pause Tunic, you’re presented with a fuzzy view of the game world as a backdrop to a crisp game manual; a neat little trick that informs you that you’re not actually playing Tunic; you’re playing as someone else playing it instead. As you explore Tunic’s world, you’ll uncover new lost pages for this game manual, inviting you to immediately pause and inspect them. Many, initially, are simple tutorials; hit this button to attack, use this one to block, and be aware that you can use these simple items in these basic ways.
The fundamentals of Tunic are portrayed in the more eye-catching pieces of information details on each page, but its more-fascinating hints are strewn around its periphery. Little pencil etchings make references to symbols you may or may not have seen before, with supplementary printed imagery that doesn’t make sense within the context of the core messaging you’ve already gleaned from the page in question. Like the world that it’s describing, this game manual is its own puzzle; one that unlocks secrets within the world, leading you to more pages to help piece together its much larger, hidden message.
The rush of discovering a new page in Tunic isn’t like coming across a new weapon or item in a similar game. In The Legend of Zelda, its many dungeons are designed around a tool that it generally contains mid-way through, with avenues to new sections of the dungeon entirely blocked until you acquire it. In Tunic, the pages to the game manual aren’t hiding knowledge of items you need for progression. Much of Tunic can be completed without even acquiring a sword in the opening moments of the game, for example. Instead, each page offers something perhaps more powerful: knowledge. These can be as straightforward as detailing a button sequence for a mechanic or detailing intricate interactions between two items in the world. And yet, nothing in Tunic is impossible before learning about them, you just might simply not know that it’s possible yet.
This approach to design is what makes Tunic’s adventure feel so distinct. It garnered comparisons to the likes of puzzle masterclass Fez, and for good reason. The two share the same approach to trusting the intellect of their players, letting the thrill of discovery come quickly after a discovery that feels earned, not handed out. Tunic’s latter half also seems inspired by Fez directly at times, with a variety of secrets to uncover using hidden button combinations that you need to piece together using various pages of the manual, as well as some intuition as to what symbols translate into respective inputs. It helps recontextualize and reinvigorate every area you might have already traversed up until that point, too, forcing you to recall where you might have come across an otherwise unremarkable pattern on a wall hours before now that it holds a much deeper significance.
The same can be said for every page of the manual you’ve uncovered, each of which takes on a new meaning once you’ve made a big discovery. It invites you to pore over it again, cover to cover, numerous times throughout the whole adventure, generally with new secrets to uncover that have been hiding in plain sight this entire time. One of its greatest tricks is acting as a key to Tunic’s most closely guarded secret. It’s a solution that requires a little piece of information from every page the manual has to offer, requiring that you not only gather each one, but also that you manage to understand how they all ultimately fit together. Discovering the cipher that unlocks the solution to the entire puzzle is immensely satisfying and feels suitably rewarding for the time and effort it will take to reach that point.
It might seem curious that deciphering a secret on numerous of pieces of digital paper might almost be more exciting than the action-adventure game it’s meant to supplement, but this seemingly small mechanic is a big part of why Tunic’s otherwise familiar adventure stands out as one of the best gaming experiences of 2022. It’s a game that dares to trust players again, but critically also offers an immense sense of satisfaction to its engrossing puzzles and litany of secrets to uncover. It’s an adventure that uses its inspirations with careful consideration, but also introduces so many new ideas that can, and should, be learnt from.