Tunic is a refreshing lesson in hands-off game design
I haven’t played Tunic much yet, but I’ve already been won over by its charms. It channels old Zelda games, but with a modern twist. The closest comparison would be Link’s Awakening remake for the Nintendo Switch. Despite this obvious (and quite deliberate) inspiration, the first thing that comes to mind is Elden Ring. I’m not just chasing SEO traffic here – look closely and you’ll see I avoided the temptation to put Elden Ring in the title – but after the gaming world couldn’t talk about anything else than Elden Ring since its launch, maybe I’ve finally succumbed to the idea that nothing but Elden Ring matters anymore.
Elden Ring is obtuse in its design, and as defenders will point out quickly and loudly, deliberately. What’s extremely funny to me is that I’ve complained since launch about these obtuse features and been told many times that they were part of the developers’ vision. Except now they’re patched, so I guess they weren’t. I know it’s more complex than that, but that doesn’t change how much fun I find it, personally. Either way, Tunic is also a little obtuse, but in a much less hostile way, more intuitive, and generally doesn’t make me want to smash my controller with my face, or my face with my controller.
When you launch Tunic for the first time, the game starts. There are no cutscenes, no dialogue, no quest markers, nothing. Just click New Game and boom, you’re in. You’re a little fox in a tunic (good job, he’s not wearing a guy with no ass or the marketing of the game would have had a very different tone), and that’s about all you know. There are two bars on the HUD. Pressing random buttons does nothing since you don’t have a weapon yet, but one of them causes you to dive forward, dropping a slice of one of those bars. He is recovering gradually. This bar, you can assume, is stamina, which by process of elimination makes the other bar health. You walk forward, still pressing the buttons because one of them is surely doing something, and a menu opens. There is practically nothing in it, and what is there makes no sense.
You see what is likely an enemy with a glowing LT above it. By tapping on it, you aim at it, but you have no weapon to aim at. He’s through a space you can’t jump, so you turn around. Above you, more inaccessible enemies. Another prompt to target them. And still no way to reach them. You can keep wandering around, looking for a sword or a bow or… whatever, or you can enter this cute little cave in front of you lit by sconces. You know the cave is the right place to go, but should you be looking for a weapon, a form of defense, or at least an answer to what the X button does first? Tunic offers no real advice outside of your own knowledge accumulated over years of gaming. I knew health was health before taking damage because every adventure game has a health bar and I already figured out which one was stamina.
Obviously, Tunic is significantly less complex than Elden Ring. Mechanically, design-wise and lore-wise, Elden Ring is much more layered. I don’t need to have spent hundreds of hours in Tunic to know that, and unlike Elden Ring, I doubt many people spend hundreds there. But it’s refreshing, so soon after a game hailed as the greatest of all time had us all confusing ‘no grip’ with ‘impossible to play without multiple irl notebooks at hand’ , to see a game trust its players without forcing them to jump through arcane arcana and defend nonsensical UX/UI.
I have no idea how good Tunic is once I get a little deeper into it, but it gives me more hope for the future of gaming than the elite control that comes with FromSoftware’s latest title. Now spending ten hours upgrading my fox so I can take on a sheep with a snake’s head and legs made out of rusty old swords, or something.
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