Tunic (Xbox Series S) console demo impressions

With obvious inspirations and beautiful presentation, does Tunic do enough to differentiate itself from other games in the genre?

Tunic – developed by ISOMETRICORP Games Ltd. and published by Finji – wears its inspiration on its sleeves. It’s a modern-looking but retro-feeling Zelda-like experience. An isometric adventure game that lets you get lost in a dangerous world with minimal guidance. A game in which you push outwards, find a path you can take, unlock new gear, then push out again (with plenty of secrets to find on the way).

The demo – which is described as a condensed amalgamation of several areas – begins with the protagonist, a cute fox-like creature, waking up on a shore. She’s defenceless but soon finds a simple stick in the first cave you encounter. From that point on, you can go on the offensive, preferably in pursuit of a sword). The character, the world, your ultimate goal – nothing is clearly explained. It’s up to the player to explore, progress, and make sense of your encounters.

A classic inset-style manual is as close to direct storytelling as you get. Who the protagonist is, who the enemies are, and your ultimate goal is all a mystery. 

You have a multipurpose guide of sorts that, naturally, looks like a scan of a classic 8-bit NES game manual. It highlights the basic controls, may have maps of certain dungeons to aid navigation, and there are a few creature descriptions to help you with the unexpectedly tough combat. 

Otherwise, every in-game signpost, gear, or consumable item has a description that uses mysterious runes. Some basic button-prompts are obvious so that it’s easy enough to understand the shield you just picked up is bound to the right-trigger. Similarly, red runes coupled with a skull likely point you in the direction of a boss encounter. It places the focus on free-form exploration and experimentation, rather than mindlessly following waypoints.

Exploring dangerous places, finding new paths, and opening shortcuts back to checkpoint shrines forms a key part of the experience.

Your protagonist starts out with an effective dodge-roll; everything else you need on your journey you must find and master, through practice and a lot of trial-and-error. There are three slots – each bound to a face button – for various weapons, bombs, and other consumables. The left trigger locks on to the closest target. You block with the right trigger. You chug a health potion with the right bumper. 

These controls are easy to master but the combat will keep you on your toes as you learn to master your attack timing to avoid block and counterstrikes, manage stamina for blocking, and maintain situational awareness so ensure you don’t back up into a corner or find yourself surrounded.

Combat was unexpectedly challenging. With a limited move set, it’s all about careful observation, timing your strikes, and plenty of caution (that, or flinging every offensive consumable you have when all else fails).

There are several ‘Souls-like elements to consider as well: checkpoint shrines that heal you and refill health potions but also respawn enemies; resources that drop at the spot you died; and an abundance of shortcuts to unlock. There are also dozens of secrets hidden in plain sight, encouraging you to explore every dark corner for secret paths and return to prior areas with new gear. 

The presentation is fantastic, the performance great, and despite the minimalist art style – with blocky geometry and low-poly props – the soft lighting, a depth-of-field effect, and a moody soundtrack make for an atmospheric experience similar to The Touryst. It often feels like you’re moving a figurine across a lovingly crafted diorama – only one full of dangers and secret paths. 

The world looks surprisingly beautiful despite the simple designs. It’s also far more dangerous than it first seems!

Overall, I enjoyed two hours with Tunic but I am left wondering how it will differentiate itself from so many other indie games that follow a similar design template? Of course, this is a demo and therefore a limited perspective, but it feels like Tunic needs a stronger hook – be that narrative or gameplay – to make it truly compelling for longer play sessions. Something that will make it stand out from the crowd beyond the presentation.

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