Tunic Rocks, Give it a Chance!

Probably the only thing that I universally dislike about Dark Souls and the plethora of copycats that followed in its tracks is the difficulty level. And I don’t even dislike that they’re (generally) hard games, rather I have a problem with why they’re hard games. I don’t have great reaction speed, which is a problem because the combat in these games almost always revolves around nailing split-second timing to dodge enemy attacks. It gets even worse when enemies have several attacks with similar tells-most of which are only several frames long-and you have to guess which one it’s going to be and respond in kind.

It’s frustrating! I don’t like it and wish that action RPG developers would come up with a way to make the same combat system a little more player-friendly..

Oh, wait, that already exists, and it’s called The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. (Or Tears of the Kingdom, if you’d prefer.)

Anyway, a very long blog post about this exact thing is why I ignored Tunic for a very long time. But then my youngest brother played it and could not stop praising it, which made me wonder if maybe I’d made the wrong call. And then Tunic was offered up as one of PS+’s free games for May 2024, so I decided to give it a spin. Nothing to lose when something’s free, right?

As it turns out, Tunic is pretty damn excellent. It does have flaws, and big flaws at that! But I’m happy to look past them, because they’re all pretty easy to sidestep.

First off, let’s address the obvious: if you’re looking at basically any screenshot of Tunic, you’re likely to think “Hey, this looks like The Legend of Zelda at a slightly different angle!” And that’s not a bad starting point. Tunic’s general structure does borrow a lot from classic Zelda. From the visual similarities, to the collection of tools (sword, shield, magic rod, hookshot, bombs…) that help you to both fight enemies and traverse the world. There’s even one part of the game where you have to collect blue, red and green medallions to unseal a sacred realm of sorts.

If you actually play the game, though, you’ll start to see more of the Dark Souls influence. You’ll collect a number of healing potions that refill at bonfires. Blocking attacks reduces at your stamina gauge, and the intended way to avoid damage is a dodge roll with a five-frame invincibility window. Dying will put you back at the last bonfire you saved at, and you’ll find a ghost where you died (but thankfully you only lose 20 gold on death). And, of course, the combat is generally quite difficult and punishes players for not constantly being at the pinnacle of their game.

But then, below all that more surface-level stuff is the puzzle layer. And this layer goes deep. Simply navigating the world can be a bit of a puzzle at times, at least until you find some items and shortcuts to help you along. Most of the text in the game is written in a fictional language, and it’s up to you to translate it all if you want to figure out what’s going on and find all the secrets. And then there are several sequences of puzzles that ask you to look at environmental elements and the in-game manual for hints on how to progress. In fact, you’ll be drip-fed hints for the final puzzles of the game throughout your entire playthrough – you just probably won’t realize it until much, much later on. This structure of layering puzzles on puzzles on puzzles reminds me of Fez in all the best ways, and is absolutely what drove me to complete the game to 100-ish%.

To clarify, my save file was 100%-ish instead of a solid 100% because I missed three things: two items that would combine to give me an additional healing potion, and the solution to the final, super-secret puzzle, which has a bunch of ARG elements that I simply have no interest in. There may be other secrets that I missed as well, but those are the three that I am aware of. I did see both endings and claimed the platinum trophy, and I felt like hitting those benchmarks was good enough for me.

Now that I’ve laid out the basic ideas behind the game, here’s a short summary of how it rolls out: The games opens and you have nothing to your name. There is no tutorial, and most of the text on signposts and such is in a made-up language. As you walk around and explore the overworld, you may find a stick with which to beat up monsters. Eventually you’ll stumble upon what looks like a glowing, white playing card. It’s actually a page from the game’s manual, and this is the point where you will start to understand the game.

The Tunic manual is an optional quest of sorts, with 55 pages lost out in the world for you to find throughout the entire course of the game. Some will be immediately helpful, like the page that shows that you can run by holding the roll button, or the pages with full maps of the world and dungeons. But most won’t be obviously helpful, because the manual is written almost entirely in the made-up language. So you’ll find pages as you go and maybe suss out some hints by looking at the pictures and maybe connecting some proverbial dots. I’ll admit that it took me far too long to realize how to increase your stats. The requisite items and cash needed for upgrades were clear enough, but it was at least an hour before I figured out how to use them. This is an action that’s available from the very beginning of the game.

There are also little scribbles all throughout the manual, left by a previous player, which are hints towards all sorts of little secrets hidden throughout the game. Some will point you in the direction of hidden passages, some will give you hints to puzzle solutions, and some are miniscule parts of the massive end-game puzzle that (effectively) unlocks the good ending. It’s one of many amazing little touches in Tunic that make it feel so rewarding to have an eye for detail.

My eye is just not that good, however. I am ashamed to say that when it came to that massive end-game puzzle, I got stumped and needed a little help to set me on the right track. In my defense, every step of said puzzle is shrouded in obscurity, and I spent a lot of time trying to solve it in the completely wrong way. So then when I finally caved and looked up a hint, I had to start all over again, which was a little defeating. It’s also worth noting that there is absolutely no feedback at any point while you’re working on this puzzle, and you could spend hours on it and not make any real headway. Even once you do understand it, the execution is long and precise, and if even one tiny element is out of place, you’ll have to go back and re-check all of your work because there’s no way to know where you made an error. I do think that it’s a pretty brilliant puzzle, but it is definitely tedious.

And speaking of tedious: Don’t translate the manual. Right near the (bad) end of the game, you’ll pick up a manual piece that will give you the hints necessary to create a cipher for the game’s fictional language, but man is it ever complex and a slog to translate. If you were to actually try to sit down and translate every page in Tunic’s manual, I think it would take you the better part of a day. My advice would be to figure out the cipher (because that actually feels incredibly rewarding!), use it to translate one page of your choice to prove that you have the knowledge and ability, then look up the rest online. It’s nothing more than a slog, and felt like a waste of time to me. That said, there’s no need to translate the manual at all if your goal is simply to finish the game. It’s really more of an extra credit task, required only to reach some secrets that don’t do much other than pop achievements/trophies and unlock the ARG puzzle.

It’s also worth noting that I’m not getting any younger, and my patience for video game tasks that I don’t find gratifying is waning. So maybe you’d enjoy translating the entire manual! A younger Ryan probably would have gone through the whole thing, but Old Ryan got through ten or so pages before saying “What am I doing? This is stupid and I’d rather be doing anything else.” If the language was a simple 1-for-1 character swap, that would be one thing, but figuring out how Tunic’s language works is a complex puzzle all on its own, which makes translating it that much more difficult.

And speaking of difficulty:Tunic’s combat actually isn’t that bad. Mostly. The basic monsters are a very real threat when you only have a branch with which to defend yourself and no stat boosts. But once you get a sword and a couple of levels under your belt, they’re no big deal. And even a good number of the bosses aren’t too bad. “Big Sword Guy” from the blog post linked above was my first true roadblock, roughly halfway through the game, and I actually had a lot of fun fighting him over and over until I was finally able to prevail. I think it took me maybe a dozen attempts at most? No big deal, that’s every other boss in Dark Souls. Just another Tuesday.

But then you get to the second “phase” of the game. In this phase, the developers decided that they would define difficulty by stealing all your level ups. So while you get to keep whatever equipment you’ve accumulated, you’ll be getting one-shotted by most enemies and struggling to deal a reasonable amount of damage. And that, in itself, is not so bad. Then I got to the gauntlet “boss”, where you’re forced to fight six waves of different enemy types. Half of them are pretty easy, and the other half can decimate you immediately if you mess up. And then when you die (And you will die. Many, many times.), you get to start all over again. I think I spent at least an hour on this section, and it just about caused me to fully flip out with rage. But then I just barely managed to win, and the prize was so good that my anger was immediately replaced with pure excitement and glee. So, I guess it doesn’t sound too bad, then?

No, it gets bad. To beat the final boss, I had to turn on invincibility in the options menu. I gave it my all, honest. A real college try. Hours of my life were lost to this boss that I simply do not have the reflexes to defeat. So I set down my controller for a moment, said “Fuck this” to nobody in particular, took a deep breath to calm myself, and then made my character immortal. I’m not even ashamed of that one. After wasting hours upon hours bashing my head against the solid titanium wall that is Malenia (blade of Miquella) in Elden Ring, I decided that I was done putting up with that kind of abuse from games. I still enjoy a challenge, mind you, but when a boss fight is so transparently designed to be frustrating and eat a player’s life away… I’m not doing it. Not any more. My time has value, and getting angry at video games is not something I find any value in.

I’m glad that the Tunic team threw in an invincibility option. I don’t think it’s unfair to deduce that having simply included such an option suggests they knew the combat was too damn hard but didn’t want to put in the time/effort/money to fine-tune it. I likely would have given up without it, though! Which would have made me sad, because I really had a wonderful time playing Tunic otherwise. Exploring the world, finding secrets, and solving puzzles is so damn satisfying that I can’t help but have a highly positive opinion of the game despite its incredibly aggravating parts. I thought it was great! But if I ever get the itch to revisit it… I’ll probably just play Fez again instead.

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