This week in Zero Punctuation, Yahtzee reviews Tunic.
Well, I'm prepared to tentatively say that AAA releases are drying up for a bit. Is that right, AAA industry? Are you done spewing? Would you like a glass of water and a lie-down? Oh shit, here comes another heave. Eugh! You got Kirby and the Forgotten Land all over the rug; it's going to stink like Pepto-Bismol in here now! Yeah, I played Kirby and the Forgotten Land. I have kids now; I needed to make sure it didn't have any murders or blasphemy against Jesus. But some people asked me to review it, and honestly, the prospect of doing so for my knob gag-infused video series fills me with depression. I mean, what do you want me to say, besides knob gags? It's a fucking Kirby game! Yeah, I could complain about how it takes itself slightly too seriously for a game where you play a stylized hemorrhoid that could've been designed in five minutes with a pink highlighter and a saucer to draw around, but that's like going to Johnny Pillows-for-Hands' massage parlor and complaining that I just got batted with pillows for an hour.
"But it's the first ever fully 3D Kirby game, Yahtz!" Oh, fuck off! Look, I'm wearing a Sooty puppet; it's the first ever real-time Sooty performance in this room. Who cares?! That doesn't lend it meaning! Oh my goodness, Sooty's hitting you with a tree branch! It's your first ever hand puppet foliage-based bodily assault; mark the fucking calendar! So no, I'm not doing Kirby today; if only there was something that combined the nostalgic vibes of a first-party Nintendo game with an original IP and being generally meatier than a petrol station sausage roll. Well, happily, there is; it's called Tunic, it came out in March, and I finally finished it, now all those AAA bird-watching simulators are done selfishly hogging my afternoons.
But indie games don't get a free ride from me just for not being AAA; a kick in the kneecap doesn't not hurt just because it's not a rake to the goolies. And indie has the same issue as AAA in that there's two or three genres of game made that are massively over-represented and get all the coverage: roguelikes, retro-style hack and slashers with Souls-like elements, or roguelike retro-style hack and slashers with etc.; Tunic, for the record, being of the second lot. You play an adorable little fox-boy with a sword who has to rescue his adorable isometric world by fixing all the machinery in all the ruined, yet surprisingly functional ancient temples, and kill a lot of blob monsters and skeletons like a combination pest controller/ancient magical bullshit support technician.
So far, pretty standard; it's even got that smoothly-textured visual style things like Death's Door and the Link's Awakening remake have that makes everything look like cat toys strewn across the top of a wedding cake, complete with a tilt-shift focus to complete the effect of looking like we've just marched fully-formed out of a Happy Meal box. But while Tunic isn't doing a lot new at first glance, it does a lot of things right; I know because, a few hours in, it gave me that now sadly rare little jolt of realization, where I go, "I'm kind of into this!"
There's another dimension underlying Tunic's simple surface; part of it's that one of the central mechanics is collecting all the pages for what looks very convincingly like a retro-style manual for the game we're currently playing, printed largely in an incomprehensible made-up language. It puts a new light on the usual retro game nostalgia, recreating the feeling of coming home with a new game you got at the car boot sale, only to find it's the original Japanese version, but you were determined to make the best of it, 'cos you'd already blown all the money you got from cleaning hardened toothpaste stains off of Mrs. Boothroyd's cat, so you did your best to figure things out from the imagery and the manual alone, and doing so lent the game an additional layer of arcane mystery, that would've been lost if you'd been able to read the thing that says that Billy the Blob Monster is very cross at you for no reason, and you'd better watch out for when his big brother shows up.
That's the 100% universal childhood experience that Tunic evokes; it pulls off the air of a deeper mystery, one that's fully entwined with the game mechanics, as certain things like upgrading your character and activating statues require a slightly esoteric process that has to be deciphered from the pages of the manual. And the isometric perspective frequently and deliberately conceals paths within the level geometry; the manual does contain maps, some more abstract than others, but it's not always obvious which one you're currently on, so figuring out basic things like where you are and where you're going requires just that little bit of extra effort to make it interesting, and it drew me in a lot better than just making beelines for the objective markers like a toddler who's just noticed an uncovered electrical socket.
It's a nice feeling: "Hey, look at me! I found a hidden chest behind a wall, because I figured out what a symbol meant on a map! Give me a frozen beard and several doomed mates, and I'm basically Robert Falcon Scott!" But importantly, the way forward is never so obscure as to leave you stuck for too long, which reflects good design and pacing; no, it's the major boss fights that'll get you stuck, if anything. Ho yes, welcome back to Earth, Captain Scott! Let's see how those map-reading skills help you against this giant possessed nest of tables.
Combat's got that Zelda feel where your basic attack looks like your character just holds out the sword and then very aggressively spins like a Mickey Mouse watch going haywire, but if you take the approach of standing there, mashing "Attack" like the business end of an automated kitchen appliance, then you'll swiftly learn a harsh lesson in proper food preparation. That, plus the sense of unease one gets from the way the world seems to be falling apart at the seams as we get nearer the end, fuels the realization, "Hey, this isn't a Zelda-like at all! It's a Souls-like!" Our green-suited Beanie Baby protagonist is barreling towards one of those depressing Souls-like endings where we're left alone to hold off the darkness at the edge of the world for eternity or something, rather than the grateful rescued princess and implied off-screen royal hand shandy.
So if I were to get a whine going, the individual grapes I'd use would be the slightly off-putting difficulty spike the boss fights represent, as I'm forced to battle a giant crab robot essentially by getting within "workplace sexual harassment charges" range of his dangling metallic testicles. I wonder if some of these battles weren't designed for a protagonist with a longer weapon, one that perhaps couldn't do an equally efficient job by belly-dancing fast enough to thwack the enemy with their nipple piercings. I'm also not a huge fan of the inventory menu, and the way it doesn't pause the game; there really is no excuse for that in an offline experience. I've got all these funky consumables that I can't bloody use, 'cos there's only three equip slots, and if I go into the menu to switch one of them in, I'm going to get pounded like a recurring pop-up ad's "Cancel" button, and then get confused and flustered and reassign all my equipment trying to find the "Menu Close" button, and end up slinging individual lemon curd tartlets at the boss instead of bombs.
But those are petty nits to pick, and at the end of the day, I'd definitely recommend a look at Tunic. Probably the best game since Sacred Armour of Antiriad to be named after the complete text of the main character's laundry list.
- Cuddle until it hurts: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- I guess I could've gone with Fez for games named after the only thing the protagonist wears but I felt a need to swing my retro gaming peen
- Wait does Fez count as retro now