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When we spoke to Tunic developer Andrew Shouldice recently about the various influences and experiences that played a key role in shaping his upcoming game, he made a point of highlighting the joy of poring over instruction manuals and paper guides as an aspect of gaming’s past that he and his small team have attempted to pay homage to in their Zelda-esque action adventure.

As you make your way through the world of Tunic, you’ll collect the tattered old pages of one such instruction manual, replete with inky scribbles and notes from a previous user, that have been hidden in and around areas, each one helping to slowly piece together a wonderfully detailed guide to understanding and traversing the mystery through which you’ll navigate your cute little Canidae hero. It’s evocative stuff, for sure, and the attention to detail and care that’s been put into nailing the vibe of an 80s/90s paper manual is plain to see.

Yes, far from being just a super-stylish form of in-game collectible, this gradually growing tome is absolutely woven into the very fabric of your adventure, it’s an indispensable part of the core gameplay loop, a critical companion that sits right at the heart of this achingly clever puzzle-box of a game, helping you to find your bearings, join the dots and move steadily forwards through the roadblocks and mysteries that stand in your way.

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As you collect guide pages, you’ll come to understand everything from the most basic mechanics – what a particular potion or item actually does when you drink or equip it – to the precise steps that need to be taken in order to succeed in your solitary mission. It’s such a satisfying mechanic here because it carries so much weight in helping you to progress, you genuinely need to refer to it – to studiously pore over it just like back in the old days – and so discovering each and every entry, returning every page to its rightful place, makes for a super satisfying reveal of much-needed nuggets of information, rather than being just another throwaway collectible aspect for the sake of padding out your adventures.

And what adventures they are. Tunic may at first appear to be a fairly standard tribute to the classic Zelda action of yore, with your Fox avatar cutting a familiar figure as they awaken on a beach at the start of the game, and it’s certainly an experience that has its beginnings firmly rooted in the classic gaming adventures we all know and love, but it also quickly branches out and escalates from this into something that’s very much its own thing.

Yes, there’s a hefty dose of Link involved in the early gathering of critical tools required to traverse areas and unlock various paths forward, there’s also more than a dash of Dark Souls about the stamina-based combat and regeneration of enemies as you save and refill your health and magic at statues dotted around the game world, but Tunic then adds its own clever elements to all of this. It uses its isometric viewpoint to hide clever secret paths and tricksy shortcuts all over its game world, playing with perspective in order to constantly surprise and confound. There are fast tracks to other areas everywhere here, but – unless you’re checking every corner at all times – you won’t necessarily find them until the game wants you to, and every time it does this it’s a delight.

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There’s echoes of Fez in the way that Tunic toys with and manipulates what you can and can’t see, and it makes progressing through areas, discovering shortcuts and putting this jigsaw of a world together an absolute joy. Rather than pit you against room-sized puzzles like those found in its most obvious inspirations, here the entire world is one great big riddle to be solved. And you’ll need those all-important guide pages, alongside a decent helping of patience and perseverance, in order to piece together where to go next and how and when to use the tools you’re given to inch ever closer to your final objective.

It’s thoroughly engrossing stuff, hard to put down when you’re on a good run of discovery, and it’s enhanced to no end by a world that introduces itself through the traditional forests and caves we’ve come to expect from this particular genre of game before branching out into the unexpected, into places and predicaments that we absolutely don’t want to spoil here. Indeed, this is an adventure that’s worth diving into as unsullied as you possibly can with regards to the delights and mysteries it has in store. Jump in without and any foreknowledge whatsoever and you’re in for a proper treat.

In terms of combat too, although early on it can be a little slow-going, and we never felt entirely comfortable with the limited reach of our hero’s short little sword, there’s solid action to enjoy here, and it’s action that improves with the introduction of a handful of magic powers a little further down the line as you’re pitted against a bunch of excellent – and surprisingly tough - boss encounters. Indeed, comparisons to the Souls series go beyond stamina-based mechanics here as the difficulty, the trial and error required to best bosses, is highly reminiscent of some of FromSoftware’s work. They may not be as completely overwhelming as Dark Souls' most horrific encounters, but you’ll need to be properly prepared, you’ll need to gather coin from fallen foes, grind a little to upgrade your core stats and be sure to check your burgeoning in-game manual for precious hints and tips if you’re to emerge successful.

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It’s an experience that constantly surprises and continues to up the ante rather than settling into predictable rhythms as it progresses. Rolling into the final third of Tunic is where things really come alive too, as the story seemingly comes to a close the game pulls back the curtain ever further, revealing more twists and turns, more surprises, puzzles, treasures and paths to explore as you attempt to bring things to a “proper” end.

Yes, we’re remaining super vague on story and various mechanical details here, but only because we really don’t want to spoil a second of this indie gem for you. Tunic is all about exploring and digging in for yourself, going off the beaten path and forging your own way forward as you discover and delight in its surprises and mysteries. It gives you the tools you need, scatters the information necessary to success around its stages and allows you approach things from various angles, resulting in a wonderfully free-form adventure that’s so much more than it appears at the outset. It’s no wonder that this one took the several years it did to reach us, as it’s an almost immaculately realised thing, a fascinating and fantastic adventure that’s one of the very best games we've played so far in 2022.

Conclusion

Tunic is a fantastically clever adventure that kicks off in familiar Zelda-esque fashion before branching out to become its own thing entirely. There's an exquisitely designed world to explore here, a great big puzzle-box to probe and prod at as you progress through a story that's got just the right amount of mystery and intrigue about it to keep you hooked in. Combat can be a little clumsy at points early on but it improves as new powers are introduced and the game develops and grows into a surprisingly big, surprisingly challenging experience that's absolutely one of our favourite games of 2022 so far.