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Sunday, April 14, 2024

'Tunic' Is the Game of the Year That No One’s Talking About

an indie video game published by Finji, Tunic pulls from the Zelda and Souls series in a reverent manner that feels both cohesive and transformative. After playing it, I’m convinced the game is a masterpiece worth celebrating, a small gem strewn among the heap of blockbuster releases in 2022. You play as a cartoon fox who is stranded on an island with lethal monsters and must uncover intricate secrets hidden in plain sight.

Your adventure begins on the beach, and disparate environments lie ahead through a forest. In a quarry, players battle animals wearing gas masks to traverse further beneath the surface, soaked in the fuchsia glow of oversize crystal formations, and on the mountain, you zip past crumbling architecture blanketed in snow as you search for a way to the top.

The game was primarily created by Andrew Shouldice. Before Tunic, he worked at a Canadian publisher, Silverback, which specialized in puzzle games. During an interview on the Waypoint Radio podcast, the developer spoke about early iterations of the game and its core. “One of the things that ends up being a very important part of Tunic’s design is being able to slip behind corners and explore in places where it feels like you’re not supposed to be,” Shouldice said.

The game’s art design is enchanting; colors are saturated like a crisp dream. The ethereal, synth-laden soundtrack gently elevates the experience and soothes when appropriate; all 60 tracks are purchasable on Bandcamp. Tunic’s isometric perspective is central to its construction, and curious players are often rewarded. As you scour the island picking up stronger weapons, unlocking chests, and forging pathways, you also collect cryptic pages of a guidebook. Although it is only partially in English, the guidebook is filled with maps, hints, and strategies essential for excelling at Tunic.

The more I paid attention to the guidebook and sought additional pages, the more fun I had with Tunic. Enigmatic dungeons are littered with spiky traps, piercing lasers, and criss-crossing paths that lead to unexpected places. Consulting the detailed maps helped me stumble through the darkness. Harking back to the golden age of physical releases, the pages would look wonderful in print and have a surprising tactile sense despite their digital nature.

Compared to the other game I’m playing right now, Elden Ring, the combat in Tunic is more accessible and avoidable. Anytime a boss or cadre of monsters proves too difficult, you have the choice to go into Settings, click Options, then Accessibility, and turn on No Fail Mode. The puzzles and world exploration may still prove challenging, but the fighting is less of a barrier to entry. Tunic even prioritizes deftness over brute force with a secret ending.

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A speed-run of the game clocking in under 30 minutes is fascinating to watch (and, of course, contains spoilers). Twikax, the expert player in the video, uses some of Tunic’s items in ways I had not considered before. In addition, the speed-run demonstrates just how much is hidden from players in the opening scenes and how parts of the map loop together.

Released in March as part of Xbox Game Pass, Tunic is also available to buy on Steam ($30 USD) for Windows or Mac computers. Even though the aesthetics and structures of Tunic align well with Nintendo’s platform, it is not currently available to play on the Switch. If the game is ever released for Switch, I would definitely be tempted to play through it again.

Tunic is not without faults. I had trouble locating one section of the island, and I felt frustrated, at times, by the game’s concealed mechanics. A more patient gamer could revel in the mysteries as they unfold, but I consulted online walk-throughs during the latter half of my adventure.

When Nintendo announced that the Breath of the Wild sequel was rolling over to 2023, my Twitter feed was filled with video game commentators cheekily congratulating Elden Ring on winning game of the year. WIRED staff writer William Bedingfield made a strong case upon its release for Elden Ring to take home the crown. But the critical consensus surrounding Elden Ring may be more tenuous than it seems. Those chosen to review it were predominantly dedicated fans of the franchise. And other heavy hitters, like God of War: Ragnarok and Starfield, loom in the distance. In a few months, as discussions continue on what title stood above the rest in 2022, overlooking Tunic would be a mistake. This tiny tour de force is a worthy contender for game of the year.

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