Tunic, an indie adventure game that melds influences from The Legend of Zelda and Dark Souls into an adorable and mysterious package, has taken over my brain for the past two weeks. It’s been ages since I beat a game and plunged into the New Game Plus mode without so much as stopping to refill the glass of water on my desk. I have to admit, though: I never would have gotten to the end — let alone enjoyed the ride as much as I did — without occasionally using the game’s “No Fail” mode.
As much as I have savored the puzzles and sense of discovery in Tunic, I’ve struggled with its combat. The tiny vulpine hero’s sword swings feel floaty, sluggish, and imprecise. The game lacks the laser-like precision of similar combat-heavy isometric games like Hades, where failure always felt like my own fault. In Tunic, I’d often fail combat sequences simply because I hadn’t landed an attack head-on, or dodged in the exact right direction — even though I often felt certain that my button-presses should have done the job. Even after a dozen hours of combat in Tunic and several difficult boss battles, I still don’t quite feel like I have the hang of it.
I don’t blame Tunic’s development team for this. It’s composed almost entirely of one person, Andrew Shouldice, who designed and programmed the game. Additional art came from Eric Billingsley and ma-ko, and the game’s gorgeous score is a credit to Terence Lee and Janice Kwan. Still, the combat design was all on Shouldice, as well as the level design and puzzle ideation. Tunic is an incredible feat — especially considering that it didn’t have a larger team to help polish off its rougher edges.
It’s for that very reason that I’ve felt no remorse about turning on Tunic’s “No Fail” mode. I didn’t use it the entire time; I’d first explore each dungeon with combat fully engaged, enjoying the rigors of battle and the hardship of failure as I learned my way around. But once I’d gotten the sense of each dungeon’s map, I no longer felt the need to battle every single enemy over and over. I’d turn on “No Fail” and dive into each location’s secrets, not worrying about dying as I unearthed every last chest and power-up.
With “No Fail” turned on, Tunic’s hero still has to engage in battle, and when they get hit, their health meter still ticks downward. When the health gauge reaches zero, however, the hero doesn’t die; their meter just stays at zero forever while the fight continues. There’s also a setting to turn off the stamina counter, allowing the fox to always have a full gauge of stamina. I didn’t use that as often, since I enjoyed wrestling with the stamina gauge (just as I do in Dark Souls) but not having to completely respawn helped me enjoy the game’s puzzles without a sense of dread.
Tunic’s puzzles are easily its best asset; in my view, they’re the entire reason to play the game. My favorite part was exploring every single room for hidden ladders, doorways, and paths. I’d slowly walk all the way around each individual area, inching along bridges to see if the telltale A-button prompt would appear, thereby indicating a hidden ladder to climb onto. I’d scramble behind walls, my fox barely visible, hoping to see the same prompt indicating a hidden chest to open.
The game also has significantly more complex puzzles, like learning certain button patterns to unlock specific types of doors, as well as collecting every single page of the in-game manual and making sense of the mysterious language in which it’s written. The more I played Tunic, the more of its world I unlocked and understood — but, again, I wouldn’t have bothered to play for so long if I’d been dealing with the mushy swordplay that entire time.
I love to create challenges for myself in combat-heavy games, learning every precise movement that I need to perform in order to win. Metroid Dread’s boss battles, for example, hit the exact right spot in my brain; I loved both the challenge and the sense of pride I felt when I had learned the dance steps necessary to avoid and counter each and every attack. But in Tunic, I just never had that experience — and that’s okay. It’s not the game’s strong point, and it doesn’t need to be. By using “No Fail” mode, I got to enjoy the game’s best parts, and I’m still hungry for more. There are puzzles left that I have yet to solve, and the game has given me the exact tool I need to face them and enjoy every moment.