clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
a drawing of a fox with a sword Image: Nicole Carpenter/Polygon

Filed under:

Tunic: an illustrated review

A fox with a sword

Nicole Carpenter is a senior reporter specializing in investigative features about labor issues in the game industry, as well as the business and culture of games.

A fox wakes up on a beach.

I feel small when I take control, maneuvering this anthropomorphic animal around a lush, colorful, and unforgiving world. I can dive, roll, and run, all essential in avoiding the many different enemies that lie ahead — blobs that are pink and gooey and others that are as sharp as ice. I start Tunic, the isometric adventure game developed by Andrew Shouldice, with almost nothing. Quickly, though, I find a stick.

The stick is useful, but, of course, it won’t be enough. I know there’s a sword somewhere. There’s always a sword in these sorts of games, the ones that pull nostalgia from the likes of The Legend of Zelda. When I first pull up Tunic’s in-game manual, it’s not much help: It’s missing lots of pages, and the ones I do have are largely covered in a runic language I can’t yet decipher. I search for clues to translate this language by flipping through the available pages, but give up quickly. First, I must find that sword.

I can tell that I’m supposed to explore, and that’s what I do. I hit things with my stick and attempt to dodge any fearsome-looking enemies, following the landscape as it opens up. There are so many pathways to traverse, so many rooms to peek into and peruse. I don’t feel ready for some of these places, and I’m isolated in a world that I don’t understand. And then I find the sword. I feel relieved: The sword lets me access new areas by cutting away bushes. I also have more freedom to move about the world and defeat familiar enemies with much greater ease. But still, they do get some hits in. It’s time to find a shield.

a drawing of swords, sticks, shield — a list of items in Tunic Image: Bart Liang, Nicole Carpenter/Polygon

Tunic is a game that’s intentionally vague, but it’s never obtuse. As a small fox in a seemingly endless world, I’m hesitant to move forward but too curious not to. The isometric, stylized landscape is limited in view due to its camera positioning, with some paths intentionally obscured behind outcrops or tree lines. Visually, the world feels reminiscent of the squares composing The Legend of Zelda’s map.

Eventually, the world starts making more sense: Scattered around the game are missing pages to Tunic’s in-game manual, alongside plenty of curious items. Sometimes these are keys, often for doors I haven’t found yet. I pick up a shield, eventually, and some potionlike bombs that turn things to ice. (Of course, the first thing I do is turn myself into ice.) Some items are more mysterious, like shiny gold coins or spicy-looking peppers. I’ve got the pages in the manual that explain them, but I still haven’t deciphered the language. As is often the case in Tunic, I’m left to experiment. When I feel lost, I scan random pages of the instruction manual to find a clue. When I look closely, I can usually find something to work from.

This is the sort of ethos that I must embrace in Tunic — to have the courage just to try. There are secrets almost everywhere, and hints of so much beyond what I can see on screen. Often, it’s stuff like a shimmering treasure chest that’s just out of reach, or the allure of a manual page across a river with no bridge. My first instinct is to hit everything I see: massive tuning forks, large hooks, and mysterious locked doors. I don’t always like not knowing what to do next, but I never want to stop trying: Tunic’s mystery is compelling enough to feel like I’m not simply running around in circles. It’s always hinting at something larger, encouraging me to look at its cryptic puzzles from new angles. Some of these puzzles are ones that I might never solve —at least, not on my own. But I trust the game, and it seems like the game trusts me, too. It never signposts the next step too clearly.

a drawing of a fox standing in front of a big door from Tunic Image: Bart Liang for Polygon

When publisher Finji sent Tunic codes to press, it stressed that this is a game where collaboration is key, and pointed reviewers to a private Discord server where we could chat while playing. There were rules there, of course — like not being mean to each other and chatting only about the game. But otherwise, we were left to our own devices to simply talk about our Tunic journeys.

The Finji team was right: Collaboration enhances Tunic. There is no doubt that I’d be able to play Tunic on my own, without talking through things with other players. But everyone’s path through Tunic will unfold differently, and thus, everyone will have different understandings of how the world works. And most importantly, another person may have found manual pages that I haven’t yet, providing new information for us both. The communal aspect may not be essential, but it is wonderful.

It felt nostalgic, like playing a video game sitting next to a friend, taking turns flipping the manual pages back and forth. It felt like making notes in those margins, circling hints and clues to come back to later. Sometimes, it was utterly surprising. A person found something so bizarre, unlike anything I’d seen yet in this world — and it flipped the game upside down. There’s the community aspect to the language, too: Little bits open up as others present theories and translation methods, each pulling a different piece of information into the puzzle. When someone makes even the tiniest breakthrough, it feels unreal.

The big question is: Will this sort of community collaboration unfold as the public gains access to Tunic? There are plenty of ways for it to happen organically, both on social media and between friends, as well as through dedicated Discord servers like the one I had access to. The community will certainly be much larger once the game is released, but it’ll be up to players to create these experiences themselves.

a drawing of a desk with the caption “essentials: discord open, tunic manual, controller (optional)” Image: Nicole Carpenter/Polygon

Tunic is so much more than what it first appears to be. When I began playing, I couldn’t help but make a comparison to Death’s Door, the similarly isometric standout game from 2021. There are similarities in the graphical style, sure, but in the combat as well — you could also call Tunic a more “generous” kind of hard video game. It is genuinely hard, but it never feels overly punishing. More than anything, though, Death’s Door trusted its players, and so too does Tunic — maybe to an even greater extent. It trusts that you’ll decipher that manual page, discover that hidden path, help a friend find that next key. It trusts that, whether alone or with a community, you’ll figure things out.

A person’s experience of playing Tunic will absolutely be what they’ve made of it. Those uninterested in secrets or super-challenging gameplay can move along the main path as they please, thanks to these different settings. But there will also be players that revel in knowing everything about the world and defeating all of its bosses. The amazing thing is how Tunic serves all of those players without compromising on either front. This is a delightful, puzzling journey.

Tunic will be released March 16 on Mac, Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X. The game was reviewed on PC using a download code provided by Finji. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.