Every Friday, A.V. Club staffers kick off our weekly open thread for the discussion of gaming plans and recent gaming glories, but of course, the real action is down in the comments, where we invite you to answer our eternal question: What Are You Playing This Weekend?
I’m a sucker for a good idea in a video game. Give me one good hook—an inventive use of time travel, a great approach to mysteries, even just a novel premise like “Go power wash this dirty car, sucker,” and I’m in for however many hours that idea can sustain. (And if that hook involves a grappling hook? Oh baby, we’re off to the races then.)
Tunic, the new game from developer Andrew Shouldice, has two hooks, as it happens. One is obvious from the moment you boot the game, and see that Shouldice and his collaborators have built one of the most beautiful little worlds in recent gaming memory. Viewed from the top-down, and supported with a beautiful score that wouldn’t feel out of place on the Super Nintendo or original PlayStation, Tunic’s toybox world is gorgeous and lively—especially your playable character, an adorable little fox clearly modeled with fashion choices reminiscent of The Legend Of Zelda’s Link.
The second hook is a little more esoteric—but also potentially far more long-lasting. See, Tunic comes with very little in the way of tutorializing or instructions out of the box. Instead, you’ll get your guide for how to control your little fox guy by reading through the game’s manual… which exists as a physical object within the game, torn into various pieces by some mystical calamity or another. Pick one up, and you’re treated to two more gorgeously realized pages from this fictional, NES-style book—which just happens to mostly be written in an original “foreign” script, with just enough English to be basically comprehensible.
It’s a gorgeous idea. At once, Shouldice has handed players a treasure, a puzzle, a nostalgic artifact, and more, all wrapped up in beautiful and period-appropriate art. It supports the game’s central mysteries superbly, allowing Tunic to reveal fundamental powers that you, as a player, have possessed since the moment the game began—if you’d only known they were there. It makes information the most valuable treasure it’s possible to find. It rattles the nostalgia neurons, conjuring memories of flipping through the manual for Zelda 2 or StarTropics once upon a time, desperately harvesting them for secrets. It, even more than the world itself, contributes to the sense of secrecy that pervades Tunic’s gorgeously realized reality.
In fact, the addition of the manual pays off so well, and with so many varied dividends, that I’ve continued to play Tunic for several hours past when I otherwise would have stopped, on account of… not actually liking playing Tunic all that much.
Which sounds harsh, I know. I may just have something against isometric adventure games, especially ones with this kind of slow-paced, methodical combat; I didn’t much care for last year’s Death’s Door, either, which put me out of tune with plenty of players and critics.
(I could go into a whole rant here about how that camera structure, which gives the appearance of looking down at the world from an angle, encourages developers to hide 8 million secrets in the bits of the screen the arbitrary camera can’t see; if only Shouldice and his team had adopted Fez’s rotating camera as readily as they did its fascination with asking players to translate invented languages.)
Beyond that, though—and the methodical, slightly plodding nature of the game’s fights—I’m just struggling to care very much about the world, beautiful as it is: Say what you like about writing your game in a language your audience understands, but it sure helps maintain attachment once the initial “Gosh, this is pretty” bloom is off the rose.
But I’m still playing, because that’s also the power of a good idea: I know this game can wow me, because it already has. There’ve been at least two moments where finding a new manual page has radically changed my understanding of how Tunic is meant to be played, and that’s a hell of a magic trick to keep pulling off. I’m invested enough to believe Shouldice can surprise me again, and, well, like I said: I’ll put up with a whole hell of a lot of B- gaming for that kind of A+ surprise.
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