>> Tunic

Finished on Xbox with the pacifist ending

Tunic is a very deceptive game where its art style and aesthetics indicate a Zelda inspired game yet for the most part it is a basic Souls-like with stamina, roll, death and other genre mechanics. What makes this game special is its bold commitment to hide or obscure information such as its mechanics, tutorial, story and in particular the in-game manual which appeals to nostalgia when game cartridges used to come with a manual but a foreign language. In a way, understanding and beating the game with the bits and pieces becomes its own meta-game. To summarize my thoughts and feelings though, I can break down the game by its two end goals.

If the player's goal is to free the princess and beat the last boss, the game is an action game. As a Souls-like though, it is rather simple and basic without much depth even with the talismans and items. Talking about the combat mechanics, I find it strange that the player receives more damage when their stamina is low or critical. The only thing that consumes stamina is rolling and guarding to prevent overreliance, but the stamina resource becomes a non-issue with enough stat upgrades. Once the dodge is upgraded, blocking becomes less viable or appealing, making dodge the only consumer since it is much faster and safer. I think items and attacks should also require stamina, but the game would be significantly slower than it has to just to make stamina meaningful. So removing stamina altogether, adding a slight cooldown to dodge and perhaps a seperate guard resource would be a better experience.

Next, the parry mechanic feels awkward with a delayed timing since the animation is so long with a long startup, short active window and a long recovery. It vastly differs from the quick reaction-based parry or deflection; however, this style of parry requires time or experimentation to determine the actual delayed parry timing. The reward for parrying is an enemy stagger, but this can be outright slower and riskier while the magic items can be more efficient and faster specially the grab or fireball magic item. Another issue is that some enemies attacks are faster than the startup that must be parried before any attack animation like the tall spear enemy's thrust which feel awkward. I think just removing the startup but keeping the long recovery would be okay.

The consumable items are also not viable enough or encourage use because of its issues. The first is being they are too expensive relative to enemy drops where it may be more efficient to save for stat upgrades instead. As chest rewards, they are underwhelming or their quantities should be increased. I wish they are also rechargable or common drops from enemies with a limited capacity to encourage use. Another issue is that the enemies and overall combat difficulty and enemy variety do not necessitate use. The one good thing I can say is the extra bonus items when an item is repeatedly use which is a kind of item level or progression, but again the prior issues make it only a minor consolation.

Lastly, the special items and talismans do not change the gameplay that much aside from handling enemies better. If items provide debuffs and magic is restored via attacking, they could offer more utility, depth and be better balanced. One imbalanced item is the pull magic item with its low cost since and stuns enemies momentarily for at least a two hit combo and then pulling again to stack the damage and combine that with the magic flask talisman for more uses to easily handle enemies and some bosses. One talisman idea is that ranged items do not consume magic but stamina or allow magic to be refillable through attacks which can make ranged combat more viable in general. Also consider item specific talisman modifiers can be intriguing such as giving the sword a projectile wave, the stick a magic transformation effect, the flame wand a bigger fireball and effect but slower, less stamina on guard while reflecting melee damage and so much more to make gameplay more spicy.

The biggest tell for me is that the combat is not that polished is the combat gauntlet by the midgame. The gauntlet is fighting six enemy waves of enemies in the order the player chooses with only the default stats while redoing the whole if the player dies in between. Items are still accessible although not viable with the low stamina and magic resource, but the defensive talisman is quite valuable here for the survivability. The only difficult part of this gauntlet is the fighting two of the first boss then patience in kiting the remaining waves which feels more attrition than skill. Completing the gauntlet upgraded the dodge to be faster but afterwards the combat peaks in enemy difficulty or mechanics making it seem my investment was meaningless. In a way, this peak also indicates a transition to another genre.

After hours in the game, information can be found about an alternative possible pacifist ending (manual page 46) where the game becomes a puzzle game instead. Without spoiling exact details, the player must collect a certain collectible by praying (manual page 44) through a button sequence where each one has their own prayer. Acquiring all of it, unlocks information about the game's language that allows the final puzzle to be deciphered and solved which gives the pacifist ending. Acquring this ending instead soured my enjoyment of the game.

Before talking about the collectible, one of the things that make this game unique is its game manual where it emulates the feel of a booklet by flipping throught its pages. The manual is the player's main source of information for the lore, mechanics and map, but it is obscured by an in-game language. Despite that, most of the details can be inferred through the images and some English words in the manual. The other catch is that the manual is incomplete and pages of it can be found in-game. While mostly not hard to find, each page can help find some of those collectible and most importantly how to solve them.

Despite being called secrets, I will be calling them puzzles since they are all required specially and judging them by how they are found and solved. While it can be a joy, they have major issues in both aspects. Regarding how they are found, it is important to discuss some problems with the camera. Unlike a top-down camera, isometric cameras need to be designed not to obscure paths from foreground elements such as walls or tall objects and also reveal some area when traveling through them as to not move blindly. However, this game hides so many paths or entrances by this principle like its many shortcuts and not clearly hinting traversible paths that requires tedious checking of edges. While this might be clever, it becomes a significant annoyance when finding the collectibles. The worst example is a collectible hidden behind the only bomb breakable wall that is also obscured by a foreground element which just feel cheap. If these paths were signposted, the discovery of these collectibles would feel more active than accidental.

The greater issue in finding them is how hidden they are in plain sight. I do not mind reexploring old areas with new abilities, but the backtracking feels aimless without clear indicators or point of interest which leads to constant backtracking. Some are the numerical sequences and ground lines since they feel so randomly placed and harder to do with the camera. Some are noticing something doing something for a period of time which feels more of a waste of time. In general, when I learned something was a puzzle, I was more annoyed that it was trying to be clever.

On solving them, the overall puzzle design here is more monotonous and boring. Some are blocked by foreground elements, some are recording or tracing a pattern, some are just noticing its there. Overall, I felt the game tried to stretch one gimmick mechanic too much. Praying is incrediblly error prone and unclear without a feedback system. Specially the final puzzle or some secrets, the inputs can be so long that any input errors cannot be detected and the player must restart the inputs which can be draining. I understand the inspiration, but it made the puzzle experience worse being the only method. Perhaps adding more puzzle mechanics like incorporating items and maybe requiring only half to decipher the manual can help with the monotony and pacing.

Not to say the game has no good puzzles, I did appreciate the one reflected in the water since it required thinking about orientation. The final one is quite nice although it was somewhat tedious with the manual interface and missing data. The debatable one is scattered across the game that requires taking a screenshot and combining it possibly with an external image editor which can be a barrier. At least the worst ones are optional secrets such a music puzzle or standing in a specific area for a minute if you can call that a puzzle.

Neither is this game a good action or puzzle game but the effort and intent to replicate the nostalgia is respectable although flawed. Looking back, the obfuscation of its information and mechanic feel more gimmicky now and the effort to decipher the language may not be worth the effort. Although I realize that some people enjoy and even thrive on this level of obscurity, I wish the game clued me in earlier instead near the endgame for me to understand this game was not for me.