Who doesn’t love a brawler? It is the spaghetti and meatballs of video games. It is tasty. It is filling. There’s little mystery to it. An auto-pilot meal when a day has you beat. But swap out too many of the key ingredients—the noodles, the sauce, the meatballs—and you’ll eventually find yourself talking about another pasta dish entirely. None of those permutative dishes will satiate the hunger you may have for spaghetti and meatballs, but you probably wouldn’t want, as Kirk Van Houten argued at a PTA meeting, two spaghetti meals in one day.
These beat ‘em up brawlers happen to be having a moment. River City Ransom, Streets of Rage, Battletoads, even the vaporware Scott Pilgrim game are all making comebacks. There’s a charming looking Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle just around the corner. It’s more of a resurgence than a renaissance; the existence of games like Devil May Cry, Yakuza, Treachery in Beatdown City and Friends of Ringo Ishikawa are evidence that the genre’s renaissance already happened.
Tunche is a new brawler moulded by Peruvean folklore. It follows four young heroes (plus the Hat Kid from Hat in Time) each looking to confront the titular forest spirit for their own rites. While always an intimidating creature, Tunche’s terror in the Amazon has seemingly escalated, with other beasts imbued with fearsome powers and ripping a path of destruction.
Tunche was successfully kickstarted back in 2019, and it’s not hard to see what drew fans to the project. Lush, colorful and tied together with vibrant character animations, Tunche’s picture book sensibilities are a nice treat. The monsters pestering the deep Amazon have some imaginative critters among them. I am especially fond of the scorpion hiding in a log like a hermit crab. The developers also promised a game that fuses beat-em-ups with roguelike elements: two genres that have often proved malleable.
There’s a bit to untangle in your first run. At least four separate types of stat points accumulate while bopping mean frogs and bad birds. From traditional coins and XP to more ethereal magics and orbs that can be spent on certain upgrades when starting back at camp, some resources are shared between characters, including couch co-op friends, while others are fixed. For example, you can chance-encounter ‘Cores’ during each run. Cores function similarly to Hades’ boons, except in Tunche you can permanently level up your favorites before heading out. Those boosts will apply to each hero across the board, though it never guarantees that anyone’ll stumble upon them on a run.
River Basin Ransom
Each of the five characters begin with three very standard, nearly identical attacks: a melee, a projectile and a launching uppercut. Their more distinctive combos and attacks require some grinding to unlock. Even basic abilities, like ground pounds and mid-air recoveries, have to be paid for in each character—which is where Tunche begins to feel short of what’s grand between its influences.
Rewards in Tunche are more generous if you maintain a high ‘style’ rating in each encounter. You achieve greater style by using more varieties of attacks and avoid getting dinged. These rewards can be very useful in unlocking new combos, but you may already start to sniff out what’s stubborn about this system. Starting with only three attacks, you will likely rely on repeating the same three-strike air and ground combos. That’ll generally hover you at a B rating. Even the Cores are means tested. Cores that can add lightning and poison effects to each attack only have a chance of working if your Style is above an A. That condition never changes even if you invest in levelling Cores up.
This peculiar system pays off if you’d like to preemptively buff up each character for when a friend comes over, but not if your chum wants to play with you from the get-go. Having to reach a later point where the combat makes itself more interesting doesn’t make for a compelling adventure. Enemies do considerably more damage as each level progresses (the dang fish can chomp off a fifth of your health). It makes sense as a way to close the gameplay loop and encourage you to master the earlier worlds, but worlds do not offer much more upon repeat visits. Set pieces, the greatest attraction brawlers have in their corner, do not exist in Tunche. Bosses, grotesque monster versions of otherwise cuddly snuggly animals, are Tunche at its best, but do not mix things up for rematches.
Style takes precedence
Games like Streets of Rage and Turtles in Time made themselves classics with audacious spectacles, making up for their inevitable elevator stages. Games like Enter the Gungeon, Hades and Binding of Isaac sweeten each run with distinct combat that swirls itself up on each visit, driving players to discover their favorite loadouts or enjoying the compromises when luck proves rotten.
Tunche does not do either of these things. Each stage is a field without so much as a hill. Alterations to combat are basically bottlenecked in the homebase, while randomised Cores do not really make much of a difference in how you scrap.
Little changes between each playthrough of Tunche, and not a whole lot happens during them. Tunche best serves fans and friends of dishing knuckle sandwiches together, but doesn’t synchronise its genre mashups in a way that elevates it above the many RPG-tinted beat ‘em ups stomping around out there.