A limitless surge of determination
This review would have come along sooner, but I’m afraid I fell down a hole. It was deep, and it was dark, and at first I was quite scared. Then I picked myself up, dusted off my clothes, and began to explore. I eventually found my way out, but what met me at the exit compelled me to come back in again, and then a third time. Each time I was in the same underworld, but each time the journey was different. Through it all, though, Undertale filled me with the determination I needed to keep moving forward.
Undertale sets a simple stage. Long ago, the world was inhabited by both humans and monsters. Although they lived in harmony at first, eventually the humans waged war on the monsters, driving them underground by force. You play a child who, hundreds of years after the war, accidentally falls deep underground. Starting out in the ancient ruins of the first Monster civilization, a journey is begun that will span the entirety of the underground, and become one of the most unique gaming experiences of the last few years.
Anyone with a healthy knowledge of the 8- and 16-bit eras of gaming will take one look at Undertale and get immediate vibes of Nintendo classic Earthbound. The gameplay of Undertale pokes at similarity, but only so far as it’s turn-based nature. In reality, Undertale is one part RPG, one part bullet hell, and one part social sim. The player can kill monsters, but is also given the opportunity to interact with them in varying ways, finding ways to defeat them non-lethally. These methods include plucking Christmas presents off a deer’s horns, getting into a flexing contest with a muscular horse-man, and making a pair of menacing guards fall in love with each other. I often found myself excited simply to meet the next new monster the game had in store, so I could solve the social puzzles of how to defeat it.
Undertale‘s narrative system allows the player to take on whatever kind of role they want in Undertale’s story; friend to monsterkind, brutal murderer, or neutral traveler. Undertale transcends games that simply make your choices affect the game’s ending (looking at you, Dishonored), and goes much farther. Depending on what kind of person you are in the underground, the story will change radically. All follow the same physical path through Undertale‘s world, but the player’s interactions with that world change the narrative in stark ways. If the player takes a genocidal route and kills one central character early on in the game, that character’s sibling emerges near the game’s end, as possibly the hardest boss in the game. If the player takes no lives at all, characters will stick around and form relationships with the player and each other that never would have existed otherwise. Undertale may do a better job of having player choice affect the overarching story than just about any other game that attempts such a feat.
Something else that makes Undertale unique is the aforementioned bullet hell battle system. During the opponents turn in battle, players pilot a small heart meant to represent the main character’s soul, moving around to avoid various kinds of assaults. Enemy attacks range from simple pellets flying around the screen to more unusual offerings, such the love of dogs, or a helpful-but-deadly water spray from a monster who honestly just wants to help you get clean. Additional elements are introduced to make things both easier and harder. Color-coded light blue attacks will only harm a moving target, and green ones will actually heal the player.
One wild card, shuffled into a deck comprised mostly of other wild cards, is the game’s boss battles, almost all of which throw some kind of new twist on the way battles work. One fight adds gravity to the mix, turning the battle into a series of brief 2D platforming levels. Another memorable battle fixes the player’s soul into the center of the screen and subjects it to a 4-directional game of DDR. These and other twists come every couple hours throughout Undertale, and work remarkably well. Never does a single one of them feel forced or out of place, but instead like a new challenge that adds to the fun. When a game is as varied as Undertale is to begin with, additional twists are make-or-break. Undertale is, thankfully, a maker, not a breaker.
As inventive and entertaining as Undertale‘s gameplay is, something must also be said for its story. By “something,” I mean “many things.” The central storyline of Undertale is simple. You are human in a world of monsters, and you would like to make your way out of said world of monsters. Some monsters want you dead, but others simply see you as another weird inhabitant of their weird world. The main story has a nice twist at the end regardless of which way you play, and the true nature of the underground world of Undertale is revealed over the course of the whole game, in a way that really keeps the player invested. Before the game was over, I found myself sympathizing with the monsters, and wishing for a brighter future for their world, even though I knew the cost. Something seemingly meaningless after the game’s first hour may come back as a vital part of the plot five hours later, and each such connection is always delivered with a brass-knuckle punch.
Undertale‘s top-quality writing also surpasses major story beats. Along the way, the player becomes part of the stories of various characters the Underground, from Royal Guard members to shopkeepers and fastfood chain employees. Undertale has some of the best humorous character writing in any game in 2015, with a supporting cast featuring a malevolent robot game show host and a ghost whose favorite hobby is to lay on the floor and hate himself while listening to “spookwave.” There’s also an inherent wackiness to the world at large, from signposts to area designs and everything between. At the same time, there are darker sides to many characters’ plotlines, to be discovered if the right conditions are met. Undertale‘s story is one full of hidden answers to questions nobody would think to ask, but the learning of which make the experience all the richer. Undertale‘s whole world just comes together as this utterly beautiful, organic…”thing.” You expected a fancier word, didn’t you? Well, I’m running out of those.
Undertale presents its story in a beautifully understated way. A simple, SNES-evocative color palette doesn’t limit the game’s visuals as much as one might think. From the frigid lands of Snowdin, to the dimly-lit Waterfall, to the tepid Hotland, Undertale‘s environments have exactly as much detail as they need to in order to hold visual interest without trying too hard. This is especially true throughout the middle third of the game, which uses shadows and ambient shades of blue to create a truly eerie atmosphere, itself a perfect backdrop against which to learn more about the story and world of the game.
On the other side from visuals on the presentation coin, we have audio. The game’s creator, Toby Fox, has a history with music inspired by 16-bit video games, culminating in his breadth of work in Andrew Hussie’s webcomic Homestuck (one track from which appears as a boss theme in Undertale). Undertale‘s soundtrack is a breathtaking mix of great battle themes and catchy overworld music, with not a single easily forgettablle track.The composition at work uses similar melodies and refrains in different tracks, becoming an integral part of the game’s storytelling by drawing emotions out of players where they might not otherwise be. You’ll hear the same type of melody three different times and feel three different things. That rule of threes seems to come up a lot in Undertale.
I’ve spent quite some time trying to come up with any real, substantial flaws in Undertale, and have come to the conclusion that there are simply none to find. The gameplay is clever and inventive, and continuously brings new things to the table in a way that never feels out of place. Its world is endearing and fleshed-out beyond any degree expected of it, with some of the most memorable video game characters of the year. It does an exemplary job of showing how player choice can truly affect a game, and does a better job than most other games of motivating the player to experience each and every route. Its entire world is incredibly unified within the limited scope it operates within, and I continue to be impressed by what it does every time I give it a visit. Undertale is a story worth telling, and re-telling, and re-re-telling. You’d have to be some kind of monster to avoid it.
Final verdict: 5/5
Available on: PC (Reviewed); Publisher: Toby Fox; Developer: Toby Fox; Players: 1; Released: September 15th, 2015; Genre: Adventure RPG; MSRP: $9.99