Undertale is a difficult game to talk about objectively. It’s an RPG with limited game play mechanics, no grandiose artistic style, nor a deep progression system to root yourself in. It’s uncomplicated at its core and a summary of the game’s structure can probably be summed up in a single, albeit lengthy, sentence. At first glance it might seem like your average RPG Maker rehash, one among dozens. Yet it’s become somewhat of an internet sensation if you hadn’t noticed. You can’t browse forums or log in to your preferential gaming library without seeing cutesy memes, videos, and avatars of Undertale characters (I don’t claim any innocence myself). The game has been out for over a month now and outside of social media wall-hogging is it actually a good game in its own right? Well, yes. Of course. Definitely. But rather than try and sell Undertale’s credit as an indie game, I’d like to peddle it as an interactive low-bit cartoon.
The Undertale begins as a gender ambiguous child (with the greatest “don’t give a fuck” face I have ever seen) falls deep into the chasm of a mountain, which just so happens to be the home of an ancient race of monsters once exiled to the underground. Now trapped in a monster-infested and unfamiliar place, this totally-not-Nintin baby must venture forth and find a way back to the human world. It’s a pretty bare-bones setup that thankfully congeals into something more substantial as you learn about ancient prophecies and the nature of the “SOUL” a long the way. I don’t want to be a twat and spoil too much of the story here, but just know that Undertale’s underlying plot threads run deep, and lead to some emotionally stirring moments on either side of the spectrum.
The game’s narrative stems from your interactions with other characters as well as their environment, usually requiring you to do a bit of detective work if you’re eager to have more than a baseline knowledge of what’s going on. Shoving your nose into drawers and rubbing vigorously against people’s homes will sometimes garner you snippets of info about NPC’s or the underground; though even more often sticking your face into everyone’s business will result in a more humorous affair. The game is packed full of objects examine and turning any corner can lead to a bemusing dog-related event or an anecdote about water sausages. These goofy moments are probably what will keep you playing, which is good, because they’re a bulk of what you should expect going in.
Undertale is a comedic soiree more than an RPG proper, and though it certainly allows for a more serious tone depending on how you play it, the crux of the game relies on laughs in the hopes that their player isn’t some humorless desperate. If you find the thought of laughter disturbing (you might have watched one of my video reviews) you might reconsider booting up Undertale. However if you’re a fan of silly noises, bad puns, and video game references, you’ll feel right at home here in Home.
Not all of Undertale’s comedic sensibilities stick the landing, but a majority of them are so incredibly well delivered and on point; more than once I found myself laughing into my palms with unabashed glee at the game’s unbridled buffoonery. It bears emphasizing how sterling the writing in this game is, and it makes a serious effort to have every line of wit be a worthwhile read. So many games nowadays have me mashing buttons to skip pointless drivel dialogue or half-hearted snippets of lore that go on forever; it’s refreshing to see such care taken to avoid wasting the player’s time.
The game isn’t inherently difficult, and getting digested by slimes isn’t generally something you’ll have to worry about too often. Healing items are plentiful and finding a save point will always refill your fighting spirit. It isn’t until the back end of the game that combat becomes more hectic. Speaking of fisticuffs, Undertale’s combat can be simultaneously tedious and intensely droll, depending on your moral viewpoints. Like most traditional RPG’s, random battles are a constant threat while outside of major hub areas, threatening you with all manner of beasties.
Fighting an enemy proper will launch a short meter based quick time event that calculates your damage in relevance to how closely you hit the center. Continuing to beat on a foe will sometimes cause them to enter a “spare state” that allows you to commit an act of mercy allowing the monster to limp away in defeat. You can also forget the pleasant charade and brutally murder every living thing in your path like the disgusting human that you are. But there will be consequences.
Between turns monsters will attack with brief avoidance mini games. You’ll wiggle your “soul,” aka, heart-ship, through the black void in an attempt to dodge the various projectiles floating around the screen. Every enemy in the game has multiple attack sequences like this, with boss characters having their own bullet-hell inspired labyrinths that can become teeth-gratingly unfair, but equally awe inspiring. Each attack is unique to a monster’s personality and goals, further asking you to consider these poor creatures as individuals, rather than some throng of faceless, gooey assailants.
Alternatively you could choose not to fight the monsters. Remember when I mentioned the “spare state?” Well you don’t have to beat the ever living gob out of monsters in order for them to give up; it’s also possible to make friends with them. Talking with a monster will bring up a slew of options dedicated to a particular enemy, and as I’ve said, each has their own personality. Perhaps a monster longs to be a comedian; why not laugh at one of its jokes? Maybe it’s feeling lonely or let down; try giving it a little hug. Providing a sort of ad hoc therapy to these creatures will help you to connect, and hopefully, stop them from trying to kill you. Certainly this is the gentlest way to go about your adventure, and you’re rewarded with more winsome dialogue for going about this route.
It’s obvious that Undertale steers you in the friendliest direction possible, even if it occasionally instigates your blood lust and challenges your every darker fiber from clicking the kill button. Being kinder is often more rewarding, as it almost always results in more interaction with the main cast of colorful miscreants that wander into your life. I don’t want to spoil much here so I won’t go into great detail, but it’s safe to say that these people (er, monsters) are the reason you’ll want to play this game. It’s been years since I’ve interacted with characters with such definite personal identity in a video game. Such charisma is usually reserved for promising television characters, which due to more prolonged audience exposure, tend to be more fleshed out and relatable than their video game counterparts.
However playing Undertale always feels like turning on an elaborate Saturday morning cartoon, with all of the slapstick nonsense that comes with it. Hopefully you’ll care about these characters, regardless of your play style, because the story is heart-felt, and though the combat encounters are entertaining in themselves, they probably won’t hold your attention if you don’t become invested in the narrative, and battles definitely feel like segues between the really good stuff.
Cleverly, the game remembers every one of your deaths, and not just deaths, but also kills. Even trying to reset your save file will lead to some unique circumstances, because you can never wipe the slate clean, not entirely. This element comes into play nearer to the beginning and end of your play through or subsequent sessions. And you should plan on replaying the game in different ways, there are three primary endings, as well as variations on each, depending on how your previous run turned out. I guarantee you’ll be reeling at how divergent your experience can be, at the characters you’ll assuredly miss, and what state you end up leaving the world in.
Undertale provides a curious, rich story that capitalizes on gaming culture and subverts what’s expected of the person staring at the small child on screen, manipulating the fourth wall in some deviously playful ways. Memorable characters and a never-ending wave of absurdist humor make every minute a joy to play for just about anyone, gamers aren’t exclusive to this brand of comedy. Sure, it’s one of the least involved RPG’s you could choose to play; but it’s also one of the best gaming experiences you could have right now. Give it a shot; you might not have a bad time.
Also you can date a skeleton.
Written by R.C. Simcoe