Sometimes you encounter games that manage to surprise you on different levels, both positive or negative – and Undertale by “Toby Fox” is exactly that kind of game. It appears as very inconspicuous, offering very little at first glance in both the apparent features as well as visual fidelity. To gamers being so used to high-end 3D graphics and modern RPG mechanics, Undertale may appear as even somewhat repulsive: The game features absolutely minimal aesthetics and seemingly simplistic mechanics on top. The round-based tactical battles wrapped in simple pixel sprites are reminiscent of the 8-Bit NES era, a game design decision which many people have grown weary over during recent years. And even when trying the demo there is not much more to reveal but a small glance at things to come. So you may ask: What is behind this game? Does it hide anything else worth investigating behind that barren surface?
And yes…yes it does! Undertale has many, many more things in store for you! And I’ll try to explain in full detail why you shouldn’t miss out on this great game!
Once more with feelings…
The story of Undertale is quickly told: A small child (of indescribable gender due to its lack of distinctive features) climbs a forbidden mountain and plummets into a hole to the underground, a place where all monsters have been banned to after losing a devastating war against humanity. The story and reasons behind this is something you will have to discover by yourself as the game leaves you with very little information after the short intro.
In regards of the story I’ll only reveal as much at this point: In Undertale nothing will turn out as it initially appears to be.
So right shortly after the fall you will be confronted with the seemingly friendly monster calling himself “Flowey” which friendly shows you the ropes and workings of the Underworld. This first encounter mainly consists of dialogue choices and a small evasion based mini game where you move a heart-shaped cursor around to avoid (or collect) bullets like in a shooter. However soon you will also soon learn that the game also offers you an option to interact with your opponents, which leads to the big selling point advertised on Undertale’s Steam front page: “The RPG where you don’t have to kill anybody“.
And you can take this claim for granted. Every monster you encounter in Undertale will have its own requirement in order to be “beaten”. These encounters will always keep you on your toes, as each monster has different needs or emotions that you have to cope with. Sometimes your encounters are completely randomized, reminding of older days of “Final Fantasy” where you traverse various areas. This may appear a bit repetitive at times, but you will barely encounter the same monsters twice anyways, as the encounters change with the region you currently walk through.
… or with cold determination!
Of course you can always play this game by normal means: kill every monster you encounter, level up, gather new gear, get stronger. This is also a valid way to go in Undertale, which leads to one of the game’s many endings and offers different encounters and dialogue options. In this sense Undertale is an RPG in the most classical way, as all NPCs will react differently depending on how you treated their brethren.
To emphasize on this point: The game will quite literally keep track of your every action, both positive and negative, surprising you with unexpected remarks and hints about your previous doings at any point of time. Therefore you should be very sure about the choices you make as many of them are meaningful and with lasting effects. Of course this fact alone warrants a 2nd or 3rd playthrough as the game offers way too many choices in order to see everything in one run.
And believe me this: You will want to play this game way more than once.
The monsters we are
Mentioning the RPG elements brings me to the next big selling point of Undertale: the diverse cast! Every monster is not only unique in both character and looks, the dialogue is also presented in a funny and lighthearted manner, sometimes surprising the player with unexpected swings and remarks. A lot of hidden meaning is added to most of the text, so paying close attention to even the smallest details may reward you in completely different areas of the game.
This also means that monsters sometimes have hidden “side-quests” or interactions with the things you did or collected and kept earlier in the game. With the inventory slots being limited this adds an interesting layer of surprise and tension to the interaction with the inhabitants, as even small things as using a consumable may greatly change the outcome of a seemingly difficult encounter.
The stories we enjoyed together
As mentioned earlier the characters in Undertale are not only diverse, but also tied to each other in a captivating storyline. The game will throw you into a rollercoaster of emotions, achieving a lot depth with very little text to read. It’s amazing how the game can come up with so many memorable situations by using only so many reduced assets: animations are stiff, sprites are hardly animated at all. With that in mind it becomes abundantly clear where this game takes his appeal from: memorable character designs, brilliant and very concise writing to the spot, smart (and sometimes devious) game mechanics and a soundtrack that will ring in your mind way after putting the game down.
In all seriousness: The Undertale Score is one of the best and most fitting original game scores that I’ve heard in recent years. I’m even listening to it when writing the reviews and each track reminds me of a wonderful experience. Do yourself a favor and listen to some of the tracks below:
So, how to conclude on a game that needs to be experienced in order to be described properly? Let’s say this much: Don’t get fooled by your first opinion, don’t judge by the cover. I did – because I largely avoid RPGs – and I regret it now for not having played the game earlier. Take your time to enjoy Undertale game in long, deep sessions, try to engage in all aspects of it’s mechanics and don’t hesitate to experiment – it’s a title that will return the favor a tenfold, being hands-down one of the most rewarding games I’ve got to experience in recent years. It took my expectations and threw them in emotional areas I had yet to discover in any other game. It’s an expertly crafted milestone that keeps you thinking way outside 640×480 pixels shaped world which you’ll be looking into during your stay.