by Robert Thomas
reviewed on PC
No Death Required
Undertale’s most talked about feature is also its most unlikely: an RPG where you don't have to kill anyone is a pretty unique idea all on its own. So unique that one might wonder if the concept is strong enough to make a worthwhile game. Combat and character progression have been a staple of the RPG genre and it is difficult to picture a game without either. Undertale goes against those pre-established traditions, and even goes far beyond the idea of avoiding killing anyone, or anything for that matter. Instead, it creates one of the most interesting and compelling games I've ever played.
Undertale's opening tells you all you need to know about the world and its setting. A long time ago, humans and monsters waged a war against each other. As the victors, the humans forced the monsters into the underground. Your (human) character falls into this underground world, landing squat in the middle of where the monsters dwell.
You wake up to discover that the monsters are not all that bad. In fact, they do not seem to resemble evil beings in need of being sealed away. Toriel, a kind goat-monster-woman-creature, guides you back to her house so that you can rest and recover from your ordeal. When you do, you start upon your journey through the monster world attempting to find a way back to your home.
Fourth-Wall Breaking Humor
Your journey is filled with an array of charming and funny characters, bringing sympathy to the monsters and their plight. Toriel, who initially acts as a sort of mom - you can even ask if you can call her mom, or you can flirt with her - gives you that initial push onto the correct path. Sans and Payrus, two skeleton brothers in charge of catching humans who enter the underground, take you through the first stage of the game in a rather comically fashion. Sans is incredibly lazy, but helpful to the player, while Papyrus is eager to simply catch humans. They both break the fourth wall to create some very funny moments.
Undertale takes inspiration from the Mother/Earthbound series when it comes to these oft-occurring fourth wall breaks for humor. The creator still added a lot of his own flavor to the writing though. There were plenty of times that I couldn't help but laugh out loud as a member of the game’s cast entertained me by saying things like "That's the trash. Feel free to visit it anytime." or the camera zoomed in on a character making a bad pun and literally winking at the audience. Even in combat, the narrative text will remark on the bizarre activities of the enemies your fighting like "The spiders do a synchronized dance to the music". I don't want to spoil too much, but I can assure you that there has never been a game that I've laughed with so much.
The humorous writing of Undertale didn't go on to spoil any of the dramatic moments for me. Certain points towards the end of the journey had such a bittersweet feeling to them. Even if there was a joke, they felt sad in a way. Toby Fox, the game's creator, masterfully wrote dozens of moments that created some powerful feelings in me. With this careful balance of humor in the writing, the world of Undertale felt fleshed out, real, and intriguing, despite having been built up through some really crude looking graphics.
When combat starts you can either Fight, Act, or Spare. Fighting is a simple timing mini-game, where you hit Z when a bar reaches the middle of the screen. The Act prompt allows you to check the enemy’s description and a number of options which help you figure out a way to act so that they stop attacking you. The Act options can vary wildly from Talk, Pet, Flirt, Flex to even polish an enemy's armor. Whatever the option is, it's a puzzle for you to figure out in order to avoid having a death on your hands. In order to spare an enemy, you'll have to either bring them down to a very low health or to perform the correct acts. Or you could just kill the enemy, though not without consequences. On one hand, the narrative discourages killing enemies. On the other, gameplay encourages killing as it is the only way to gain experience and level up. The concept of killing vs. sparing enemies creates two different narratives, and thereby two different endings.
Regardless of your intentions, enemies will attack you. When they do, you'll take control of a small heart in a little box. Enemies launch a variety of attacks at you, while you try to maneuver around them. The mini-game is very similar to a Shoot-'Em-Up game, except you don't shoot back. Although it seemed limited at times, there was enough variety in the mini-games to keep me interested. Unfortunately, once in a while, a mini-game could feel unfair. The good games far outweighed the subpar, though, and I enjoyed the enemy attacks for what they were.
Puzzles outside of combat, however, are a bit lacking. The puzzles are largely unchallenging, usually involving a rock being pushed to remove a trap or throwing an item to create a new path. Occasionally a puzzle will just be there to unlock a door or something to that effect. Although quick, they feel a little pointless if they only take a few seconds to figure out. Interestingly, the game makes some self-referential remarks on how the puzzles are unnecessary. Still, there is very few of these, so it hardly hampers the experience.
A Familiar Art Style
When I first saw the protagonist, I was a bit shocked. On a surface level, the visuals for Undertale can be a bit of a turn-off but its pixel style creates a unique feeling that meshes well with the narrative. The game creates some awesome and beautiful moments despite its minimalistic style. Even so, Undertale isn't afraid to create intensely vivid visuals. The pixel art is very reminiscent of Earthbound and similar RPGs, but it still feels very original, with a more subdued tone to its imagery.
The game features some of the catchiest music I've ever heard. I'll still be in love with this soundtrack for some time to come. There's an impressive variety of songs, each evoking a different emotion. Sometimes Undertale uses chip tune, action music for an intense fight, at other times it uses a slow acoustic guitar that creates a bittersweet feeling within the player.
A Unique Experience
Unfortunately is hard to explain to someone who has not played it and describing its greatest moments would spoil so much of the game. There are plenty of prime examples of something being so outstanding and so unique but talking about them could ruin the experience. The only way to experience these amazing moments is to actually play the game.
Undertale is simply brilliant. The writing, art, sound, and gameplay all work so cohesively that it creates something that is greater than the sum of its parts. The game's themes and tones are masterfully portrayed and set a high bar for video games as a medium. It is an outstanding creation I highly encourage anyone to go out and buy this game.
Amazing writing, music, and art work. Filled with determination, passion, creativity, and uniqueness.
Puzzles can lack challenge. A few mini-games feel unfair.