If one was to strip away the classic top-down RPG sentimentalities that Undertale hinges itself on, they would find a game that is also about choices, judgment and isolation. It is a fantasy epic whose looks could deceive you into thinking it’s just another goofy offering from an indie developer paying worship to the world of Japanese retro RPGs, complete with overtly pixel-cute graphics and borrowed gameplay. But if one does decide to place a step on its trail, they’ll find themselves embarking on an unforgettable journey that is every bit as touching as it is hilarious, as brutal as it is compassionate, while at the same time providing a mode of play that is startlingly original.
The crux of Undertale’s setting is this: a fantasy world populated by two races, humans and monsters, who exist closed off from one another. This separation is the result of an imposed punishment upon the monsters for a failed war against humanity, where they are now forced to dwell underground, trapped by a magical barrier that keeps them from the surface. It’s a confinement that the monsters have grown used to - on the most part, they live their lives peacefully in their surroundings despite their total exile from the human lands above. All of that changes however when a young human adventurer (gender undefined) takes a trek up to Mt. Ebott, a mountain that holds the only way into the monster world, and promptly falls down a hole into the caverns below. Their intentions for doing so are unknown, but one thing is certain: the player’s goal is to eventually determine those intentions and guide them back out of the monster realm, no matter what it takes. Even if that means killing any monsters that stand in your way…
... or befriending them.
It’s an unusual spin on RPG adventuring that puts a twist on expected practices within the genre, but Undertale leaves it up to you to decide how to go about your odyssey back to the overground, including how to get around the potential foes that lie in your way. Instead of providing just the standard ‘kill-or-be-killed’ action subset of fighting or fleeing your battle encounters, you can also select from a list of alternative actions that will defeat your opponents with kindness instead of a blade. Why not compliment them and make them feel better about themselves? Why not calm them down and tell them everything’s going to be okay? So long as you find the right gesture to distract or win your opponents over in some way, both parties can walk away from battle never to give each other grief again. And then you can continue on your course, realizing that the solution to conflict doesn’t always have to be about violence, as many other games might lead you to believe.
This is absolutely not a desperate gimmick to help the game define itself among a legion of identikit RPGs. Instead, it’s a feature that is integral to the message that slowly unravels in Undertale’s storyline during the 6-to-12 hours of gameplay it provides. As you venture deeper into its mysterious subterranean realm, it becomes clearly apparent that its weird and wonderful inhabitants aren’t quite as monstrous as their namesake suggests. The NPCs and major characters you come across during your exploration are more likely to spend time chilling at bars, baking butterscotch pies or flipping burgers for a living than getting up to anything nefarious. It’s certainly an original, satirically sound angle on the usual ‘humans good, monsters bad’ setup that similar games of its kind fall into. But it also asks a mildly provoking question: what really makes a monster? Is the need for violent retribution against your enemy truly necessary, or is there always a wiser, more peaceful approach to overcome such challenges? It’s a fairly straightforward moral dilemma, but it’s one that is posed by the game with thoughtful weight and importance as you wander onward to your own eventual freedom.
Best of all, it’s a dilemma that the game leaves entirely up to you to solve. Despite the empathetic approach Undertale takes to make its non-human figures ‘human’, this is not a merry jaunt through an enchanted fantasy land where friendship reigns supreme. You’re the only human in a domain of monsters and there are plenty that want you dead, whether that be to fulfil their duty, to liberate themselves from human oppression, or the far less-complicated reason that they just plain hate your guts. You will be thrust into combat with these adversaries no matter what you do, and you will always have the option of fighting to eradicate obstacles in your way, away from the vaunted non-aggressive gestures you can employ.
Actual combat represents itself in two different modes for attack and defense. Attack is rhythm-based, requiring you to land blows by hitting SPACE bar each time your moving offense bar aligns with holes in the enemy’s protection. Defense, which you’ll be spending a lot more time doing, involves you moving a heart-shaped icon around a rectangular area, frantically trying to avoid the varying (and occasionally bizarre) attack animations that your assailants will throw at you. Both come with their own challenges, particularly in the boss fights, and you can expect to frustratingly die a few times no matter what approach you take to these confrontations. It’s a way in which the game loves to toy with your own conscience, because it can be extremely tempting just to throw any pacifist strategy out the window and start putting these beasts to the sword for the sake of your own satisfaction.
Whether its peace or pain you decide to retaliate with though, Undertale will take note of your decision and respond accordingly. Such is the genius of its astutely devised, malleable plot that the game can play out in remarkably different fashion depending on how you decide to tackle it. Taking the approach to do no harm despite the assaults you face will reward you with a quest against evil that carries genuinely dramatic and wonderfully heartwarming impact. If you decide that smacking down a few monsters along the way is more worthwhile, then you may or may not get a good ending depending on which of the major characters you killed - and you do have the opportunity to bump them all off if you choose. In fact, if you actually decide that murdering these individuals as well as every other monster in the game is the way to go, then you will get to enjoy a far bleaker, unsettling and depressingly tragic journey as you establish your status as the most depraved monster of them all. And don’t worry - the game also remembers what you got up to in previous runs and even savegame reloads. Whether you act in the name of forgiveness or genocide, be prepared to have your reputation linger with you in future replays.
The game’s adept ability to drag the player through a full gamut of emotions with its storyline might be a little hard for skeptics to believe on visual impression. After all, Undertale won’t look like much to them - its gaudy sprites and CGA-palletted battle sequences would (wrongly) be palmed off as inferior to even the 8 and 16-bit inspirations it’s trying to emulate. RPG aficionados however will appreciate the similarities the game bears with these classics - particularly Earthbound, which the game definitely echoes in spirit as well as visuals, and other legacy works such as the early Zelda games and the Wonder Boy series. Both RPG fans and gamers willing to look beyond the basic appearance will then stumble upon why the game is able to achieve its emotional effectiveness with such ease. They’ll be able to actually play the game.. and engage the characters themselves.
And let’s make one thing absolutely clear: this game’s main cast are a splendid bunch. As you progress onward in your adventure, you will stumble upon a tremendous array of memorable allies and antagonists, each with their own hopes and dreams for their world as well as their own motives for how they act towards you. From the nurturing Toriel who’ll introduce you to the monster realm with some TLC and foreboding advice following your fall at the start, to the hilarious skeleton brother duo of Sans and Papyrus, and onward to Flowey, a smiling flower who has much more influence on the game’s story than any talking plant should, all of these characters will garner a reaction. Some of them will genuinely make you laugh. Some might even make you cry. Some will make you want to tear your hair out and some could even terrify you. But such are the dysfunctional, deeply likeable charms of these characters that it is certain you will feel something for them, and resultantly be drawn into the game’s heartfelt narrative.
If that wasn’t enough, bolstering all of this emotion is a sensational soundtrack that plays just as big a role in delivering the drama that unfolds. Borrowing from a wide array of music styles - chiptunes, electronica, rock, even avant-garde ambience - Undertale’s music perfectly captures the essence of the action unfolding on-screen, no matter the mood or the stage in the story. It also helps that the collection of music produced possesses an insane amount of devilishly catchy earworms that remain an audial delight long after the game’s play is done. For a $10 Steam game, it’s no exaggeration to suggest that Undertale has a score every bit as arresting as some triple-A titles. For such a low-budget production, that’s an incredible feat.
A plethora of hidden easter eggs, random subtle changes on each new game and an Internet-inspired, deliciously offbeat sense of humour are further tricks that this title has up its sleeves to keep you hooked. But for all the magic Undertale possesses, its aspiration for RPG perfection is the very thing that ends up preventing the game from achieving it. When you’re not solving puzzles, negotiating enemies or enjoying the set pieces that are constantly thrown up, there is nothing much to do but wander. It’s an essential task in order to unlock the plentiful secrets that Undertale hides away, but it can also force the pacing of the game to occasionally grow sedate.
More unfortunate still is that the suggested freedom to act as you please ends up as more of an illusion than initial impression indicates. The changes in gameplay that result from you deciding to be either hero or villain are greatly influenced by Undertale’s underlying themes, subtly nudging and reminding you that being a kind person is always a better path to take. You will experience a fairly tricky challenge with a bloodless route, but a ridiculously difficult game taking a cruel one. Worse still, with the game also retaining memories of previous replays, you may struggle to get what you want out of the game if you decide to play a different way in future. It’s a restriction that is further enforced by the mostly unsatisfying ‘neutral’ endings that could have added genuine philosophical complexity to the game’s storyline if they had been given more work. Instead, Undertale largely demands you make an arbitrary choice between good or evil, and only truly rewards you if you decide to follow those lines to the letter.
Irrespective of this, Undertale’s experience remains a deeply satisfying, sensational ride that truly delivers greatness despite, or perhaps because of, its humble indie game status. There’s no denying that the indie scene has flourished into an industry with sustained success, and it’s one that has derived that success from its fierce passion for expression and invention. A confidence has always persisted within the community to push the envelope of what a video game can really be, and disprove the age-old put-down that they can’t be as emotionally eloquent as celebrated works in other cultural mediums. With the momentum that this enthusiasm has garnered, it feels prudent to expect that this lust for creativity is going to get them somewhere eventually. Undertale is still just a milestone on that path, and it certainly doesn’t look like a work of art. But with its clever storytelling, irreverent humour and its whimsical contradiction of soulful warmth and wrenching pathos, it definitely feels like one.