At this point, I think it would be an understatement (heh) to say that Undertale was the biggest surprise hit of 2015. Not only that, but it also ranks right up there with Cave Story as one of the all-time most successful and beloved indie projects in the video game industry. And to be honest, the game deserves that love. It’s consistently charming, frequently poignant, occasionally terrifying, and way smarter than it appears at first. Three years later, Toby Fox dropped Deltarune: Chapter 1 on an unsuspecting public as a free download, boasting a substantial amount of gameplay and, of course, a generous helping of original music. Now, I think Undertale’s soundtrack is simply brilliant, and while I tend to be a little liberal in my use of that word, Undertale definitely earns it. The soundtrack is both nostalgic and novel, and it is absolutely saturated with interwoven themes. I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say the music is a key ingredient in the game’s success. Deltarune may be a free demo, but Undertale fans (myself included) came to it with high expectations.
Much like Undertale, Deltarune’s soundtrack ranges up and the down the history of video game music, mashing disparate elements together. The classic NES-style chiptunes are less prominent this time around, although we still get a few with “The Legend,” “Friendship,” and “Card Castle.” The stellar new battle theme “Rude Buster” is a raucous mix of syncopated piano grooves and synths which would have been right at home in Sonic 3 or Dynamite Headdy. Another standout track, “Field of Hopes and Dreams,” slyly references the Touhou series without being a pastiche. Despite these clear influences, I think Deltarune hinges less on nostalgia than its predecessor. The references are less on the nose, and it feels more like Toby Fox is developing his own signature style.
Deltarune also offers a substantial shift in tone. While Undertale is punctuated by a handful of tunes that are shockingly creepy, the remainder of the soundtrack is overwhelmingly charming, adventurous, and sentimental. Deltarune hits all these beats too, but in different ratios. There is a thread of darkness and mystery that weaves through the entire soundtrack, from the ominous piano in “ANOTHER HIM” (the first track you hear in the game), through the menacing drone in “The Door” and “Cliffs,” to the jarring guitar in “Imminent Death.” I was most impressed with the subtle ways that some of the tracks made me feel uneasy. “Lantern” is a particularly fascinating theme. It’s a plodding, janky waltz that never settles into a major or minor key, making the track whimsical, sad, and just a little off. In another noteworthy track, “THE HOLY,” the digital vocals, backing strings, and plodding bass are thick with unknown and potentially unpleasant significance. While these aren’t my go-to tracks for casual listening, I can’t help but be impressed by their peculiar effectiveness.
Being a theme junkie, I can’t possibly talk about this soundtrack without mentioning Toby Fox’s clever use of motifs, especially since it is one of Undertale’s defining characteristics. First, we get a handful of memorable new themes. “Beginning” establishes the game’s main theme, which pops up regularly throughout the soundtrack, and the jaunty melody in “Lancer” gets repurposed in a number of creative ways. However, my favorite thematic touchstone is the coy use of some of the main themes from Undertale. The whole soundtrack is seeded with musical Easter eggs, and I was genuinely affected when “You Can Always Come Home” presented Deltarune’s first full statement of the original main theme from Undertale, before transitioning into the “Beginning” theme. Not only are these moments musically intriguing; they also fit brilliantly with Deltarune’s position as a story.
There are still a handful of great tracks that haven’t come up yet, but they certainly deserve a mention. “Vs. Susie,” “Chaos King,” and “THE WORLD REVOLVING” are killer boss themes. “Scarlet Forest” is an elegant orchestral piece with some neat thematic touches. “Rouxls Kaard” is hilariously overwrought and also has some harpsichord in it, which I hope is enough to convince you of its greatness. And of course, Laura Shigihara’s cameo in “Don’t Forget” is brief but perfect.
Well, in case I haven’t made it abundantly clear, Deltarune: Chapter 1 is very good. I believe Toby Fox has amply demonstrated that he is not a one-hit wonder. Even though this is only the first chapter of his next project, the soundtrack (and the game, for that matter) has a complete arc, and it delivers a satisfying experience in a relatively short amount of time. Fox’s new compositions have the same spark of creativity and clever thematic structure as his previous work, and his style remains deeply nostalgic and cheerfully anachronistic. I can’t wait to see how he develops his thematic material in future chapters. Also, I can’t believe that Fox chose to distribute Deltarune: Chapter 1 for free. If you’ve played this game and enjoyed it, I urge you to purchase the soundtrack. It costs $7. The game is worth that much by itself, so buy the album, support a talented indie developer, and treat yourself to some sweet tunes.