One of the things I love about RPGs is chatting up the townsfolk. In interacting with them, you might glean some valuable information about your quest, or you might just run into a dog possessed by a game developer. No matter what you find, it’s fun to see what everybody has to say. However, once you encounter a hostile foe, you’re expected to bludgeon your opponent until you’re the last one standing. A small number of games provide alternative ways to end battles, but if you want to gain any of those sweet experience points required to stand a chance against boss battles you’ve got little choice other than to crack a few heads. But what if you didn’t need to? What if those vicious bosses in your path were simply misunderstood, and a few validating statements would be enough for them to stand down? Undertale asks its players these questions, but leaves the answers up to them.
Taking cues from handheld RPGs from the late ’90s, Undertale tells the story of a world in which humans and monsters once waged a vicious war against each other. The humans, victorious, banished the defeated monster tribes deep underground. Many years later, a sleepy androgynous child heads out to play adventurer only to fall down a hole into the realm of the monsters. It sounds like a recipe for disaster, but human-monster relations aren’t as black-and-white as history would have it when you befriend Toriel, a matronly dog creature with a penchant for bad jokes. Toriel takes you hand-in-paw as she guides you through Undertale’s opening dungeon, teaching you the game’s mechanics along the way.
Undertale isn’t simply an homage to its predecessors, it also skewers them in hysterical fashion. Every RPG mechanic you can think of is roasted here: Shops give you the option to sell items but each gives a different reason why you can’t, while trying to eat instant noodles in the middle of a battle pauses the action while you wait for them to boil. Even the game’s puzzles are meant to provide more humor than challenge; one character interrupts you with repeated phone calls as they mull over whether they should help you with the solutions. But this isn’t a lazy comedy content to rest on easy references; Undertale’s satire succeeds because it understands the genre’s absurdity and skillfully communicates these ideas. Its irreverent, yet subtle humor bring to mind a Shigesato Itoi-style charm. Late in the game you see some very cool fourth-wall breaking that uses the taken-for-granted mechanics of the genre against the player in increasingly cool ways.
Initially, Undertale’s battle system resembles any number of console RPGs you know and love, giving the choice to attack, act, use items, and flee from/spare the enemy. Choosing to attack presents a competent system in which the player is tasked with stopping a marker on a golf swing-esque meter to land blows. Stopping the marker in the green sweet spot in the center of the meter results in a critical hit. The act command, on the other hand, is where Undertale first differentiates itself from its forebears. Act allows you to select from a number of options that can resolve the encounter without landing a blow, and each option is specific to a certain type of monster. You could flirt with a frog, or cheer on a ghost with low self-esteem; whatever works. Acts transform random encounters into random acts of kindness, with the enemy and player alike both coming out on top. Friendship has a catch, though: Only battles resolved by fighting award experience points, meaning a pacifist run is a level one run. A peaceful player is in for a rough journey, but you’re still awarded gold for your efforts, allowing you to stock up on indispensable healing items.
Undertale’s fierce boss encounters come with their own set of challenges. Fighting them is an ordeal in itself, but taking these guys out non-lethally is one of the game’s harshest challenges. It’ll take more than just a compliment to resolve things peacefully, forcing you to puzzle out the correct course of action on your own. Undertale rewards experimentation, and a little lateral thinking goes a long way. Befriending a boss offers its own special rewards, some even give you their cell phone numbers. Calling them gives you general tips or causes other positive actions. One certain character has a unique statement for almost every room in the game. They’re not often helpful, but they’re always very funny. Of course, you could just kill ’em all and see how the story adapts! The choice is yours and you won’t be punished, as long as you’re prepared to take responsibility for your actions.
No matter what approach you take in battle, your actions are followed by an enemy attack in the form of a dexterity-based minigame. Here, you’re tasked with maneuvering a small heart around an enclosed box dodging enemy projectiles until an invisible timer runs out. These minigames are also unique to each monster: The aforementioned frog spits flies at you, whereas a stern knight pokes at you with its lance. Occasionally, there may not be anything to dodge: A too-cool-for-school bug might just want you to check out his cool dance moves! Bosses kick things up a notch with their ability to change playstyle from simple dodging to rhythm-based, shoot ’em up and even side-scrolling action, among others. These encounters are always unique and exciting but some of them may stretch on for slightly too long. A few late game bosses are positively exhausting.
Undertale’s graphics complement its nostalgia-tinged narrative with an aesthetic that pays loving homage to an earlier era. The lo-fi sprites and backgrounds are light on detail but heavy on charm, using artist-enforced limitations to create distinct characters and settings. The game employs expert use of color palettes that effectively channel its retro style to convincing results. But that’s not to say that all of the art relies on skillful use of color alone. When entering a shop, the game’s naive 8-bit style gives way to intricately detailed pixel art that looks like it would be at home in a ’90s arcade title. Each shop is done in a different style; a few are presented in MS Paint motif to express the eccentricity of their owners. In contrast to the game’s 8-bit graphics, its melancholic soundtrack contains a mix of chiptunes and complex pieces featuring sampled instruments. These latter pieces may initially jar with the retro visuals, but they eventually feel right at home. While some tracks stand out more than others, they’re all very well composed.
A solid debut from a developer with innovative ideas and a whole lotta heart, Undertale is a rare game that not only manages to be daring and subversive but also fun for all ages. The game’s wide variety of battle options, emphasis on meaningful choice and short duration make repeat playthroughs an attractive option, and a second playthrough will show some revealing changes in unexpected places. This is a game that will surely be talked about for years to come, and it’s likely that we’ll see future indie devs crib a page or two from Tobyfox’s book, but that’s no bad thing.