A game that rewards effort from the player.
An epic war between humans and monsters ends with the monsters hounded and sealed underground. Millenia later you, a human, fall into their underground domain. So begins Undertale.
In many ways, its opening plays like an archetypal RPG. To a degree, at any rate – the game’s first hint of subversiveness lies in your very first encounter in this new world. This duality runs strong throughout the game: part of its charm is its fond deployment and knowing acknowledgement of tropes.
Undertale is a hugely complex game, something that may not be apparent at first glance. As you move deeper in, however, the cleverly woven threads that connect the narrative and characters come together to reveal a richly woven tapestry. Within your first playthrough, you’ll witness and participate in a genuinely moving story and get to know fabulous characters. But there’s much more to it beneath the surface. “Replay value” is something that’s often discussed when it comes to games. With Undertale, replaying isn’t just something that can be fun to do; if you want to scratch the surface of the plot, you’ll need to come back again.
When the game begins, your goal is simple: to return home. Unsurprisingly, doing so isn’t nearly as easy. The world’s filled with puzzles and monsters. And as part of the race involved in the monsters’ downfall, your position in the world is obviously a little controversial. Key to your progress and the game’s narrative is how you interact with the people that you meet on your journey.
The characters that inhabit the world are wonderfully drawn. Each has their own distinct personality and interacting with them is a delight. The dialogue in the game is consistently hilarious: a highlight being the skeletal brothers, Papyrus and Sans. It’s a hallmark of the game that two characters can be named as fonts and yet be far more than punchlines. Much like a real relationship, you have to work for the affection of the characters. Friend or foe – it’s up to you. While the protagonist is largely silent as they make their way through the game, the player’s interaction with Undertale’s world is intricate.
The game’s combat system is refreshingly original. Undertale is billed as the game where “killing is unnecessary”, and it’s entirely possible to complete the game without having so much as hurt a fly. A strength of the game is the way it makes pacifism feel every bit as involved as other games make combat. To spare a monster, after all, isn’t a simple matter of some persuasive talking. Despite dialogue often being the chief means of reflecting player choice within a game, in Undertale actions often speak far louder than words. Killing your enemies will reward EXP which in turn will raise your LV, as well as gold. Sparing will reward only gold, and also warm fuzzies (and more that only becomes clear as you progress).
You have to fight for every turn. The combat itself features a red heart representing your SOUL – take a hit and your health ticks down. The monsters attack this heart within a box and it’s up to you to evade them. Each type has its own unique mode of attack and will respond to different actions. At times, you’ll even find yourself up against multiple combatants simultaneously. The monsters are imaginatively created: the game’s signature wit is infused in their design and make encounters something to look forward to, whatever tactics you employ.
The boss fights in particular are deeply satisfying. Quick wits and determination are required – and, often, a certain amount of trial, error and learning their patterns. There were several battles that took me a good few attempts, building upon previous progress bit by painstaking bit. I was rewarded with some of the most satisfying victories I’ve had in a game. That each boss has an unbelievably catchy theme doesn’t hurt matters. It’s far easier to come back for more when you’re dancing along to the soundtrack at the same time.
The game’s entire soundtrack is wonderful: the music is alternately catchy as hell, heartbreaking and hilarious. It’s also used very intelligently throughout the game. Characters’ themes share leitmotifs, hinting at potential connections and illuminating the game’s narrative subtly.
In short, Undertale is a game well worth your time. There’s so much to love about it: the plot is involving and the characters a pleasure to get to know. It’s at turns funny, haunting and gripping. You’ll be sucked into its world and finish it wanting more – and you’ll be rewarded for returning to the world.