Go play Undertale right now!
Eh, need a little more than that? Well, fine! I just wanted to give you the chance to jump straight into the game without having any of the plot spoiled or any advanced knowledge of the gameplay. It truly is a game best played without any pretense. Such a feat is likely difficult to accomplish, however, seeing as if you’ve heard of the game, someone has likely already extolled its virtues and quirks. The game seems to have received quite a bit of critical acclaim and people are already talking about it, let’s playing it and singing its praises from the mountaintops. However, I truly believe it is the kind of game that should just be experienced straight, without pretense or proxy. A Let’s Play would ruin the intimacy of the game. A walkthrough would destroy reveals and suspense. In fact, even a review might dull the edge of the Undertale experience. However, I like this game so much that I still want to talk about it. I’ll try my best to withhold anything too telling, but consider this entire paragraph a strong suggestion that if you ever feel like you should stop reading and just play it, then do so.
Undertale is a role-playing game that is inspired by the Earthbound/Mother series, a series with quite the cult following. In fact, this is not the first time someone has attempted to pay homage to the strange charm of Shigesato Itoi’s off-beat RPGs, however in my opinion it hasn’t been properly done until now. Undertale manages to incorporate the spirit of Mother while retaining its own identity—one of a game that breaks a lot of rules and utilizes humor to distract you from the world it is building as you go. Also unique are the game mechanics that make up the puzzles and battles, making you re-think how you approach an RPG.
In Undertale, you play a young human child (whose gender is never revealed or deemed relevant) who has found themselves lost in a strange underground ruins. Greeted by some curious characters, you will discover the basic controls of the game, as well as how to approach the monsters that approach you throughout your journey. One of most obvious places where this game departs from a more direct RPG lies in the combat system. In it, you have the option to “FIGHT” offensively, “ACT” according to the situation, use an “ITEM”, or show “MERCY”. While fighting and items are fairly self-explanatory, acting can range from checking a monster to flirting with them. Mercy gives you the chance to run away or, if certain conditions are met, spare an enemy that doesn’t feel like fighting anymore. If you spare an enemy, you won’t get any experience, but you will get gold. How you go about your actions will affect how your game progresses.
And when I say that your actions affect the game, I mean ALL OF THEM. Okay, perhaps not every single action you take, but Undertale is programmed to account for many different decisions you make, even those that one considers to take place outside the game. I don’t want to elaborate too much here, but to try to put it more clearly Undertale keeps track of not just the decisions your character makes but those you make as well. Think twice before making even the simplest of moves. …or don’t! Honestly, the hidden complexity of Undertale doesn’t necessarily punish you. It simply allows you to play through the game differently. The story may grow happier or bleaker or somewhere in between , but you can still progress to a definite end without quite knowing what the next screen will provide.
Returning to the subject of battles, there is more to it than just fight or flight. When being attacked, you have the ability to evade attacks. A box appears with a heart, representing your character, that features the enemy’s attack. You must navigate the heart around to dodge the projectiles that will cause damage. These attacks become more variant and complex as the game goes on, with new gimmicks being introduced to keep them fresh, while keeping in line with the monster who is producing them.
Finally there’s the writing of Undertale. I don’t plan on going into plot, but I can’t finish a review of this game without going into its sense of humor. Undertale’s characters are bright, interesting, and, more often than not, funny. The ways in which their personalities are interlinked with decisions you make in the game keep you engaged with the dialogue and give a genuine feeling of warmth as you get to know them.
That isn’t to say, of course, that Undertale is nothing but situation comedy and puns. The game provides plenty of opportunities to explore the more serious side of the world below, expanding on the history between humans and monsters and what path they may find themselves on in the near future.
Everything isn’t perfect, of course. There are times when the game’s humor feels like it panders too much to specific internet communities or fandoms that can leave outsiders bewildered or rolling their eyes. I think that in-jokes definitely have a place in entertainment media, but there needs to be a very polished delivery for them to go over well without alienating some of the audience. Mostly, Undertale avoids this problem, but there are a few places that made me lightly groan.
I could easily go on all day about Undertale (and perhaps someday I will!) but for now I just wanted to touch on some of the broader concepts and components of the game. Undertale is an indie gem that I think will be remembered for some time, perhaps even with the same dedication as Earthbound/Mother has garnered over time. Okay, maybe there will never be a piece-by-piece analysis of the nuances of its translation and cultural relevance, but the game’s uniqueness and heart will win over all kinds of fans for sure. I will end by reiterating that you should really go into Undertale with as little information as possible. Don’t look things up, don’t try to find reviews, don’t follow people’s live tweet reactions… Get just enough to pique your interest and then dive in to discover your own personal Undertale.