Undertale is a game all about the unexpected. On face value, it may appear to be just another indy title with a passion for the retro. But this brain-child of one Toby Fox looks to subvert RPG norms in fun and inventive ways. It’s most blatant inspiration is EarthBound, though it also evokes Super Mario RPG and the Mario & Luigi series on equal levels. All of which are apt inspirations for an RPG that wishes to be unconventional. What’s all the more unexpected is how well Undertale lives up to its inspirations.
The “hook” of Undertale is simple enough in concept: You don’t have to kill anything. But the depth of this concept is what gives Undertale its uniqueness in both gameplay and story.
In terms of gameplay, Undertale looks very much like EarthBound, complete with retro-style first-person battle screens. But players are able to go along with or against RPG conventions with the options to fight or act.
By fighting, you can defeat the monsters, earn experience points, and level up, as is RPG tradition. But if you choose to act, you can find a non-violent way to win the battle, whether it be striking up a conversation, initiating a dance-off, or giving a simple compliment. Once you’ve won the favor of a monster, you can choose to “spare” them, ending the fight without gaining experience points (though you can still earn gold).
Neither option is more difficult than the other, however, as most monsters are not easily swayed or defeated. No matter which route you choose, you will still have to endure their attacks. It’s within these segments where the influence of the Mario RPGs shines through.
During enemy attacks, the game takes on something of a “bullet hell” setup. The player’s “soul” is represented by a tiny heart, which the player can guide within a window. The enemy attacks are present as various projectiles, which the player can avoid altogether, provided they have the ability to guide the heart out of harm’s way.
Like in the Mario RPGs, every enemy provides its own unique challenge, meaning that avoiding their attacks feel like mini-games unique to each monster.
Though each enemy fights differently, Undertale’s battle system has a few consistent rules to keep things together. Enemy attacks that are colored white will damage the player. Blue attacks won’t harm you so long as you hold the heart still, while orange attacks are the reverse, and will be harmless if the player willingly moves the heart through them. Some monsters have attacks that can be turned green, which then heal the player.
The battle system is an utter delight, and one of the most fun and interactive I’ve seen in an RPG. It’s probably the only RPG I can think of outside of the Mario series where the battles provide a constant sense of surprise. This variety is reflected equally in the aforementioned “act” options, which are unique to every monster’s personality.
On the downside, Undertale does adhere to that most aged and archaic of RPG conventions, the random battle. Granted, it’s possible Undertale goes the route of random encounters due to production limitations (aside from artwork, the game was created entirely by Toby Fox himself, so I suppose resources can only go so far), but one of the many aspects that has helped EarthBound and Mario RPG endure over so many other retro RPGs was their non-randomized encounters. Thankfully, the random battles here aren’t too excessive, but it’s a shame this is one area in which Undertale doesn’t follow in the footsteps of its inspirations.
The story is another highlight of the game. Undertale tells the story of a long-forgotten war between humans and monsters, where the humans emerged victorious and banished the monsters to a subterranean realm. The monsters can’t break the seal keeping them in the underground, but humans can find their way to this world of monsters through a single mountain.
Players take the role of a child who happens to fall into the monster world, and must go on an adventure to find his/her way home. An adventure that takes many twists and turns and, ultimately, questions the child’s morality.
The two things that ascend Undertale’s story to the realm of great video game narratives are its writing, and the way in which it takes full advantage of its medium.
The writing can be downright hilarious. Undertale is not only the funniest game I’ve played since Portal 2, it’s one of the funniest games I’ve ever played, with an absurdist sense of humor that once again echoes the likes of EarthBound and Mario & Luigi. Yet the game is also able to tell a compelling and even tragic narrative that brilliantly contrasts the game’s humorous writing.
Undertale is also one of those rare games that understands how to tell a story unique to the video game medium. There are so many games out there that simply want to replicate movies, but Undertale is a story that plays out in a way that could only happen in a video game. Every decision the player makes in every battle (and some outside of battles) will have an impact on the story and characters. The game even includes three different final bosses, depending on whether your choices are righteous, villainous, or somewhere in between (with the third option providing numerous different endings of its own).
The adventure is admittedly a bit short, and can be blazed through in just a couple of play sessions. You may even find that the game’s third act unfolds all too abruptly immediately after the more complete penultimate chapter. But the different paths with which the player can take adds a good sense of replay value to the game, and you may keep coming back to Undertale to change the adventure drastically or just a little bit.
Visually speaking, Undertale is simple but charming. The retro look is appealing and well done, and the character designs are original. Though some of the environments can admittedly look a bit sparse.
The soundtrack, composed, of course, by Toby Fox, is one of the best in recent years. The music of Undertale can range from retro and catchy to atmospheric and melancholic. It is distinctly a video game soundtrack, one that can capture a range of emotions without feeling the need to simply replicate the style of a film score. It’s beautiful to listen to.
If you love RPGs, Undertale is an absolute must-play. It even follows in the footsteps of its inspirations EarthBound and Super Mario RPG in being an RPG that’s fun and accessible even for those who aren’t fans of the genre. It’s one of those rare indy games that lives up to the reputation that precedes it, and a damn fine RPG under any criteria.