The turn-based RPG isn’t typically renowned for its stunning variety; things are, in fact, quite the opposite for the old girl. Looking at the Japanese variety, in particular, this stereotype is often pervasive on two fronts: in the DNA of the games, and the derivative nature of individual releases. Like, let’s be honest here. If a JRPG is billing itself as an 80-hour experience, you can expect a lot of time spent in the trenches of its menu system as you fling larger and larger numbers at the enemy skeletons in the context of increasingly distracting aesthetic pretenses. These are games that frequently want the player to spend a whole lot of time doing the same things. Things that other games have wanted the player to do since the original Dragon Quest back in ’86.
Take a cursory glance at Undertale, and you’d get much the same vibe. “Hmm, we’ve got turn-based combat, an isometric camera angle, a morality system, pixel art, and some chiptunes. Never before has one been so brave as to insert these elements into a videogame. I am so thoroughly astonished,” you may wryly affirm to yourself before taking a savory swig from a goblet of dark roast brew atop your throne of cynicism.
Give the game a chance however, and you’ll go from pleasantly surprised, to greatly amused, to utterly blown away in a matter of hours.
The first thing people tend to bring up when talking about how cool Undertale is is the game’s insistence on playing it with peace in mind. See, you could do what would normally come naturally as a player and make your way through the game with fangs bared, using violence to crush each obstacle you come across until you’ve executed every main character and exhausted the finite number of enemy encounters – which is a bit messed up when games ask you to do that, Undertale constantly warns. Or, alternatively, players have the option to seek peaceful means of resolving conflicts, dishing out generous portions of mercy even in the face of adversity.
This dynamic feeds into one of the best morality systems I’ve ever seen a videogame utilize (the hows of which we’ll get onto later), if you can believe that. Endings run the gamut from true pacifism – where you spare everything on sight, to genocidal – where you slay everything on sight, to a whole spectrum of neutral paths depending on which combination of characters you end or befriend. What’s truly exemplary about this is how these different story angles add depth to characters that are already well-written to begin with. By the time I’d eaten with, dated, sparred, and murdered Undertale’s various residents, I understood the many dimensions of these pixelated monsters better than most RPG characters after their fifteenth vengeance-fuelled diatribe.
That alone would have been enough for me to give this thing a recommendation, but Undertale is more than capable enough to hit your expectations about its others aspects out of the park completely.
Its combat system, for example, is endlessly more impressive than so many other turn-based affairs. You’ve got the standard ATTACK and ITEM options at your disposal, but the game’s ACT and MERCY submenus are where all the intrigue is at. This is how you’ll go for a non-lethal approach, should you welcome the added difficulty of figuring out how to diffuse situations by cycling through a list of ever-changing – and often seemingly irrelevant – actions that, in some combination, will cause the opposition to back down.
Though the solutions are obtuse at times (there’s a part where you have heat up a guard’s armor to point where he’s forced to bear his chest, and are then able to convince his visibly distracted partner to share some romantic feeling for his brother-in-arms), clicking the wrong actions usually leads to amusing results, and since it’s possible to dodge the entirety of an enemy’s attacks, it doesn’t feel like the game’s punishing players for failing at what is ostensibly trial and error.
This brings us to the other unique aspect of the combat system: the enemy’s turn. When on the defensive, players are given a little heart icon and varying amounts of real estate to move around in, where attacks representing the enemy’s visual design move about in attempt to damage your cursor. Maneuvering around a bevy of beams, vegetables, bones, and dogs is a surprising amount of fun, and keeps battles both engaging and increasingly challenging even after you’ve devised a strategy. Not only that, but boss encounters almost always flip the script on how your cursor behaves, sometimes adding gravity to your icon so that defending feels like a platformer, other times granting it a beam attack to make things feel like a true shoot ‘em up.
I’ve heard the argument that this set-up is as ripe for monotony as any other turn-based system. “Once you’ve figured out how to solve an enemy encounter, you click the same options every time you run into them, so they’re a waste of time,” the argument goes. I think that Undertale fares a little better than other games with random encounters, though. First of all, on top of the dynamic dodging system, battles are relatively infrequent, which is complemented by a well-adjusted enemy variety. Not only that, but reading the enemy’s battle text in each encounter is compelling in ways that even the Mother series can’t match. And anyway, I’d argue that the overworld battles are at least no more repetitive than something in the mold of Final Fantasy or Pokémon, because is discovering that an enemy type is weak to ice and scrolling down to your ice spells really more strategic than knowing which monsters prefer to be hugged rather than complimented?
“Alright, most of the combat encounters are interesting and exciting, what else is?” you may ask.
“Pretty much the rest of it,” I’d answer.
Okay, so, we talked a bit about how a lot of games do this cute thing where they’re really predictable, both on the story and things-it’d-like-you-to-do fronts. Once you’ve gotten a feel for a game, understand the rules by which it operates and what sort of structure it’s going for, you know what to expect going forward for the next couple of hours. This isn’t such a bad thing, because it facilitates a certain level of mastery and some narratives can even benefit from having a rigid, unchanging structure while still throwing new elements into the mix at the right time – this is the point where I’d wave at Shadow of the Colossus like it were a friend sitting at another table who had just overheard us talking about them. That being said, I think this tendency for sameyness is one of the reasons why it can feel easy to lose enthusiasm for campaigns in mechanically competent games. But that’s not the case here: I spent the entirety of my first Undertale playthrough giddy with anticipation.
Rarely do I play a game and genuinely, consistently have no idea what’s going to happen in the next room, or even just around the corner. Rarely do I expect to be told awful jokes by a lazy skeleton in slippers talking to me in uncapitalized comic sans, or figure out how to impress a hostile aeroplane with tsundere tendencies, or be serenaded by what is essentially an ENIAC control panel in a gown playing at some sort of twisted Final Fantasy VI reference. Honest to goodness, the majority of Undertale plastered a big ol’ grin across my face, and inspired a level of excitement and wonder over what’s coming next that few other games can match.
Granted, a lot of this unpredictability comes from cutscenes or story bits, but when these elements synergize with the gameplay as well as they do here, it makes for a certain level of cohesion. However, one of the few criticisms I can think of comes from the plot’s constant grip on your character. See, your progress through the underground is frequently halted by phone calls from different characters, puzzles that either fail to operate or are intentionally underwhelming, and a number of other situations that allow for little to no interaction. For some, this constant interruption might be seen as irritating to varying degrees depending on the extent to which you enjoy the writing or dig the game’s wacky sense of humor.
I, for one, wasn’t bothered by any of this in the slightest on my first playthrough, and while it can be more of a nuisance if you’re gunning for different endings, it helps that there’s a wealth of alternative dialogue options to pick from and – often – multiple ways to resolve conflicts. Amazingly, the game remembers certain things you’ve done on previous files and reflects those decisions in-game once you begin anew. Not only that, but messing something up and resetting the game before saving can have lasting repercussions as well; discovering its various meta secrets can be endlessly captivating because the extent to which Undertale secretly recalls what you’ve done both in and outside of the game never ceases to amaze and disturb.
And disturb is something Undertale does to a startling degree. Hidden under this exercise in humorous skits and playful novelty lie ideas that can genuinely disquiet. I’m not just talking about the part where the game’s aesthetic suddenly takes a turn from retro pixel art to the sort of unnatural, unsettling cinemagraph animation you’d find in a particularly dark corner of the internet either. Playing through the game’s genocide path was a genuinely difficult experience; intentionally killing characters I had grown attached to only a few hours prior, watching them throw their collective might at my merciless, bloodthirsty avatar while they pensively imagined an alternate world where we could have been – and indeed were – friends, was kind of heartrending.
The worst part is, I, as a player, needed to see that content. I did it, Your Honor. I went back on the happy ending me and a cast of characters I cared about worked so hard to get, working even harder to undo everything and replace it with something dire. It felt awful. But it was in the game, so I had to. And the game knows this; Undertale is well aware of gamers’ lust for completionism, and will rub it in your disbelieving face with a gleeful sadism you aren’t ready for. This sort of player-as-monster shtick has been toyed with before, but to my knowledge, never with such a degree of guilt.
It’s interesting, because I don’t think I’ve ever done two separate playthroughs of a game that felt so tonally different. While hunting for random encounters to slaughter as a slower, tone-shifted version of the overworld played was unnerving, the pacifist route is a mostly feel-good romp with a handful of heartfelt moments that could bring a tear to the eye of even the saltiest sea-faring ne’er-do-well. The writing is good, to be sure, but the music also does its fair share of heavy-lifting when it comes to getting the proper feelings across.
Not only is the soundtrack incredibly catchy and at times, technically impressive, but it’s also integrated into facets of the story and gameplay to an amazing extent. For sure, each character’s battle music effortlessly sets the mood and even serves as a pump-up to get you into that bullet-dodging rhythm, but it goes deeper than that. The tracks just feel so interconnected. It’s thrilling when a character’s boss theme breaks into an intense remix of the song that played during their cooking show; it’s touching when you can faintly hear someone poorly playing a segment of their crush’s theme music on the piano; and it’s chilling when, after hearing so many variations of a particular song over the course of your journey, you finally realise who it belongs to.
So, really, what I’ve been saying is that Undertale is, in many ways, the perfect significant other: It’s funny, smart, genuine, has really good taste in music, likes dogs, is always surprising, and encourages you to be a better person. I love it, and I think you would, too.