Undertale was one of the biggest selling games on Steam in 2015, yet it somehow still feels like an undiscovered gem that only you know about. Heavily inspired by old-school JRPGs (Japanese role-playing games), it’s the little crowd-funded indie game that crept up on the gaming community last year and unexpectedly stole everyone’s hearts. Well, subjected the hearts to prolonged enemy attacks in battle and then stole them.
In Undertale you play as an unnamed child, who accidentally falls into an underground dungeon world of monsters. Following a war many years ago with the humans up above, these creatures have now been banished with magic to the underground world forever. Your character may be the key to allowing them to escape, but as with everything in Undertale, this story isn’t as clear-cut as it appears. Because although you except the monsters to be snarling, evil beasts, some of them are actually pretty friendly towards you. Some, are even downright adorably cute.
The first thing to understand about Undertale is just how surprising it can be for the player. Although we won’t give away any plot-points here, sometimes simply describing the gameplay might be considered a little bit of a spoiler, so be warned! Part of the joy of Undertale is unfurling the strange little story contained within it and meeting the colourful cast of characters that inhabit its world. And boy, what a colourful, oddball collection of monster-folk they are. Many of the monsters you come across are effectively parodies of typical enemies you find in other RPGs (knights, skeletons, weird little wiggling jelly-type creatures), but they become something so much more in Undertale. With each one, a distinctive personality will shine through as you play and this makes you question all your interactions with them. Which brings us to a key element of the game, the combat.
Any RPG lives and dies (and occasionally, flees) by its battle systems and Undertale is no different. A brief tutorial at the start of the game will show you the basics, but you must decide for yourself how to approach each monster encounter. The battles are turn-based and consist of you (represented by your heart on-screen) dodging a series of enemy unleashed patterned attacks. Your response to the attacks then shape not only the battle you’re in, but also the wider story resulting in three possible game endings. After years of playing video games, your first response is probably to fight your enemy, right? Well, in Undertale talking things through is also a valid option. A series of conversation options can be used as your turn, instead of simply trying to shove a sword into your opponent’s (sometimes far too cute) face. These interactions help you reason with your enemy and reach a friendly, pacified conclusion. OK, so for those shoot-first-ask-questions-later kind of gamers out there, this option might seem a tad dull but it really does work well in Undertale. The whole process inverts your standard approach to playing a RPG, deftly twisting your expectations and making you think first, before you fight. It’s smart, witty and probably unlike anything you’ve played before.
Visually, the game is just as engaging as the battles. Full of retro charm, the pixelated graphics are straight out of the NES book of artwork. They’re handled with the tender loving care of someone who clearly loves 8-bit design and will put a cheeky smile on the face of any nostalgic gamer. There are nice little visual touches too, such as incidental facial animations on some of the characters and inventive use of speech text. These are small aesthetic points but they all add to the complexities and intricacies of the in-game world. The music too is delightfully and endearingly retro, but just like any other RPG it can also become excruciatingly repetitive (spend a bit of time in Tem Village and it’ll be a proud achievement if you don’t end up ripping your own ears off). This isn’t so much a criticism, more of a testament to just how long you can find yourself fully immersed within the game.
From humble beginnings then, Undertale has now proven itself to be a major player in the RPG genre. With a loyal fan-base, the game has built up a cult following online through community posts on sites like Tumblr and Reddit. Fan theories and plot speculation is commonplace here, helping to grow the intriguing appeal of Undertale to a wider audience. Which is a great thing of course because whilst it may be a a little too niche for some, it certainly deserves to have a seat at the big-boy RPG table with the likes of Zelda and Final Fantasy. Perhaps though we should leave it to the games creator, Toby Fox, to best describe the impact of Undertale and why it definitely deserves your attention:
Hearing "UNDERTALE made me want to be kinder" or "UNDERTALE helped me through a dark time" feels more valuable than any award or score.
— toby's Fox (@FwugRadiation) November 20, 2015