Constantly hearing about a particular game, wondering what exactly the big deal is? In our regular series, we delve into the hottest community games and ask the important questions: Why do they generate such a devoted following? Is all this fuss warranted? And if so…are they worth your time?
This week, we take a look at perennial indie darling Undertale. This RPG has been kicking around for a while now and has become synonymous with the trend towards top-quality indie titles. Now, with its release on PlayStation 4, there’s no better time to jump in. So let’s get to it…
What is it, exactly?
Originally releasing in 2015 to little fanfare, Undertale gradually gathered an enormous amount of critical acclaim as more and more people were won over by its particular charms. Essentially developed by just one man, the insanely talented Toby Fox, you control a child who falls into an underground world where monsters have been imprisoned for centuries. You must navigate this labyrinthine subterranean realm with one simple goal in mind: to make it back to the surface alive.
How does it play?
Frankly, Undertale doesn’t make the greatest of first impressions. Its visuals call to mind the early Zelda games and Earthbound on the NES, a game from which it takes a great deal of its inspiration. But while many recent indies have taken this simple 8-bit aesthetic and brought it up to date with a modern, stylized edge, Undertale sticks to that classic style religiously. As a result, it comes off as a little clunky, a little drab…And if I’m honest, more than a little ugly. Somehow, though, after a few hours, I’d begun to find the art delightful and endearing, and that owes much to the gameplay.
Once you start to traverse the cavernous underground realm, you realize the game is largely a linear experience, with open areas and multiple paths, but always a single goal to work towards. You’ll encounter puzzles as you progress, some right out of the standard block-pushing, lever-pulling RPG playbook, others a touch more abstract in their execution. You’ll also meet monsters. And that’s where it gets interesting.
The combat is half Pokémon, half bullet-hell shooter, and just as off-kilter as that description suggests. Random encounters are sprung upon you without warning as you wander, and you’re introduced to all manner of weird creatures, from walking, talking vegetables, to bunny-eared critters who love to dance the robot. When you’re attacked, a mini-game is triggered where you must maneuver the little heart which represents you, while avoiding all the little white stuff that’s being thrown in your direction. Each monster has its own attack patterns, so if you can learn them, you can avoid taking any damage. Sound weird? It is.
But as distinctive as that is, it’s really the least interesting thing the enemy encounters. The not-so secret truth about combat in Undertale is that it’s completely inessential. You can go through the whole game without killing a single enemy. Instead, talking is usually an option, along with some different contextual choices depending on the creature you’ve encountered. Through the course of my time with the game, I was able to intimidate my opponents, flirt with them, or even heckle their terrible jokes. The right choices allow you to spare your enemy, but you’ll only learn which to use by getting to know each of their individual personalities.
This isn’t just a party trick, either: it’s intrinsic to the game’s DNA. The way you approach enemy encounters causes the structure to change entirely, so on a violent run, you’re more likely to encounter aggressive monsters rather than the cerebral puzzles that are prevalent if you tend towards playing the pacifist. It’s an intriguing conceit that works even better in practice than it sounds.
All this contributes to Undertale’s well-developed themes of morality and the freedom of choice. The game rewards multiple play-throughs, and I found it surprisingly impactful to fight an enemy which I had, on a previous run, gotten to know well. I knew its needs, simple as they were — it just liked to be flirted with — and so when it came to killing it, I found it genuinely difficult. The genius of the game is how gently it introduces these themes, and simply lets you sit with them. There’s no heavy handed point being made here, but, given enough thought, it really makes you look at games in general from a whole new perspective.
Is the fuss justified?
In many ways, Undertale is a small game. It's modest 2D environments, the relatively brief length of its campaign, and even its tiny install size, speak to a game with few grand aspirations. But it would be a grave mistake to underestimate this game’s ambition — because, in that department, Undertale is huge.
The serious tone of the game’s story, along with the developers’ chronic defiance of many of the genre’s conventions make playing Undertale an experience unlike anything else, and a singularly great experience that deserves to be experienced by as many people as possible.
The writing, alone, is worth the price of admission: it’s always incredibly sharp, and frequently hilarious. Despite the often simple nature of the gameplay, I was continually spurred on by the notion that I’d have the chance to meet more of the game’s esoteric characters, and unravel more of its fascinatingly odd story.
The music should get a mention, too. While the score doesn’t feel entirely appropriate to the visuals on show — it’s not limited to the usual chiptune-type arrangements you’d normally expect to accompany this sort of aesthetic — that’s far from a bad thing and is yet another area where Undertale refuses to play by the rules.
Worth a look?
Brilliantly, Undertale serves as a salve to those looking to get all nostalgic over classic 8-bit RPGs of last century, while at the same time pushing the boundaries of what can be achieved within that framework. It never neglects an opportunity to give a knowing wink to ardent gamers with its self-referential humor. Again and again, it defies convention, not for the sheer sake of being different, but always with the player’s experience in mind.
This isn’t the sort of experimental, rough-around-the-edges indie that can be recommended only with caveats. This is a game for everyone, and in particular, those who consider themselves fans of gaming in general. Pick it up on PS4 now that it’s available, or your platform of choice. It doesn’t matter where you play it, only that you do.
Andy is a freelance writer for Game With Your Brain. You can follow him on Twitter.