It’s not often that retro-styled indie games manage to pull off the retro game feel without it coming off as somewhat manufactured and artificial. I didn’t get that with Undertale, instead it almost made me feel nostalgic about a game I’d never played before, with its blocky graphics and delightful chiptune soundtrack. One of the first things I noticed is that it truly felt and played like something you would play on a Game Boy Color.
The game follows the story of a human child who falls deep into the Underground, a place underneath the earth’s surface where the humans sealed the kingdom of monsters many years ago following a great war. At face value, the story sounds fairly cliché, but the game does a great job at exploring the history of the relationship between monsters and humans. The best part is the characters though – my god, the characters. Without giving too much away, these include a bumbling, wise cracking Skeleton, a socially awkward ghost, and a murderous celebrity robot. The hilarious dialogue, as well as the witty, self aware tone of the game make for some great moments, and continuously made me laugh out loud.
Undertale is an RPG with a bit of a twist: you don’t have to destroy anyone. Sure, there are random combat encounters with enemies, but as well as the option to fight, you have the option to ‘Act’ during battle. The available actions differ from monster to monster, but can include flirting, washing, flexing at, or even to attempting to devour your opponent. During the monster’s turn, you take control of your soul, and try to avoid the opponent’s projectiles in the style of a top down 2D shooter. This means it’s entirely possible to make it through almost any fight in the game, including boss battles, purely through dialogue options and dodging attacks. It’s not unfair to compare the act system to the Shin Megami Tensei series, as that was apparently the inspiration for the mechanic being in Undertale.
There is a nice variety of monsters that the player will encounter in Undertale, each one quirkier and more unusual than the last. Some of the most memorable ones for me were Woshua, the walking bathtub, Vegetoid, the sentient vegetable, and Aaron, the narcissistic seahorse. Besides the story characters, the most memorable characters of all have to be the boss fights. Each one introduces a new combat mechanic that is unique to that boss, making each boss battle completely different to any other fight in the game. This is the way boss battles should be, but a surprising amount of games, especially RPGs, are content with making a boss little more than a damage sponge.
While there are puzzles in Undertale, there weren’t any that proved to be particularly difficult to solve. I expected them to become slightly harder later in the game, but even those towards the end of the game required little actual problem solving and could usually be solved within a couple minutes using trial and error. As such, I would say that the puzzles were the weakest part of the game, however that being said, the puzzles were sort of ‘good enough’ for their purpose. They did require you to stop and think briefly, and the fact that they didn’t take too long meant that they didn’t affect the pacing of the game.
It’s obvious that everything in Undertale has been lovingly crafted, from the music, to the monsters, to every line of dialogue in the game. I went around reading every sign, interacting with every NPC, and exploring every nook and cranny, because I didn’t want to miss a single piece of it. I would also only play through about two checkpoints at a time, because I was worried I was going to finish the game too fast. That’s how I knew for sure that I was having a great time with Undertale, besides my raging boner for the game.
So what exactly would Undertale be defined as? It would be fair to call it a parody of the RPG genre, but at the same time, it’s more than that. It’s also a shining example of one of the most creative and original examples of an RPG I’ve ever played. The rich story, the lovable characters, and the original battle system all came together to form probably the most sublime experience you will ever get from a game that costs dollars. That’s less than a pack of cigarettes, but twice as addictive.