Released in September of last year, Undertale breaks the mould of conventional role-playing game mechanics by giving the player the choice to fight, converse with, or spare all monsters encountered. You play the role of Frisk, a child that has fallen down into the underground world of the monsters. Many years ago, monsters and humans lived in peace, until a war ignited and the monsters were driven underground by the much stronger and more ruthless humans. Understandably, this makes monsters both hostile and afraid of any humans that enter their domain. Not to mention the fact that the king is attempting to gather human souls so he can incite revenge against the human realm. Against this backdrop, in order to get home you have to make your way through to the centre of the city, where the king guards the Barrier back into the human world.
Design-wise this is an adorable game, using an 8-bit pixellated art style reminiscent of third-gen console gaming in the early Nineties. At first glance, it seems the game only has value for retro gamers keen to relive their childhood, but this is far from the truth, and this is evident from the fact that the game has already captured players’ attention across a wide age bracket.
After playing the game myself, I wonder if this is due to a combination of excellent storytelling, characterisation and completely unique gameplay. First off, the characters encountered manage to become incredibly endearing after only a few sentences of interaction. There are tons of jokes hidden about the place, and many more that are all too visible (oh, beware the puns that certain characters like to spout!). I started the game wondering if it was even possible I would become attached to any characters, and ended the game in tears, completely overwhelmed with emotion. It’s surprising how much feeling can be conveyed in simple pixellated expressions.
Secondly, the story starts off simply enough, then sort of creeps up on you, giving you time to explore and develop relationships with certain characters, before delivering one hell of a strong sucker punch towards the end. And, when I say ‘towards the end’, it’s not quite as simple as you may think. The story frequently breaks the fourth wall, and the narrative itself plays with the fact that this is a game medium, that you are ‘saving’ your current state, dying and retrying. Certain characters are privy to the world outside of the game’s timeline… so if you kill someone then restart from the last save point… they remember. When using the save function is part of the choices that affect the game’s resolution, it creates this wholly immersive experience where you have to really think about what you’re doing. And, in the same fashion that older games like FEAR did, with simulating runtime errors on your computer, Undertale will mess with the game load screen, or even halt the game completely at different points, during specific climactic parts of the story. Even the Undertale website’s ‘ABOUT’ page plays with the format of the medium it’s written in – that seems to be a strong theme here.
Finally, the gameplay. Oh man, where even to begin with this? The interface is so minimalistic, you might be forgiven for thinking you’ve gone back in time. You’ve got your usual FIGHT and ITEMS commands, and the first few battles introduce you to the ACT command, which allows you to talk to monsters, and the MERCY command, which lets you flee battle or spare the monster you’re fighting. You can only spare a monster once you’ve pacified it by talking, or by performing another action under the ACT command. So that’s already an interesting battle mechanic compared to most RPGs.
But while it’s classically turn based – your turn, then theirs, etc – the battles become more complex as, during the enemy’s turn, you gain control of a small red heart, which you must move about the screen to dodge the enemy’s attacks. Each enemy has a different arsenal of attacks, all of which play out like completely different mini-games. Some are more like playing Dance Dance Revolution, while others are a bit more like bullet dodging, and others still may involve jumping through hoops or racing away from an enemy’s minion along a track. No two monsters fight alike, and it means that you never know what’s going to come with the very next battle. It gets trickier when multiple monsters appear at once, as during their turn they will all attack at the same time, and this is incredibly hard to dodge. If you’re planning on using no items and lasting out via the pacifist route, you’d better have godlike reflexes.
The monsters will also say something during each of their attack phases, and these comments often contribute towards a mini-story that plays out across the battle’s lifespan. They can either be entertaining, contain some world history or clues about relationships with other characters, or clues as to what kind of attack is coming up next.
In order to pacify each monster, there’s a different set of events to do. Fighting a dog, for instance, might involve a specific order of petting, throwing sticks and beckoning. Fighting a knight might involve humming a tune that invokes a particular childhood memory and turns them into a big softie. Battles end either when you kill the monster, when you pacify and spare the monster, when you run away, or when another monster / plot incident / deus ex machina steps in. If you’re going the pacifist route and trying to spare everyone, battle choices have to be considered slightly differently, particularly for boss battles, as you may have to wait for the mini-story during battle to be completed before a deus ex machina arrives that gives you the opportunity to end the battle peacefully. This sounds like a cop-out, but for many battles it’s incredibly tricky just to survive long enough. It’s highly enjoyable figuring it out though.
And the final battle(s?) break ALL the rules. I can’t explain much more than this, but it’s a tense and tumultuous ride. You’ll never have played anything like it, and I have to say, I haven’t been this impressed by battle mechanics since the very first time I played Grandia 2 (those Grandia 2 veterans among you reading this may also be pleased to know that there are certain… similarities between some G2 bosses and Undertale’s).
The humour and cultural references are great fun. With monsters named things like ‘Tsunderplane’ (who pretends to not have a crush on you but gets jealous when you fight a different monster first), monsters obsessed with anime (who make incredibly fangirly status updates on the ‘monster social network’ about their favourite shows), and monsters named after cringeworthy fonts (whose speech is displayed in those very same fonts), there’s a number of places in this game where it’s hard not to laugh.
Here’s the official release trailer, to get an idea of what I’m talking about:
The music is fantastic as well – and here it’s probably an important point to note that creator Toby Fox, aside from designing and coding the vast majority of the game, also composed and created the entire score himself. The soundtrack is a MIDI nostalgia fest, and each song emulates a different musical style. It only contributes to the sensation of being totally out of your depth and not knowing what comes next, and many of the songs do stick in your head. In addition, some bits of music will only be heard if you pursue plotlines that involve killing or saving certain monsters.
So if you’re looking for a game that will surprise you, entertain you, and possibly make you extremely emotionally compromised, play Undertale. I give it a hearty five out of five stars.
images © Undertale offical website & Venturebeat, screencaps © Holly Ferrie