What can I possibly say about Undertale that hasn’t already been said by every other reviewer and blogger on the entire internet ever? Probably not much, but that sure ain’t gonna stop me. After all, a game like Undertale is one in a million, and darn if it doesn’t deserve all the PR it can get. Now, for the maybe three of you out there who haven’t played Undertale yet, I will try to keep the spoilers to an absolute minimum, since the story is one of its biggest selling points.
Undertale’s story is rather innocuous at a first glance. You play a human child who, while on a hike up a mountain, falls down a mysterious hole and lands in the Underground, the long-forgotten home of monsters. To return home, you’ll need to journey to the end of the cavern system, crossing the entire monster kingdom in the process, and pass through the barrier that keeps monsters and humans separate. Along the way, you’ll meet a cast of characters that will steal your heart (in some cases literally, as the monsters need a human soul for reasons I choose not to elaborate on). These characters include snarky couch potato skeleton Sans, his brother the overconfident Papyrus, and the heroic, hot-blooded fish woman Undyne, to name a few. Your interactions with these characters and others will determine how the game progresses and ends, and even a single, seemingly-harmless action can have a massive butterfly effect down the line of the story. I’ll elaborate on this more later, but let’s just say for now that the story is one of the most important aspects of the game, helped along by writing that can make you laugh and tug at your heartstrings, sometimes at the same time.
Gameplay is sort of like a hybrid between Earthbound and a bullet-hell game. On the field, you can walk around, talk to people, observe things, and solve field puzzles (a gameplay aspect which very frequently has a lampshade hung on it, if you know what I mean). When walking around, however, you can be jumped by a monster and pulled into combat. This is where things get interesting; during the enemy’s turn, you have control over your SOUL, represented by a little red heart, that moves around a large box. Enemies will launch projectiles at you, which you need to dodge to avoid damage to your HP. Every single enemy in the game has its own special attacks and projectiles, adding a nice little pinch of variety to combat. When it’s your turn however, how you move is up to you. Undertale’s signature system is the MERCY button. On your turn, you can FIGHT to lower a monster’s health and kill them, or you can ACT to try and talk them down. If you succeed, you can show MERCY and spare the monster, and they’ll leave you alone. However, if you don’t fight, you don’t gain any EXP, and if you don’t gain any EXP, you don’t gain any LV (that stands for LOVE, by the way). You can choose to spare monsters and become friends, but when a boss fight occurs, you’ve handicapped yourself by not gaining any LV, meaning less HP, less attack, less defense. In this way, story and gameplay is blended in a way never seen before. Do you fight to become stronger and make the game easier down the line, or do you show mercy and stay in the good graces of the monsters? Both of these choices can drastically affect the progression of the story, even more so depending on the extent to which you adhere to them. Undertale’s story is essentially part of its gameplay; a puzzle to figure out. The logic for adhering to certain pathways can be a tad obtuse at times, which I normally hate in games, but since Undertale does it so consistently, you begin to find the method to its madness and train yourself to think outside box in every encounter.
As a side note, the music and art in this game is unbelievably charming. Character combat models have a retro pixel-ness to them that makes them look like something out of an old DOS dungeon crawler, but every model still has a touch of personality to it that makes it feel unique from every other monster. The music is on the bleep-bloopy end of the spectrum, but even with limited sounds, the majority of the tracks, especially for the boss fights, are highly memorable, catchy even (I’ve been listening to a few of them in the car).
Aside from being a genuinely compelling story with fun gameplay, Undertale asks questions of us: are you the kind of person who seeks non-violent solutions, or is violence always the answer if you think you’re justified in self-defense? Will you offer the hand of compassion, even if you are heavily resisted, or will you always choose the fastest, simplest solution? And at the end of the game, I felt an honest-to-god moment of introspection. Very few games can say they’ve done that to me, and now Undertale is one of them, and that more than makes it worth playing.
But remember, he’s always watching you. And even if you try to break the rules, he’ll know what you did.