In an era of gaming filled with HD remakes and sequels on sequels, a throwback indie-developed RPG can certainly fly under the radar. But that wasn’t the case with Undertale, one of 2015’s biggest surprises created by Toby Fox. But what makes Undertale so special? Is it its characters or its gameplay? Or more importantly, is it a story that has never been told? Don’t let the old school graphics and price tag fool you, Undertale has more surprises than you think.
Undertale is one of those games that brings back the charm of old school RPGs, appearing to draw much of its inspiration from cult-classic EarthBound. Its design primarily focuses on storytelling and giving the player a unique experience depending on how they play the game. And like many other old school RPGs, the story is the most important aspect of Undertale, meaning the characters are what ultimately define the player’s experience. Luckily, there are a wide variety of personalities in Undertale, not only coming from its major characters, but also the game’s NPCs, shopkeepers and even the enemies.
And the way the player gets to know these characters is one the most interesting parts of the game. Take the enemies for example: the player can elect to talk to or analyze them, instead of attacking, in order to understand their personalities. As a result, the enemies in Undertale can be defeated by showing mercy. It’s an extra dimension to the combat system that is not only a breath of fresh air, but also affects how the world interacts with the player if they choose to play the entire game this way. The same thing can be said if the player decides to kill every single monster in their way – the experience is wildly different.
As the story unfolds, the way players get to know the major characters like Papyrus, Undine and Mettaton not only helps to build up their boss battles, but actually makes you think twice whether or not you should harm them when it comes time to fight. Through the first half of the tutorial, you’re introduced to Toriel, who helps guide the player early on before leaving to make a special surprise for them. And that’s where things get interesting with Undertale, as I felt a mother-child relationship building with Toriel as she treats the player like a child. With that in my mind, I actually felt a bit guilty in making certain decisions, especially when it came time to making the choice of whether or not to kill her – and that is what makes Undertale such an amazing experience.
Each boss fight you encounter has a similar buildup. Whether it’s through direct dialogue or through another character, the player will get to know these character’s motives, dreams and personality before the eventual boss fight. Granted, fights themselves are different if you decide to kill everything, but the events leading up are still there and they’re what drives the story, bringing life into Undertale’s strange world.
Like movies and other epic video games, Undertale’s storytelling is accompanied by an exceptionally well-made soundtrack. From the safe feeling the player gets when they first step into Toriel’s home to the strong imposing presence of Asgore, the music fits each situation, location and character. It’s even more interesting since it’s hard to describe the feeling music itself can give a player, and it’s true that the experience is going to vary person from person – but that’s a common theme within Undertale. Admittedly, it is a bit weird that there’s a mix of both 8-bit and orchestral tunes, but it hits a home run each time it’s appropriate. If you choose to do an entire playthrough of the game without killing a single enemy, you’re rewarded with a track that fully embodies the idea of determination.
But since Undertale focuses so much on its story telling, there are certain aspects of the gameplay that suffers. While I will say that combat is very unique and fits well with the themes presented with the story, the phases where the player has to protect its soul by dodging the enemy’s attacks can be legitimately frustrating at times. Since the theme of the game revolves around determination and not giving up, I found that controlling the soul to avoid attacks was really creative. What’s strange however, is that the soul breaks when the player dies, and that’s what the main antagonist is after – but that’s just a minor gripe.
The game isn’t perfect though. As well thought out as the combat system is, I found the puzzles in Undertale underwhelming with some of them being insignificant. I understand that the majority of the puzzles were meant for character development and comedic moments, but even the puzzles that weren’t meant to be a joke were still laughably easy and had no real substance, which is a real shame. I don’t mind having throwaway puzzles that help to show how incompetent a certain character is, but I would have preferred a good challenge for the puzzles that weren’t meant to be a joke. It’s true that that the story and combat are the main focuses of Undertale, but I feel if something is going to be included in a game then it needs to either stick with its purpose or be fully fleshed out to fit the game’s design.
I have always been a sucker for story driven games and Undertale doesn’t disappoint in that department. Best of all, there’s plenty of replay value with all the secrets and different approaches to go through the journey, especially at the game’s affordable price. None of the issues that I had with the game were so detrimental that it ruined my entire experience. If you’re hungry for a flashback to old RPGs, Undertale belongs at the top of your list.