On the surface, Undertale seems like a perfectly happy top down retro RPG about a human who fell into a world inhabited by monsters. At least that’s what I thought when I began - by the end however, I was emotionally exhausted. It’s something you have to experience to truly understand, especially when it comes to the game's disregard of the fourth wall. Undertale isn’t afraid to take the experience directly to you, the player, and it’s full of striking moments as a result.
It’s a shame that the puzzle mechanics weren’t as well thought out. They never reach any imposing level of difficulty and can usually be dealt with in just a few minutes - it's a bit of a missed opportunity. At most they are a hindrance and the very least, just a fancy footpath. Battles however, are much more enjoyable.
You'd expect a generic turn-based combat system in this style of game, but it takes a unique bullet hell survival approach, whereby you control a heart in a box and avoid increasingly difficult incoming enemy attacks. But like so many other elements, what first seems simple is in fact a deeply layered and varied experience. As was touched upon earlier, Undertale isn’t constrained by convention; attacks frequently come from anywhere across the screen and new powers are added or changed on the fly to keep you constantly alert and ensure each encounter is tailored to represent the monster you face, especially in boss battles. The only time this can end up feeling a little unfair is when multiple enemies are on screen at once and their attacks get overwhelming.
While combat is one of the main features of the game, it’s not violence you’ll be using against enemies. Instead you’ll spend most of your time in the ‘act’ section of the battle menu, where depending on what type of monster you're fighting you’ll be given appropriate actions to counter the attack. Fighting Woshua, a hygiene obsessive monster? Let it clean you and it’ll be happy to let you pass on your way. Tackling a muscled seahorse/merman called Aaron? Get into a flexing competition until it flexes right off the screen. This alternate way of battling makes each encounter feel unique and while there is a standard ‘fight’ option, it always feels the bland choice to take when it’s possible to flirt or heckle your way out of trouble.
A peaceful outcome is also good for your prosperity, every spared enemy rewarding you with more gold than one killed. That gold is best spent on the in-game foods that function as health packs - fill your inventory with these rather than the clothing and weapon items which can be found or bought in shops throughout - you can end up taking a beating during the tougher battles. EXP can only be earned through violence and the death of an opponent, whilst you're rewarded with increased level and health, killing can often lead to negative impacts later on in the story. The mechanics make for a constant conflict of show mercy and prosper, or assert dominance and grow strong. This leads us to probably the most impressive feature of Undertale.
It’s hard to convey just how good Undertale is without spoiling too much of it...
While it’s always tempting to try and get the ‘best’ ending (usually the one where everyone lives) with so many variations available it’s better to play the first run honestly and see how the story pans out, rather than forcing an outcome, even though it might lead to the slightly bleak and somewhat disturbing ending we got. Those poor, poor monsters...
All of this is accompanied by a brilliant soundtrack. What sounds limited at first (it matches the retro aesthetic) culminates in some of the best battle scores around while adding emotional punch to Undertale’s more dramatic moments. It was worth going back to Snowdin just to listen to the utterly charming area theme, one of the best in the game and guaranteed to put a smile on your face.
Toby Fox has managed to singlehandedly create one of the most funny and enjoyable games out there at the moment, a tale that was a pleasure to play and something that could easily have been dismissed as ‘just another retro indie game’. With admission less than a tenner, it’s an absolute bargain! It doesn’t even require a supercomputer to play, the game will run on pretty much anything, if you can install Steam you can play it (I ran it on a standard laptop and it worked fine).
It’s hard to convey just how good Undertale is without spoiling too much of it, the surprising twists, the beautifully thought out character arcs, the touching history, it all adds up to a memorable experience and one you should certainly not miss out on.