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Developer: Toby Fox
Undertale is a predominantly one man project created by Toby Fox. Funded with a successful Kickstarter campaign which far surpassed its $5,000 goal, Undertale managed to raise a total of $51,124 and took over 2 and a half years to complete. Earlier in the year I cited Boot Hill Heroes as a perfect example of how the classic RPG genre accredited to games such as Chrono Trigger & Earthbound are both utterly timeless and just bursting with unexplored potential. Undertale takes a sledgehammer the size of the sun and just hammers that point home with the force of a billion stampeding chocobos.
The game begins with a simple enough concept, after losing a war with the human race long ago, monsters have been magically sealed underground. You play as a human child who finds themselves trapped in the monster’s prison, which they have now made their home. You have one goal…to reach the surface. The choices you make in going about this task are perhaps the most intriguing parts of this game and the ramifications from both a storyline and gameplay perspective, break new ground for video games as a medium. You see…you could play Undertale as if it was any other RPG of this type. Defeating monsters, levelling up and gaining new equipment as you progress but who is really the monster then? You are invading the monsters home, villages with shops, inns and libraries all run by monsters. Murdering everyone in your path to the goal is going to drastically change every character in the game’s perception of you. The alternative to this, is to be merciful to the monsters you encounter and even befriend a few along the way. It’s a choice which proves equally enjoyable if not more-so than the old school genocidal method.
Now, monsters are complicated beings. Perhaps out of instinct, they will attack the player, but those who have chosen the pacifist route have various tools at their disposal to make sure no harm comes to the misguided monstrosities. For starters, every enemy attack can be completely avoided. Once in the enemy attack phase you will take control of a small heart, representing your character’s soul, within a square, representing the battle arena. Enemies will fire various projectiles at the heart and each hit will take away from your HP.
This system is surprisingly deep, each enemy in the game has multiple attack patterns and each enemy partaking in battle attacks simultaneously, making for some frantically challenging encounters. The boss fights take this one step further by subverting your expectations of the battle system and placing your heart under a multitude of status effects ranging from weighing it to the bottom of the square, to having it traverse across a series of lines like a game of Frogger.
If you would like to end these fights without harming anyone, you must use the “act” command. Again, each enemy has a multitude of different actions. Some of them might only prove to enrage the monster but a clever combination of actions will result in the player being able to “spare” them. The player will not gain any exp from this and so will become increasingly vulnerable as they encounter stronger enemies. This is a clever trick on the game’s part as some players might give in to the temptation of that extra level or two but if they persevere, there is always a way to put an end to the fight in a merciful manner.
Interacting with the characters of Undertale is always a treat. As well as the unique design of each character encountered, even minor characters have something interesting to say, either relating to the events of the game or the surprisingly deep back-story of each new area the player traverses. The 4th wall is broken quite a few times by some of these characters and moments of surrealism come often, but the way in which this was done really struck a chord with me. Several times the game tricked me in to performing some futile action. One example had me scrambling for my keyboard (I was using a controller) to type something mid battle, Typing of the Dead style, only for the game to critique my writing as “not getting to the point.”
The writing itself has a beautiful simplicity to it, exposition is kept to a minimum. Nevertheless, the story had an increasing emotional impact on me as I came to discover more about the inhabitants of Undertale and the satisfying variety of outlandish personalities within. Even better, the game has a large variety of different endings depending on who you decide to befriend and your level of aggression towards the inhabitants of the underground.
The music, which is also created by Toby Fox, perfectly compliments the game’s unique atmosphere. Despite its retro style akin to Earthbound, it manages to have moments of expressiveness which even surpass many of the classic soundtracks of the era it takes inspiration from. An example of this being ‘Snowy‘ with its incredibly well crafted strings.
It’s amazing how Toby Fox can stretch a relatively small amount of motifs to over a hundred tracks in total, each one just as good as the last. Often you don’t even notice you’re hearing the same melodies in multiple songs, thanks in part to the interesting instrumentation which is a combination of classic chip-tune and organic orchestral samples.
The decision to give each boss fight its own individual theme is incredibly commendable and emphasises the bosses flamboyant personalities even more. This also plays in to the frantic gameplay as you try to avoid the bosses relentless attacks which are often far harder to avoid than that your average enemy. The boss music actually really surprised me when it first came up, as the game had lulled me in to a false sense of security with its more calming & understated tracks up until that point. Yet another way Undertale subverts the player’s expectations.
Finally, the visuals, at first glance are rather basic but the little details scattered all around the world and in each of the monster designs are creative and aesthetically pleasing. Some of the more intense battles have some surprisingly bombastic flair to the visuals which may have been where some people have drawn similarities between this game and the ‘bullet hell’ genre. The game certainly does wear its influences on its sleeve and contains plenty of references to the Mother series in particular. But Undertale seems to take all the good ideas from those influences and none of the bad ones.
Undertale is an absolute masterwork, made almost entirely by one person (Temmie Chang contributed to character and monster designs.) It’s a showcase of pretty much everything that makes video games such a unique and interactive medium and it subverts every expectation of its genre. As we see an ever-increasing number of open world games with hunting, crafting and an Arkham style combat system, these are the games that will fade into obscurity. Undertale will leave a lasting impression. Because, as I said earlier in this review, this is the kind of game that is truly timeless.