Undertale is a game that’s tricky to talk about, but the prospect of sharing this review with you fills me with determination. I could put a spoiler warning up, but ultimately there’s so many things about the game that I wouldn’t like to spoiler for anyone, because so much of the game rests on a sense of discovery. This is not to say that it’s a bad game without the discovery, but there are so many unique, fresh things that the game does, it’s immensely enjoyable to discover them for the first time.
So I’m going to cover what I can, without disclosing the big surprises that Undertale has in store for you. I know it had more than a few surprises in store for me. Suffice it to say that it’s an eclectic fantasy game that pays homage to classic JRPGs (Japanese video-game roleplaying games like Chrono Trigger, Secret of Mana, and the Final Fantasy series) while at the same time using them as a springboard for exploring new ideas and dynamics of telling a story.
Telling a Fantastical Story
Undertale opens with a monochrome, retro-style series of images that tell a simple story. Long ago, there lived two races on earth: humans and monsters. One day, war broke out and the humans sealed the monsters beneath the ground. Then, one day, a human child climbed the summit of Mt. Ebbot, a place that (according to legend) nobody returned from. They tripped, fell, and landed in the monsters’ underworld, and that’s where our story kicks off.
It’s an ancient narrative, and a classic motivation: a wanderer is trying to find their way home, making their way past trials and hardships. From The Odyssey to the Divine Comedy to Pilgrim’s Progress, it’s a story that we can all identify with. We all understand what it means to be lost and away from home. Undertale, then, fixes the meat of its storytelling on your journey back. As you meet the denizens of the underground world and build connections with them (or don’t), you start building a relationship with the setting.
Where Undertale truly shines is in the way it uses mechanics to tell its story. There’s a lot of storytelling in the game that comes from its mechanics, surprisingly. If you’re not familiar with this style of game (the classic JRPG), there’s a lot of exploring as you walk around, interact with things in the world, and get to talk with people and read books and signs in the world. For the eager explorer, there is a lot to find, and the way that the game lets information unfold to you is very potent. But that’s not the only time that Undertale’s storytelling uses mechanics.
The combat system in Undertale is incredibly novel, and there’s a surprising amount of narrative baked into it. You see, Undertale gives you two combat options: Fight and Mercy, as you can see in the screenshot above. It seems pretty on-the-nose, doesn’t it? Well, there’s a lot more than meets the eye there. The Fight option is the easy one: choose it, and then you get a timing game where you have to hit the spacebar when a line is in the correct zone. This lets you deal damage, and the closer you get with your timing, the more damage you deal. Keep dealing damage, and eventually you win the fight. It’s an interesting example of “show, don’t tell”: the Fight option is an easy, straightforward way to resolve the combat. You get EXP, which helps you increase your level, making it easier to fight in the future.
“Mercy” is a lot more difficult. See, the Mercy menu gives you two options: “Spare” and “Flee”. Fleeing means that you get nothing from the combat, and in some fights, you might not even be able to flee. Sparing means that you resolve the combat peacefully, and get a small reward of money that can be used to buy things to help you on your quest. But that option is ineffectual when a fight begins.You have to make it effectual by getting your opponent to a state where they’re no longer willing to fight. And you do that by interacting with them. Resolving a fight with the Mercy option means solving a sort of narrative puzzle, as you try and figure out how to get your opponent to a state where they’re willing to talk things out.
And that’s not even getting into stuff like how the game has some really cool threads of setup and payoff, because, well, spoilers. But keep your eyes open, particularly if/when you play the game a second time. There are quite a few things hiding in plain sight.
Production and Stuff
The look and feel of Undertale might not be what you’re used to. It’s a very big throwback to old RPGs, and some of it might seem kinda dated or even bad. Within the limited aesthetic of the game, though, I think they manage to pull off a bunch of really cool things. Visually, there’s locations that look absolutely gorgeous, and they use the limitations of the game to incredible effect. The above clip from the “Hotlands” location is one such example, but I’ll throw out a few more. And if you enjoy retro-style graphics, this is going to be a treat for you.
But it’s not just the visuals; the music stands out because it heavily draws on old chiptune-style orchestration, while mixing it into some incredibly evocative sounds. Here’s a mix of the sorts of songs that you’ll run into during the course of the game. It really is impressive, and these songs run the gamut from “tug at your heartstrings (especially within the context of the game)” to “make you grin whenever you hear them” to “absolutely lovely”. Oh, and they weave motifs from previous songs into later songs like nobody’s business, and the effect is wonderful. The juxtaposition of one particular late-game song against an early-game song (when I was replaying the game) made me drop my jaw because of how they’d reincorporated a theme from the early-game song.
And then there’s the writing. It’s absolutely fantastic. I’ve never been so entertained and amused by a game; there are plenty of scenes which are laugh-out-loud funny in their sometimes-slapstick silliness, and there’s a sort of weird charm to all of that. But there’s also the moments when the story gets meaningful and serious, particularly as you learn about characters and come to understand them better. And there’s also a lot of things that start to get really interesting once you’ve played the game at least once–little bits that you didn’t notice before, or didn’t think to put together, elements that you didn’t think were important previously, but because of what’s happened, you know what’s up. There’s mysteries and secrets everywhere, and little hints that you can choose to follow or to leave alone.
The Morality of Undertale
It’s impossible to talk about Undertale without including discussion on the moral element. I find the moral aspects of media, particularly when it comes to gaming, to be tricky. Hammer too hard on the moral stuff, and you turn into message fiction and ruin it entirely. As someone exposed to a great deal of Christian-targeted media, this is something I saw over and over again, and it bothers me when good media tries to inject moralizing, as though it doesn’t inherently belong. So how does Undertale manage?
Well, like I said, games tend to have trouble with this. Games are a very new type of media, and they’re unlike other media. The fact that players wind up directly making choices in a game makes them a prime target for experiments surrounding moral aspects. Telltale Games is a company I’m going to get to once I finish and review their Walking Dead game, and I mention them because that’s become their schtick: telling stories that immerse you in the moral aspects of the situation. They’re not the only ones that try, of course, and there’s been a lot of clumsy attempts at it. It tends to feel pretty hackneyed when your choices often boil down to “save the people” and “kill the puppies”, after all.
Undertale’s moral decisions are a lot more nuanced. For one thing, there’s no Morality score sitting back and judging you at the end of the day. It’s on you to make your own judgments about whether what you’re doing is right, and that can sometimes be a lot better. See, what Undertale does is to immerse you in the consequences of what you’re doing. It’s not as visceral as the Walking Dead story games, but it’s just as personal. You get the option of choosing Fight/Mercy, you inflict each blow one at a time, and talking/interacting with your opponent during a fight is the standard, not an exception. Plus, plenty of the monsters are quirky/funny/cute/sympathetic enough that you really don’t feel like fighting them. Like the Pomeranian in armor at the top of the page.
Now, speaking as a Catholic, it’s still incomplete. It really does expect that you go into the game with a moral compass of your own, because it’s a game that’s intended to play off of that moral compass. It’s meant to make a statement about the value of peace by touching things in your heart that you’ve already developed, and it’s also using that motif as a means to tell an often inspiring story. So, you won’t find nuanced things like the principle of double effect or the necessity of self-defense, but it’s certainly not incompatible with them. It’s just a game that builds off of what you already take in with you.
Is Undertale Worth It?
Undertale is a novel game, although if you’re not familiar with many of the cultures it draws from (retro video games, JRPGs, internet culture, anime), you’ll miss quite a bit and might find it incomprehensible. I don’t think that necessarily means you won’t get anything out of it, though. If you’re not turned away by the aesthetic, and are interested in exploring a game that is weird in a quirky way (but still entertaining), you should give Undertale a look, and see what it has to offer. It’s a game made out of love, and with quality. And there’s plenty of sudden but inevitable surprises in store, as well.
Special note: while you can play Undertale through once and be done with it, there’s a lot you’ll wind up missing if you only play it once, including different endings. As far as I know, there’s three main ways to go through the game: “spare all the monsters”, “kill all the monsters”, and “spare some of the monsters”. Each has their own ending, and apparently there’s also plot discoveries that are unique to each iteration. I’m currently in the midst of a “spare everyone” run of the game, having previously spared almost everyone except for an early enemy.
Finally, I’ll just leave you with this: an awesome rendition of my favorite fight theme from the game.
You can find Undertale at the official website.