Undertale PC Review
What instrument does a wisecracking skeleton play? Why, a trom-bone of course. Welcome to Undertale, the remarkable RPG by indie developer tobyfox, where comedian corpses, monsters bursting with existential ennui, and talking flowers all combine into a magical world chock-full of humor and heart. This is a game that is unlike any RPG you’ve likely played before, but is also a loving homage to a bygone era of classic old school epics. It is, at heart, a classic top-down style RPG full of adventures and puzzles. However, there is much more to it than just that.
The story itself is perhaps nothing earth-shattering. Long ago, there was a war between humans and monsters, which the humans won. As a result, the monsters were forced into their own underworld and sealed away from all humankind forever (but it never quite works out that way, does it?). You play a hero child that has fallen into the sealed world of the monsters and now must somehow escape back home.
Things then get more complicated, as things are wont to do. It becomes pretty apparent quickly that nothing is quite as straightforward as it seems. Immediately, a friendly monster named Toriel takes you under her wing and begins to help you. I don’t want to spoil anything further, but let’s just say that it’s not clear exactly just who is good and who is evil. The more we learn about the humans, the less inclined we are to see them as heroes. In what is perhaps the game’s biggest and most interesting wrinkle in the classic RPG formula, the hero can decide whether to kill or befriend each monster that he fights. And when a monster dies, it dies forever. While you can gain levels and experience by mowing down every creature that steps in your way, much of the game depends on you not choosing the violent way each time. Bosses that you do not kill can go on to become your friends. Just as in real life, your adversaries are not evil they are a mix of all kinds of different emotions, flaws, virtues and strengths.
Sure, sometimes bitches have to die. But if they do, I kill them with a heavy heart. I’ve been taught my whole life to hate monsters and kill them without asking questions. And now you’re telling me that sometimes they just want to be friends? Suddenly my whole RPG M.O. has changed. As a result, the battle system is pretty unique for what is an otherwise standard turn-based combat engine. Not only do you get to choose whether to fight or run from an enemy, you are also able to choose any number of actions such as “flirt” or “compliment” to try and win each monster over as a friend. Also, when you are attacked in turn, your character does not immediately sustain a random amount of damage. Instead, you are given control of your character’s heart icon and must skillfully move it around within a mini-game avoiding the monster’s special attacks. A player that is good enough could conceivably dodge every attack.
I have to admit to being a particular sucker for this game as I came of age during an era of stunning 8 and 16 bit RPGs that seemed to come out almost monthly for the NES and SNES. And the influence of those games is everywhere here. Looming particularly large in the background is Earthbound, the 1995 cult classic, which clearly leant an inspiration to the games elegantly simple graphics and its wacky-go-lucky humor. There are also elements of the now-obscure Lufia series, particularly in the puzzles. You could go back even further though to the Dragon Quest games (or Dragon Warrior as I knew them back then) which clearly influenced the battle and menu designs. And there is a musical theme in the waterfall level which bares more than a slight resemblance to the Kingdom of Zeal theme from the masterpiece, Chrono Trigger.
However, the real triumph is in the way that the all of these elements are synthesized into a brand new experience. I have never played a game quite like Undertale before even though it feels so familiar in so many ways. The story is fresh and the writing is superb. Everything feels professional and polished. You could have stuck this game on a cartridge and sold it for $60 in 1995 yet it does not come across dated today.
The graphics are clean and can be surprisingly detailed. The effects that tobyfox manages to squeeze out of his limitations are impressive. The worlds that your character moves through are bright and colorful. Effects such as water, ice, snowstorms, crystals, flowers, and so on really contribute a feeling of wonder to your adventure. Character sprites are interestingly designed and make the world of monsters come alive. Initially, when you are learning the ropes in the training level the graphics leave a bit to be desired, but once you emerge fully into the monster world, the game’s true potential is reached.
Since so much of the adventure is customizable and based upon choices that you make during the course of the game, it is crucial that we feel a connection to both the hero and the supporting cast. I can say without any doubt whatsoever that this is accomplished and then some. It’s an exhilarating feeling to know that I control the ultimate fate of so many of these silly, interesting characters. And the fact that you are able to befriend monsters or kill them as you so desire adds an ethical struggle that most RPGS could only dream of.
The script is fun and fresh and appropriate. The depth and the humor especially separate Undertale from the pack and give it a touch of class. I like games that don’t take themselves too seriously and there is a whimsicality to this game that I love. The experience of playing it is nothing short of enchanting.