I’d seen notably glowing reviews for Undertale on a number of websites, but I entered the game worried I’d be the next victim of over-hype. Instead, I left having found what might be my new favorite video game.
Undertale, a game created almost single-handedly by Toby Fox and released this fall, offers an outstanding and unique experience. It’s a role-playing game styled after games like Final Fantasy for SNES and the cult classic Earthbound. You play a child who’s fallen into the mysterious Underground, a world full of both friendly and dangerous monsters. The opening text crawl explains some history of the universe, but it’s your character’s progress that tells you the entire story.
I wish I could badmouth some aspects of this game or say that some parts aren’t what I want, but that would be a lie. There may be some who say the visuals are overly sparse, but I feel this stylistic choice allows for a world that captures you quietly rather than begging your attention. Some might see certain scenes as grandiose, but these moments never intrude on gameplay and they always have purpose.
The game stands out in a wide variety of ways. For one, you don’t have to murder anyone. To understand why this is so unique, you have to look at every other game released in this style. In most role-playing games, you progress by killing monsters. This rewards you with experience that levels you up, making you more powerful. Older RPGs would force you to repeatedly find and vanquish monsters to get to a certain level, which would allow you to fight the next boss and thereby progress.
For a game to go against that cliché is incredible. To have the choice of either sparing monsters or killing them is refreshingly unique. Both are viable options and both lead you to the end of the game. If you want to kill, there’s a simple mini-game in which you time a slider to deal the most damage. This rewards you with experience and gold like any other game, in the style of standard Japanese roleplaying games. To avoid damage on the monsters’ turns, you use your “Heart” to avoid the shots from the monsters. Some of these monsters have unique attacks, but the game introduces what you have to do in a nonlethal manner before you ever actually have to worry about dodging these attacks.
It’s a great system on its own, but it’s when you decide to spare the monsters that the system starts to show its subtle brilliance. Instead of simply saying, “I won’t kill you,” you have to go to the “Act” bar and choose the correct sequence of actions to create a situation in which sparing an enemy is possible. The descriptions of these action sequences are often humorous and are a good indicator of the quality of writing in this game. On my first playthrough, I spared most enemies just to see the excellent writing.
Both in and out of combat, descriptions and dialogue elevate this unprecedented game to an absolute gem. It rides the line of witty and heartfelt at the right moments, tastefully subverting expectations instead of adhering to them. The way each important character is written gives them a unique voice and, unlike many games in this genre, never makes them feel like caricatures. The ways you further your friendship with certain characters makes for possibly the funniest experiences I’ve ever had in a video game to date. I couldn’t stop laughing for entire encounters.
I’d love to talk about the story in more detail — about its ups and downs and the way it made me laugh, cry and feel beyond what I thought a game could make me feel — but that would spoil everything. Usually when I recommend a game, I know that, more often than not, readers won’t pick it up. This time, do.