Undertale is a beautiful celebration of why we play games.
Let’s make this clear; Toby Fox’s Undertale really does deserve to be on so many best of the year lists. This game is one of those few games I could truly call a masterpiece. Every element comes together just right, and the narrative and mechanics perfectly compliment each other in ways no other game has ever matched, nor yet to. It’s almost infuriatingly close to perfect, and also infuriating to discuss without spoiling its brilliance. As of writing, this game hits dab smack in the center of a fifty favorite games list I’m planning. This isn’t just another indie fluke hit because of retro styling or fresh subject matter. No, Undertale is a beautiful celebration of why we play games, and also a damning criticism at the same time, and it’s amazing just how it pulls off that trick.
The game casts you as a human child with no specified gender, race, or even name, as you have fallen into the Underground, the home of monsters sealed away by humanity generations ago in a massive war. A talking flower named Flowery appears before you offering aid, but quickly shows its colors as a sadistic creature, before being shoved aside by Toriel, the caretaker of the ruins you’ve stumbled into. From here on, you have to leave the ruins and prove to Toriel you can survive out of them, then find a way past the barrier that traps all the monsters in the underground, and you may even need to face the king of monsters himself, Asgore. But the Underground is more than it appears, as you meet all sorts of strange and amusing creatures, not to mention terrifying foes.
Toby Fox, the game’s creator, has a history in the Earthbound ROM Hack community, and it shows. Undertale shares Earthbound’s light and slightly strange sense of humor, but with a more modern spin, making characters and gags based around modern internet lingo and obsessions, including a scientist dinosaur obsessed with anime and a depressed ghost that composes “spookwave” tunes in his spare time. It works well with the implication that humanity’s garbage is becoming central to monster society, and leads to some absolutely hilarious moments. The two skeleton brothers in Snowdin, Sans and Papyrus, are easily the big scene stealers, though that’s high praise when the rest of the cast includes a killer robot TV star and a fish woman who thinks anime is real. Yet despite all these random ideas thrown in with nary a care for connection (especially with monsters, as they’re all designed by different people), the Underground becomes a perfectly structured, lived in world. Everything has a place and purpose, creating a world you don’t want to leave.
The battle system is one of the strangest parts of the game, as it’s actually a combination of bullet hell and traditional turn based RPG. Your soul is represented as a red heart in battle, and monsters perform actions that throw out projectiles you have to dodge, making things more complicated with blue ones you can only avoid by being still, and orange ones that require you to move through them. This can be off-putting at first, but once you get the hang of it after a few simple fights, dodging enemy attacks isn’t too tremendously difficult. It helps that you can equip a defensive item to take some damage off, plus healing items become pretty plentiful. As for offense, you can either fight enemies and try to match a slider in the middle of an eye symbol for high damage, or you can choose to do special actions with the act command and attempt to get a monster’s name in yellow. Once this happens, you can spare them, gaining gold but no EXP. This is by far the game’s most interesting element.
The game has a multitude of different play styles and outcomes as a result. You can try being a pacifist, or use force solely when you feel it’s necessary, or you can outright try to kill everything you see. No method of play is entirely right or wrong mechanically, and each have their own setbacks and advantages, even changing the areas and monsters you encounter in the most extreme cases. These systems are what make the story so powerful as well, as several characters have some awareness of game tropes. Occasionally, you’ll get comments about your actions, and everyone will treat you differently based on your violent actions or lack of action. The game itself also tries nudging you in certain directions, and to say why would spoil some of the best moments the game has to offer. It should also be mentioned that multiple playthroughs are encouraged and even rewarded, and there’s plenty of ways to work around various story sequences as well. No one run is rarely the same as another.
Toby Fox also shows off his skill as a composer here with one of the most intricately planned out scores I’ve ever heard in a videogame. There is hardly a track here that doesn’t have parts of it reused for other songs, and it’s always for a thematic purpose, even cluing you into secrets the characters are hiding, from relationships to their true feelings. The most impressive part is how subtle these tracks can be about it, never fully showing their hand. There’s also a multitude of styles on display, including some beautiful piano pieces, taking full advantage of digital music programs in ways few musicians can. Metal Crusher, Bonetrousle, Heartache, Spider Dance, Your Best Nightmare, and Megalovania are probably my favorite tracks, especially for the moments they’re used. Megalovania is also a new version of two old tracks from the same name from Fox’s past work, and its inclusion is a huge spoiler if you understand the original context that theme was used in. Just trust me, it’s one of the most memorable parts of any game period.
The quality presentation spreads out to the visuals as well. The entire game is done with sprites, but they’re stylistically intricate and are a real artistic choice instead of a cost cutting measure. They allow the game to hide its true intentions and with great ease, while making the battle dodging easy to make out. Color is also used interestingly, with full displays in the world, but all black and white in battle (with exception to color attacks). It gives the game a little extra something few other titles have, and make those parts with color in battle all the more meaningful and spectacular (especially with the major last bosses). It’s also amazing how much expression the battle sprites have, alongside the wide range of art styles overall.
But what really makes this game special and a possible all time classic cannot be spoiled. It would be a disservice to you. I an honestly say there is no game quite like Undertale, and while I know a good few that pull a similar trick, its not in the same context or even in the ballpark of being the same message.