The rise of the indie games fad around 2008 has done a lot to affect the landscape of gaming. I say “affect” because I don’t want to say it’s been especially positive or negative; you’ve had your high points and your low points, much like traditionally published games. It’s always been the case in my mind that the means by which a game is made as well as the people who made it are both essentially irrelevant: what matters is the quality of the product, and it’s important to highlight games that are worth a look. With that, let’s talk about Undertale.
Undertale casts you as a human child lost in an underground world of monsters. “Monster,” in this case, is more of a species than a descriptor; they’re sentient creatures with their own thoughts, feelings and personalities, just like humans. There are plenty of memorable characters, like a spaghetti-obsessed skeleton, a dweeby lizard scientist and the greatest performing robot of all time. You’ll meet and interact with each of them as you explore the underground.
You’re going to run into plenty of conflicts, sure, but they can be solved with wit, guile and charisma. Battles can be addressed by talking to monsters and figuring out how to convince them to let you spare their lives, immediately ending the fight when you do so. Nobody has to die to make it through this game, though the nonviolent route can be more difficult than simply bashing your face into everything until you get through. Patience and persistence will see you through, though, and the game’s not especially difficult nor long.
You can focus on befriending your potential foes, eventually earning a reputation as a reasonable human who can coexist with monsterkind. It’s a little heartwarming at first. Eventually it’s a lot heartwarming. I pride myself on the fact that a video game has never made me feel anything but “hungry,” but at times Undertale made me…uh, very hungry. Yeah, that’s the ticket. Certainly no warm fuzzies. Definitely didn’t find myself caring about the fates of little pixelated monsters. No laugh out loud moments, no sir. Just hunger.
Or, well, you can do the exact opposite of that. You’ve got an XP counter and levels, after all. There are weapons and armor to equip and healing items to load up on. Combat, should you choose to solve your problems in a more direct manner, uses a precision-based timing bar that’s vaguely reminiscent of how Shadow Hearts worked; careful timing means more damage. You’ll want to do plenty of damage, so it’s fortunate that if this is how you’d like to play Undertale, you’ll get plenty of practice with that timing bar. Grind to your heart’s content. Go nuts.
Of course, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that going nuts will have consequences. The extent to which that’s true is surprising to say the least. Without going into it and ruining the surprise, there are several entirely different games to experience here. You may want to carefully consider your approach. This isn’t a roguelike or anything, but your choices have more weight than you might initially believe, and you can’t necessarily take everything back if you don’t like what happens.
Reading the above might – should, in fact – concern some readers. Indie games love this sort of setup; for years, toying with games as a concept and the many clichés of the medium has been the independent developer’s easy way out. It represents a means of making and selling a game without necessarily having to make or sell a good game, and the rise of crowdfunding and decline of Steam curation have meant that there’s plenty of easy money in getting something out the door.
Undertale certainly sounds like a game made using this paradigm, but it’s actually a well-written and legitimately endearing adventure. There’s pixel art, sure, but it’s combined with high-quality battle sprites and gorgeous backgrounds. There’s chiptune music, yeah, but it’s some of the best I’ve heard. There are memes here and there, but they’re a gentle sprinkling over a main course comprised of original humor and storytelling. Undertale, more than nearly any indie game I’ve played since the trend started, feels like a labor of love rather than a quick hop onto the bandwagon. The worst criticism I can level at it is that it might be a bit too liberally inspired by the SNES classic Earthbound. There are worse things.
Perhaps most important in my mind is this: morality is central to the game and there’s a clear philosophical agenda throughout, but it stops just short of preaching at you. The co-opting of video games as a means for pushing messages onto players is something I’ve found to be particularly distasteful over the past couple of console generations. Undertale doesn’t do this. None of the proceedings feel out of place and the ramifications of what you’re doing are made clear to you from the start. You become what you choose to become. To explain any further would dull the game’s impact to some degree.
So there’s that, then! At $10 Undertale is a solid purchase for anyone who enjoys RPGs. It’s not the longest game you’ll play; you can see everything it’s got to show in a weekend at most. This will most assuredly be time well spent, however, and I can’t think of a better recommendation than that.