Nick Smit dives down into an indie RPG with heart.
I’ve actually been somewhat dreading this review as it seems impossible to talk about Undertale without spoiling what makes the title so special. But as the game would have of me, I’m filled with determination. What I can tell you is that it’s a story-heavy RPG with the capacity for both delightful innocence and horrifying, existential themes. Anyone already getting Earthbound vibes at this point should pat themselves on the back because the game takes a great deal of inspiration including the art style, music and dialogue, with a touch of modern internet culture for good measure.
The game opens to an exposition-by-wall, which explains that the world was once populated by humans and monsters. But after a war broke out between the two races, undoubtedly because we were jealous of their sick magic skills, the monsters were banished underground and trapped behind a barrier that only seven human souls could lift. As unfortunate human number seven falls into the underground, the journey home will teach you what your soul is made of while you deal with monsters that wish to take it from you.
What can generally be considered as the ‘hook’ is the subversive ways you can dispatch enemies. Since the title is very clear about this from the start, it’s not really a spoiler to tell you that there’s more to Undertale’s combat than simply smacking your opponent until their numbers go down. Indeed, the heart (literally) of gameplay is when you go on the defensive, where you’re tasked with dodging the enemy’s attacks in a bullet-hell style similar to Gradius, or those arcade games you used to find at Timezone that devoured dollar coins like it was the last day before their “no copper” diet started.
Certain enemies can shake combat up even more by giving the pixelated heart you control gravity, preventing you from fleeing, inverting your controls and more. Each of these changes is commonly accompanied by a humorous text prompt that gives each monster type their own personality, as well as hinting at how you might overcome them. Some monsters can even become your friends if you play your cards right, leading to branching storylines and a decent level of replay value.
The pixel style gives a certain interpretative aspect to the monsters’ design as well, with the difference between a painful grimace and a menacing smile being the way your mind’s eye sees it. The retro feel also means that they can use your familiarity to screw with you a bit, as what you’ve considered to be solid blocks can suddenly twist and distort in the choice moments when Undertale decides to unnerve you. Thankfully, some surprises can also be pleasant ones that play on old RPG tropes, such as a shopkeeper that buys their items back for more than they sold them, and fourth-wall breaks that call attention to just how odd the player’s behaviour actually is.
Considering that I’m not a particularly fast reader, I wanted to see everything the game had to offer and I’m terrible at not dying – 12 hours does not sound like a particularly long game at all. But while this is true, ten dollars isn’t exactly going to strain your bank account. On the other hand, Undertale might strain your heartstrings so get ready for the ‘feels’.
Image: Nick Smit