RPGs have been around for nearly as long as the modern gaming industry has, and though genre standards are constantly being raised through the generations, there tends to be a homogenous sameness that many RPGs inevitably fall victim into. Octopath Traveler, for example, is a fantastic game, but it’s about as firmly traditional as a modern RPG can possibly be, trading innovation for well-understood genre tropes. On the other end of the spectrum is Undertale, an equally excellent and delightfully surprising role-player that hooks you with its weirdness and how it constantly changes up the status quo.
Undertale is a wonderful experience, not in how well it executes RPG tropes, but in how it often subverts them in fascinating ways. While a typical game of this type sees you acquiring a party of diverse characters, Undertale has you control a sole protagonist for the whole length of the game. Underlying systems in RPGs are usually on the complex side, requiring a certain amount of equipment, stats and many other factors to get the best results out of a team, while Undertale just has HP, Attack and Defense stats with next to no equipment. This act of going against the grain extends to the writing and the story as well; just when you expect a serious boss fight to happen, Undertale throws something silly at you. Similarly, disturbingly dark events can happen moments after a string of gags. Undertale is a game of surprise, of never knowing quite what’s going to happen next, and it’s that sense of freshness that makes this relatively short adventure such a memorable experience.
The story takes place in a world years after a war broke out between humans and monsters, with the monsters ultimately losing and being forced to move underground. You play as a kid who accidentally falls into an entrance to the monster world, kicking off a meandering adventure that sees you trying to find your way back out, making many weird friends and enemies along the way. Though the overarching plot of Undertale is nothing particularly special, its true strength comes out in the dialogue, which boasts great comedic timing and surprising depth. One memorable moment came when we read a sign along the path that read, 'Warning: Dog Marriage'. Upon closing the dialogue box and taking a few steps, we realized what it said and went back to read it again, and the sign now read, 'Yes, you read that correctly.'
Undertale conditions you to expect general nonsense and silliness like that as you work through the adventure, but it also delights in occasionally turning the tone quite dark. For example, during a certain boss fight, we fully emptied our enemy’s health bar, only for her to think of the friends and family depending on her, which gave her just enough health back to keep fighting. Each time we hit her after that, her attacks grew weaker and more pathetic, before we finally broke her and she melted before our eyes. Moments like that - or how getting enough experience from enemies results in your “LOVE” going up - act as wonderful moments of emotional whiplash, while also reminding you that there’s simply no telling what could happen next.
At first, gameplay follows relatively tried and true RPG conventions whereby your character travels a vast overworld and occasionally gets jumped on via random encounters, but the fascinating hook comes in the battle system. Every battle in the game, even against the bosses, can be cleared by showing the enemy mercy instead of killing them. Perhaps you need to pet an enemy dog warrior enough to gain its trust, or you need to flirt with the Tsunderplane to get it to like you; while showing mercy means you don’t get any experience, it also affects the narrative in interesting ways. There are three main ways you can play Undertale: doing a pacifist run with no kills, a neutral run with some kills, or a genocide run where you kill everything, and seeing all the content the game has to offer requires multiple playthroughs.
If you do decide to go the route of violence, combat is handled in a unique and engaging way. Attacking requires you to stop a moving line at the right place on a grid with a quick button press, but things change up when the enemy responds with their own strike. You’re suddenly given control of a red heart in a small box, and a brief bullet hell-like snippet of gameplay unfolds where you must dodge whatever else is in the box. Perhaps you have to weave between dozens of spiders, or dodge jumping dogs; much like the rest of the game, this portion of gameplay loves to keep you guessing. Sometimes your heart is restricted to jumping between three fixed lines, or a gravity effect is triggered and you have to jump over obstacles instead. It’s this constant dynamic gameplay of generally knowing what to expect - but never exactly how it will take shape - that makes combat so interesting and makes Undertale that much more memorable.
For all its excellence in other areas, one notable way in which Undertale stumbles is in its graphical presentation, which is rather basic and uninspired. Although there’s a colourful cast of characters from a writing perspective, sprite-work and level design are quite weak. There were a few too many sequences where we found ourselves walking down long, bland hallways that lacked visual flair and blended together. Undertale excels in its creativity in most other ways, but falls short in how it communicates visually.
On the other hand, the game features an excellent soundtrack, following a seemingly random assortment of tracks from a broad selection of genres. Although much of the music here is chiptune-inspired, there’s plenty of variety to be found, especially for the unique boss and character themes that pop up every now and then. We appreciated how fitting the music is for the occasionally chaotic pace of the narrative and gameplay, and it’s rather surprising how emotional and atmospheric some of the slower tracks can be.
Another key thing that bears mentioning - and something which may or may not come as a negative, depending on your personal preference - is the short runtime. A standard run, taking the time to talk to NPCs and engage with the environment, will take roughly ten hours; if you just blaze through, it’ll only take about five hours. While it may be that certain elements and plot points change depending on key decisions you make, encouraging replayability, players that don’t feel compelled to run through Undertale multiple times may be disappointed at how soon it’s over. While it would’ve been nice if there was more to this experience, it’s the kind of game that feels like it would overstay its welcome if the length was dozens of hours long; Undertale is certainly worth your time, but just be prepared for it to be over way earlier than your typical RPG.
Undertale is a brilliant and smartly designed game that understands well what makes a good RPG work; so much so that it can upend expectations and deliver something that’s almost a satire of the genre. It’s been a long time since we’ve played a game that manages to surprise so often and in so many unique ways, and even if it doesn’t look like much, Undertale has way more going for it under the surface. Excellently written characters, a genre-bending battle system and a solid soundtrack make this one an easy recommendation, especially to RPG lovers. Do yourself a favour and give this one a download.