Toby Fox had certainly stumbled onto something special when Undertale was released in 2015; the seminal post-modern RPG garnered quite the cult following for its quirky humour and disarmingly dark themes, which went a long way towards cementing its unique identity. Now, a few years and several ports later, Fox is back at it again with a follow-up project, the first part of which has released on the eShop for free as Deltarune Chapter 1. Though not a direct sequel (or maybe it is?) of Fox’s magnum opus, Deltarune feels more than worthy of its predecessor's legacy, even if it does come off as being rather light on new ideas.
After an amusing introduction with a character creator, the story begins by following Kris, a young human child going to an ordinary day of school in a world populated by monsters. Kris and the school bully, Susie, are soon asked by their teacher to retrieve chalk from a nearby supply closet, only to find themselves falling headlong into a mysterious dark world. Here, they’re informed that they’re heroes prophesied to bring balance to the world and set out on a quest to set things right so they can go home. Though the storyline is about as cliché as possible, Deltarune borrows heavily from its predecessor in the way that it handles nuance and ‘behind the scenes’ storytelling; despite appearing to be a simple tale of heroes saving the world from darkness, little hints along the way suggest a much larger plot is in motion.
What makes much of the storytelling so compelling is the hefty dosage of sarcastic and witty humour used along the way; Deltarune is a game that hardly takes itself seriously – it delights in surprising the player and finding all sorts of goofy ways to turn expectations on their head. For example, a memorable early boss encounter sees you fighting against an enemy who isn’t old enough to ride a motorcycle, so he sets his bike on fire instead to feel cool. Or, in another example, a certain party member can’t decide whether they want to be good or evil, so they follow the team at a distance so as to not be associated with them. This kind of humour permeates nearly every square inch of Deltarune, which does a great job of lulling the player into a false sense of security so they aren’t prepared when things suddenly take a disturbingly dark turn. You never know what’s going to happen next, whether it’ll be another gag or an incredibly violent incident, and that makes the plot so riveting to follow.
Gameplay takes much after Undertale – many of the trappings of a 16-bit RPG are present and accounted for – but it notably builds on Fox's previous game by eschewing the solo, EarthBound-esque combat in favour of a multi-character system that’s more in line with Final Fantasy. Battles still play out in a turn-based fashion, but you now also have a ‘TP’ gauge that fills based on your attacks and dodges, and acquired TP can be spent on casting magic. It’s not a huge change, but it does have a notable effect on how you approach enemy attacks. Like Undertale, enemy attacks play out by having you control a small heart inside a box in a bullet hell mini-game; if you can dodge whatever flies at you in the box, your character avoids damage. However, a little more TP is gained for every ‘near miss’ with the obstacles coming your way, encouraging you to weave between them in such a way that they only just miss the heart. This slightly heavier focus on risk and reward feels like an organic and well-implemented expansion of the original combat concept introduced in Undertale, and hopefully, it will continue to be iterated on in subsequent chapters of Deltarune.
Naturally, a big part of this combat system revolves around doing all that you can to not fight, and fans of Undertale will be pleased to know that the focus on ‘sparing’ enemies is back in full force. Every enemy encounter, boss fight or otherwise, can be completed by somehow talking down, befriending, or otherwise making peace with your foes through a series of often humorous actions that end in everyone walking away relatively unharmed. You don’t receive any experience from battles that end in this fashion, but all your actions – violent or not – have long-ranging effects on the outcome of the story; there are multiple different story paths depending on just how peaceful or violent you choose to be. It certainly brings up interesting discussion around the ethics of being a ‘hero’ who kills just about everything between you and the goal, but it also creates some interesting puzzles that spice up combat a bit more. Every enemy type has a unique way in which they become wooed, and finding out what it takes to talk them down can make things more interesting than simply hammering the Attack button over and over.
Aside from the combat, there’s a handful of simple puzzles to solve in the sparse environments that comprise the game world, which serve as a reminder that not all issues from Undertale have been completely fixed. Though charming to some, most of the world feels like a collection of long, sparsely decorated hallways with very little in the way of interesting design or presentation. Sure, the item descriptions and occasional NPC conversations are funny, but the dark world hardly feels like a cohesive or living place; though there’s perhaps a slight upgrade in sprite quality and detail from its predecessor, Deltarune is unfortunately not a very pretty game to look at.
What’s more – and this is no doubt a more subjective issue – Deltarune has a general feeling of uninspired sameness that never quite manages to go away. Rather than making more of an effort to build upon and differentiate itself from its excellent predecessor, it seems that Deltarune is more concerned with simply copying what made Undertale so great. That doesn’t make it a bad game outright, but considering how fresh Undertale was at the time of its release, it comes off as being a bit disappointing that Deltarune is ‘just’ more of the same. However, this is only the first in what’s supposedly to be a multi-chapter epic, so perhaps the best is yet to come and this first episode is merely a primer for much bigger things to follow.
It’s unknown at this point just how big of a project Deltarune will turn out to be – only Chapter 2 is confirmed as of the time of writing – but this first chapter proves to be a solid, if a little too safe, take on the unique gameplay and humour that made Undertale such a hit. At worst, Deltarune Chapter 1 is just a smaller and shallower version of Undertale; at best, it’s a promising glimpse into a much more ambitious project that will hopefully grow to escape the shadow of its forerunner. Regardless, you can download Deltarune Chapter 1 for free right now from the eShop; we’d encourage you to give it a download and see what you think.