Like so many games I buy on Steam, I bought Undertale a while ago in some flash sale, and didn’t touch it for months, while my friends told me how good it was. “I’ll get around to it eventually,” I said, as I turned my attention back to Pokémon Moon or Gears of War. But it always stayed in the back of my mind as something I really needed to get to.
When I finally did, it immediately struck me as something unlike anything I had ever played before.
The first thing I noticed was the graphics style, and I’m just gonna be blunt here—it’s bad. The game uses pixel art that seems to have been drawn with MS Paint, and looks eerily similar to the art I used to try to make for my own games (I’ve since given up on making art).
However, somehow this art style actually works really well, making the game a uniquely charming experience. You play as a young girl who falls down into this vast underworld teeming with monsters. It reminded me a lot of Miyazaki’s work, particularly Spirited Away—the main character even looks and dresses similarly. Spirited Away also happens to be my favorite Miyazaki movie, so I was already invested in the game from the outset. The music adds to the charm factor as well—it’s a lovely chiptune ensemble that I found myself humming along to almost instantly.
You start out in a dungeon, solving puzzles and fighting enemies in random encounters, which seems fairly typical, except a giant rabbit leads you by the hand through much of it. It’s kind of hilarious: you’ll come up against what look like fairly difficult puzzles, and then the rabbit just solves them for you. It almost seems masochistic of the developer to painstakingly craft these puzzles, and then just breeze you through them.
This kind of self-aware, meta humor is pervasive throughout much of the game. For example, there’s a character called Papyrus whose dialog is all in the Papyrus font, and his brother Sans uses the Comic Sans font. There are also plenty of references to internet and popular culture, which weebs like me are sure to enjoy.
Another standout is the combat system, which is a turn-based system where you can choose to attack or perform certain actions, such as check the monster, try to talk to it, or even flirt with it. The actions you can perform depend on the type of monster. At first, I thought it was just going to be like a normal RPG, where you have to defeat monsters to get experience, level up, and become more powerful. This is partly true here, but with a big twist: you don’t actually ever have to kill any monsters. Each monster has a specific sequence of actions which, when performed, allow you to spare them. You won’t get any experience, but it affects how other characters view you and how the story plays out.
The monsters are all lovable in their own ways, even the ones that are supposed to be the “villains.” Morality in Undertale is much less black-and-white than I initially expected; I found myself feeling really bad when I killed monsters, especially when other characters started to catch on to my play style and called me a murderer. You kind of have to throw away everything you know about RPGs, because this game turns the whole genre on its head.
Though it’s only a 6-hour or so game, I enjoyed every minute of it, and if you’re hungry for more, it offers a lot of replay value. A pacifist run will get a very different experience than a serial killer run. I was too lazy to play it again, but I watched a couple videos of a pacifist run, and let’s just say it’s very different.
The last thing I want to mention, without giving too much away, is the ending. Oh god, the ending. It’s incredible. It’s like nothing else I’ve seen in a video game. It takes full advantage of the medium and completely caught me off-guard. Don’t spoil it for yourself by watching someone else do it on YouTube, play it for yourself.
Taken as a whole, this is a game that you won’t soon forget. I found myself thinking about it for weeks afterward, unable to really put my thoughts about it into words (which is why it took so long for me to write this review). Undertale is a truly remarkable achievement for the video game medium, and it perfectly hits all the right notes. It knows exactly what it is, and it does everything it sets out to do, and that is the highest praise that I can give.