Undertale PC Review

Reading this Review Fills You with Determination

Get ready for some real-talk. This Undertale review won’t contain overt spoilers, but does drop plenty of hints at the game’s mysteries. Even suggesting tobyfox’s first full release has elements the creator doesn’t want spoiled promotes a type of hyper-awareness in players: “Is this the twist? What does the skeleton mean?!” Anyone who wants to play with a blank slate is advised to read just the first letter of each paragraph. Undertale isn’t driven by a one-note-aha kind of twist, but it is a game of discovery. Unearthing its secrets and getting to know its characters is a highly recomended pleasure. It’s always a treat when an RPG’s mechanics support the tone of its story, reflecting narrative structure with more concrete, operational terms. Undertale excels at connecting its message to its mechanics, creating a complex, unified vision that shouldn’t be missed.

Overcome by a desire to explore a forbidden mountain, a human child discovers a land of monsters. The monsters have been sealed in their subterranean realm by humans, so the appearance of one throws their society into turmoil. What the child wants isn’t immediately clear, and is partially defined by how the player approaches the game. There are three distinct paths to the end, with several lesser variations based on the player’s relationship with specific monsters. There’s time to lay on the floor and listen to a ghost’s spookwave playlist or offer a glass of water to a defeated opponent, but just because something is possible doesn’t make it necessary. It isn’t surprising actions have consequences in Undertale, but the meticulousness in which they’re tracked and built upon bears rich fruit. NPCs remember seemingly trivial actions and respond to them, strengthening the world’s sense of place. This attention to detail carries over to the single save slot. Once said, some words can’t be unspoken.

Hope is a more difficult emotion to capture than victory, but Undertale succeeds. As a singular creator’s passion project, it goes whole hog in using and abusing JRPG conventions to evoke earnest responses to complicated questions of friendship and responsibility. The story interrogates and recontextualizes RPG mainstays like EXP and save files, pulling tricks with the game’s structure to destabalize what intially may feel like a familiar experience. This isn’t to say there aren’t silly detours like dating a skeleton and dance battles, just that Undertale is designed to engage feelings and post-game conversation. The game’s unique flavor comes from how the intentionally fragmented, bittersweet connections with the underground world mix with its more traditional action and romance.

These monsters seem friendly.

Other, tonally similar games to Undertale are Space Funeral and LISA. Both JRPGs play like unstable dreams. The surface looks and feels like something familiar, but a tangled, unconscious ball of hair and teeth waits beneath. The world is a dark and sad prison for its inhabitants, but not without hope for those who learn its rules. Stray conversation cues suggest early on that there’s more going on beneath the surface than confronting monsters and solving puzzles — either a big reveal like in Mother 3 or a manifesto. Here, the understated darkness creates a layer of sinister tension, even when relaxing with a burger and fries or talking about Santa with a goofy bear sitting under a Christmas tree.

Games cannot live on story alone. The mechanical crux of Undertale‘s tension is the combat system. Although enemies shoot attacks at the player’s SOUL in bullet-hell-style combat rounds, the decision to fight back is ultimately up to the player. “You don’t have to kill anyone” isn’t just a tagline: it’s a promise. Every enemy has a unique condition that allows them to be spared. Dogs love to be pet, artists need an enthusiastic audience, and the finicky tsundereplane just wants a friend to get close to — but not too close. Friendship is nice, but complicated by facts: defeating monsters earns EXP and gold, while sparing them only provides gold.

Wielding notebooks and frying pans in combat isn’t just a chance to demonstrate fast reflexes or hone friendships. It’s a chance to learn about the world and its inhabitants. As they fight, monsters talk among themselves and share their insecurities. Even the rank-and-file monsters have a wide range of personalities. The care that went into crafting these characters extends to their attacks. Skeleton bullets are bone-shaped, while the bodybuilding merhorse has the hapless protagonist dodging sweat flecks and a cascade of flexing muscles. Colored bullets add variety to the dodging game. For example, blue attacks won’t damage a stationary target, and green attacks are actually helpful. The variety of attacks and unique friendship conditions make battles tactical and twitchy, similar to a WarioWare minigame. Boss battles take this dynamic to the next level, creating some truly memorable fights that push the boundaries of the system to their fullest.

Dodge the magic and be glad he didn’t bring a friend.

Interrogating Undertale‘s sensual appeal reveals, much like the combat system, it pulls its weight to enhance the storytelling. Simple pixel graphics and chippy, retro-style music start as a nostalgic riff before driving straight for the inner eye. Scott McCloud, comics theorist, suggests cartoon characters with simple designs are more relatable to general readers than more overtly stylized characters. The simplicity allows a degree of connection and identification. Undertale seizes on this trick, leavening it with a full bestiary of creative monsters and cozy backgrounds. The capital city near the end of the game is a notable exception. Its flatness doesn’t work thematically or on a gut aesthetic level. Like the graphics, the background music is deceptively simple. Between the subtle, character-specific leitmotifs and catchy hooks, muting the volume never seems a viable option. Being packed with earworms isn’t always in a soundtrack’s favor, but in Undertale‘s case, it hasn’t been a problem. “Hopes and Dreams” is a good song whether it’s trapped in a reviewer’s head for one day or two weeks.

Like any human, Undertale has its share of flaws. Exploring all of the game’s story (and tracking down secrets) requires at least three playthroughs, which requires lots of tromping through familiar areas. Seeing how characters react to new stimuli is neat, but inevitably requires re-experiencing lots of familiar material. Travel is slow, whether it’s by foot, boat, or elevator. Additionally, the puzzles aren’t especially challenging. This is often played as a joke — and it’s a good one — but it can make some areas feel like speedbumps. Especially near the end, the puzzles work better as a topic for banter and awkward world-building than brain-teasers. As challenging as the Junior Jumble may be, it would have been nice to see more of the multi-faceted combat design in the other puzzles.

Definitely check this one out. Undertale is a delightful, heartfelt game. Over the course of a nine-hour initial run it blossoms from a minimalist bag of gags into a living world that demands attention. Revisiting the world with different intentions strengthens and twists those bonds to create a unique experience filled with memorable characters and invigorating choice. Replaying Undertale is practically required to understand just what’s going on, so mark your calenders accordingly and lock in. Whatever strange alchemy tobyfox captured in Undertale does the trick.

Scores
BATTLE SYSTEM
    
INTERACTION
    
ORIGINALITY
    
STORY
    
MUSIC & SOUND
    
VISUALS
    
win
UNDER 20 HOURS
MODERATE

Amusing, memorable characters

Nuanced and thematically relevant combat

Intellectually satisfying skeleton date

Mediocre puzzles. Funny, but not challenging

Experiencing it all takes a lot of repetition

Zach

Zach Welhouse

Zach Welhouse has been working for RPGamer since 2008. He writes reviews and covers the occasional convention.

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