Every few months there’s a game that pops up on my Steam activity list which everyone suddenly buys and starts to talk about. For the past few months, all I’ve heard is “Play Undertale! You will love it!”. So okay, okay, I’ve played it – and now I get it: Undertale is a very important game, and one that will stand the test of time for years to come.
Initially, it feels simply like a good game with some great music, and a very slow opening sequence. After an hour or so it all sinks in, and I still haven’t stopped thinking about it since. There are multiple things that may make Undertale seem pedestrian to the unassuming consumer. The visuals mimic a style seen in NES games like Earthbound, and pixel art games are a dime a dozen on Steam. No, what really sets it apart from the crowd is how cleverly things change based on your choices. Small things affect dialogue and drastically alter the outcome in boss fights.
You play as a human falling down into the underground full of monsters, and are sealed in by a barrier. Your journey begins as you start exploring and meeting monsters – some of which are friendly. There are also random battles across the game and, for once, I actually remember every single enemy I faced; I’m not just talking about the bosses. Toby Fox has managed to give every single enemy a distinct personality through unique combat mechanics and tactics.
Because, you see, Undertale lets you do things a little differently. You have the option to completely avoid fighting through choices that change depending on the enemy. The “Act” menu reminds me of dealing with demons in Shin Megami Tensei IV during negotiations. If you do decide to go the killing route, you play a simple minigame akin to sports games of yesteryear with a time-based cursor on a power meter. When an enemy attacks you, navigate your heart in a box across multiple platforming sections or bullet hell sections. These change depending on the enemy, adding to the overall unique feel that each enemy has.
While it does mimic the visual style of a bygone era, there are things that feel modern. The writing in particular references modern things and has some internet humour. I’d go so far as to say that Undertale has the charm only seen in 90s SquareSoft games, something that modern Square lacks. It baffles me that Undertale was mostly the work of a single person because it manages to hold its own against the heavyweights this year and even outdoes them in many aspects.
The soundtrack cannot be praised enough, either. It manages to stand out among some of 2015’s great game soundtracks (Ori and the Blind Forest, for example) with its memorable tunes and composition. Toby Fox makes heavy use of Leitmotifs across Undertale. Future boss fights reference previous melodies and there are a few tunes that make their presence felt in minor or major ways throughout Undertale. Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance is one of my favourite games of all time, thanks to the boss fights and individual boss themes each of those fights had. Toby Fox gives us unique ways to deal with each boss and a customary song for each one in Undertale.
A few things about Undertale do annoy, however, holding it back from perfection in my eyes. While the writing is charming, some jokes and characters overstay their welcome. Some boss fights get quite grueling later on, and unless you come prepared with enough healing, you’re going to have a bad time during them.
But it’s one of the most important games I have played in the last decade. It managed to make me continue to think about what I did in-game and what happened long after completing the multiple endings. The tunes still play in my head while I’m writing or doing something else. Undertale is a compelling game that everyone should experience.
Minor frustration in some fights and minigames.