Funny, subversive, and imaginative, Undertale is truly a one-of-a-kind video game experience. On the surface, Undertale appears to be a retro throwback to the glory days of 16-bit RPGs. However, that is just a facade. The game is a cleverly-laid trap that had me questioning everything I thought I knew about the RPG genre and ultimately the entire medium of video games.
The depth of Undertale’s subversive writing and innovative gameplay mirrors that of the subterranean world it takes place in. It took multiple replays to fully excavate the layers of surprises that developer Toby Fox had in waiting.
Under the Tale
The basic plot of Undertale revolves around a human child named Frisk who falls into the underground world of monsters. Frisk (whose gender is not stated) must then make their way to the capital in order to return home. It’s a simple setup that seems in line with what you might find in a fairy tale or cartoon. However, from the first character I encountered in the ruins, Undertale was content with shattering my expectations. And, the game managed to stay one step ahead of me from that moment on.
The writing of Undertale explores a range of tones that work cohesively towards creating the game’s surreal atmosphere. The characters and scenarios swing between absurdist comedy and psychological horror without feeling dissonant with one another. And, beneath those raw emotions is an abundance of pathos in how the game tackles its own complex ethics.
I have been conditioned as a gamer to earn rewards by facing challenges head on. It’s a mindset many of you probably also possess. In an RPG like Undertale, that philosophy means defeating enemies to gain experience and currency. You can use those perks to upgrade your character and take on the next level of foes. Now, that is a viable route to take in Undertale. However, the game also encourages you to consider other, less violent approaches.
Undertale is never afraid to put a mirror in front of you. That self-evaluation made me question my actions as I underwent the path that — I have been led to believe — would result in my character becoming the model video game “hero.” This existential probing showed me that the good and bad guys are only defined by how I personally frame them. And, perhaps most significantly, everyone in Undertale has the capacity to be both.
Friends and Foes
The game stars a colorful and sometimes crazy cast of characters. They all left a lasting impression on me due to the inimitable presence that they emit. I became enamored with Papyrus, the self-absorbed skeleton who secretly suffers from loneliness and a lack of meaningful skills. This meant that my date with him was somehow both hilarious and touching at the same time. His presence was somehow both bizarre and beautiful, but then Undertale is just that sort of game.
Everyone else, from the motherly and mysterious Toriel to the narcissistic entertainment robot Mettaton, was instantly captivating. And, the scenarios that center around them felt equally creative in their surreal glory. I felt mistrust whenever I met someone new, as the game doesn’t always make characters’ motivations clear at first. But, their larger than life personalities would eventually wear me down. As such, I chose to befriend them once the opportunity arose. (Except for Undyne, whom I killed on my first playthrough. Sorry, Undyne.)
Subverting the RPG
Undertale’s unique spin on the classic JRPG battle system continues its subversive approach. Attacking enemies is achieved through timing button inputs, à la the Mario RPGs. But, the originality truly comes to the surface through how you avoid attacks.
Each enemy type, including the bosses, fires their own array of bullet-like objects at your character’s heart icon. So, you have to carefully weave your way around like you’re playing a ’90s arcade shoot-em-up. Just when I thought that this mechanic had been taken to its creative limit, the next class of enemy would delight me with their own personal attack pattern. Sometimes, it was throwing dog bones at me or, for other enemies, it involved dodging ascending muscular biceps.
Of course, choosing the passive route means that combat can be avoided entirely. This involves negotiating your way out of a battle and sparing your opponent’s life. Although it forgoes much of the creative combat mechanics, I still found this path entertaining, as every enemy required a different approach when trying to get them to surrender. Outside of combat, Undertale incorporates a myriad of bite-sized puzzles throughout its levels. These often take on a hilarious angle such as the puzzle master accidentally showing you the solution.
The 16-bit visuals of Undertale coats the game in a nostalgic charm. The style truly expresses itself in some of the memorable character sprites. Meanwhile, the soundtrack perfectly fits the varying moods of the game, whether it’s going for cheerful and catchy or brooding and atmospheric.
At the end of my first playthrough, I knew that my time with Undertale was far from over. The branching narrative demands multiple trips through the underground in this modern masterpiece.
I don’t think I have ever played a game quite like Undertale, but its brilliant subversion on established video game concepts fills me with determination to take on its surprises all over again. Maybe I’ll be the hero. Maybe I’ll be villain. Or maybe I’ll do what feels natural to me and let the game judge me on who I really am.