Undertale is unlike any game I’ve ever played. It breaks down every video game trope and subverts the player’s expectation at every opportunity the game gets. Undertale doesn’t have a traditional tutorial. It doesn’t have a traditional RPG combat system. Even its script manages to find new ways to surprise players after 4 hours of playtime. Creator Toby Fox has managed to create a subversive, quirky, little RPG with a lot to say. When all is said and done, it’s not hard to call Undertale a master class in game design (and a master class in how to break the rules of game design.)
Undertale, at first glance is deceptively simple… and kinda ugly. Graphically Undertale isn’t a game to gush over; it has simple Gameboy-esque pixel art that, for the majority of the game, doesn’t try to do anything fancy. To the game’s credit, most of the game’s main characters and monsters have a memorable, unique design to them. And there are a handful of striking backgrounds that evoke a larger-than-life quality to the world. But these shots are few and far between, most of the game is a series of rooms and corridors with somewhat dull colours. It’s to the game’s credit that Undertale still manages to build such a unique world, with minimal visual aid.
Undertale’s UI is also another small misstep in an otherwise amazing game. It’s not the quickest menu to navigate considering it automatically closes after you’ve used or equipped an item. Considering equipment doesn’t show its stats before you wear them, this can become a small annoyance, but a nit-pick regardless.
On the other hand, the game’s soundtrack doesn’t drop the ball. Undertale is full of tunes brimming with personality, even if they’re not as creative as other aspects of the game. Most of the game’s upbeat battle themes are energetic throwbacks and here my Gameboy comparison isn’t an insult. Some of the boss battle themes are actually quite inspiring as they crescendo; they’re able to do what the best RPG battle themes should, get you pumped for a fight. Undertale’s soundtrack is just as impressive when it’s stripped back though. There’s a collection of relaxing, spacey and, often, sad music in here too that gives Undertale even more of a heart.
The simplest way to categories Undertale is to call it a turn-based RPG with some light puzzle solving. But in truth, it’s impossible to define Undertale in so few words. It does have some fun, yet simple, environmental puzzles. But its combat system is, perhaps, the most subversive part of the game. In battle, you can either choose to attack your enemy or talk to them. If you choose to attack a timing based prompt will determine how much damage you deal and getting through most random encounters won’t be too much of a challenge. The ‘Act’ option is where Undertale’s combat encounters get really interesting. Instead of murdering every monster you encounter, you can instead decide to solve your differences. This takes a certain level of observation, as you have a number of options with how to interact with them. Trying to deal with monsters peacefully means you need to pay attention to how each monster reacts to what you’ve just done and act in response to find out what they want. You need to think about the context surrounding these characters and what they want, to be able to deal with them peacefully. You don’t get any EXP from playing this way, but the game’s story establishes that humans are monumentally stronger than monsters; so sparing them is more about ethics rather than loot, EXP or gold. Choosing whether to kill or spare monsters, has both a narrative impact, but is also tied into some of the game’s core themes, such as empathy and self-reflection. In this sense, Undertale weaves it narrative and story together amazingly.
If you’re not super into talking your way out of a fight in RPGs then don’t worry, Undertale requires a satisfying level of twitch responses too. Whether you decide to attack or talk to the monsters in the game, the monsters will attack you until you either kill them or satisfy them. This leaves the player to dodge a series of incoming attacks that are different for every enemy. With boss fights, their attacks become significantly faster and more aggressive. With the addition of more projectiles on screen and different coloured attacks requiring different solutions, dodging attacks in Undertale becomes legitimately tense and so much fun.
Earlier I called Undertale quirky, which was a bit of an understatement. Undertale is just weird… in all the best ways. The most impressive part of the entire game is how Toby Fox’s writing is hilarious, deeply moving and intellectual. Honestly, Undertale’s narrative works on every level. Characters have an off-beat sense of humour. The most hilarious moments are so funny just because of how unexpected and out of left-field they are; some lines even feel random, which just adds to Undertale’s charm. Sans, in particular is a stand out character with his bad puns, fourth wall breaks and deceptive lines. So much of the game’s dark humour works because of the more serious subject matter the game’s dealing with. Things are only funny if they’re true, after all.
The lore of Undertale’s world has several real-world parallels that deal with the effects of war and the destructive nature of humanity. The fact that the game focuses on the losing side of the war, the monsters, is an opportunity for the game to constantly remind you of the devastation that man-made wars lead to and it’s undeniable. It’s maybe the only thing about the story that’s grounded in reality and that melancholy is a perfect avenue for Toby Fox to deliver his message.
Because there is undoubtedly a message at the core of Undertale about understanding one another, keeping an open-mind and the beauty of empathy. Toby Fox’s script walks a fine line between poetry and intimate expressions of emotion. There are incredibly personal character moments, big and small in the game and I’d be lying if I told you that one or two of them didn’t move me to tears. But these emotional moments work so well because they’re building a bigger picture about human morality. Even here, Toby Fox manages to subvert expectations: delivering gut-punches just after a joke, or in the middle of a battle when you’re most vulnerable.
It’s not that impressive for a game to be emotional and funny. Many games have pulled this off before but Undertale is also academic. It deconstructs how we connect and interact with stories. It questions what we get out of stories and breaks down every video game trope, going as far as referencing save files in dialogue. The game pushes you to connect with your enemies, in combat and its story, something that no RPG does. This eventually leads to a story that only a video game can tell and its proof of how games can be a legitimate art form. It’s a universal life lesson about empathy wrapped in a game full of quirky sincerity.
I’ve never played a game so synonymous with the word subversive as Undertale. The game understands its audiences unlike any other game. It assumes we’re familiar with RPGs and games in general and Undertale uses our expectations to its advantage every chance it gets. Its unconventional gameplay, an unparalleled atmosphere and a phenomenal script build to an ending that’s just as moving as it is thought provoking. Undertale is truly special.
You can probably find Kaan hibernating until the next episode of Game of Thrones.