This review shall be spoiler free, although I’d be amazed if you had serious consideration for this game and got interested in a spoiler-free way.
Undertale was a game released last October by Toby Fox, a dude noted as an online composer for Homestuck and a certain Halloween-hack game which he doesn’t like people remembering him for. However, the sheer hype train and resultant backlash at it for having a strange community pop up practically overnight has likely gotten you a bit confused on if it’s worth playing. Any cult classic game that gets this much positive attention followed by that much backlash is bound to pretty polar on the rating scale. I hope to wade through the stigma and hype surrounding the game and give a broad overview about it has to offer.
First, if you’re familiar with the series “Mother”, then Undertale looks very familiar. If you’re not familiar with that series then it must look like some retro 16-bit style that indie devs have been obsessing over after Minecraft’s success. It’s supposed to give off the vibe of the former, not the latter. Second, if you’ve seen pictures of the gameplay you’re probably not quite sure what’s going on. It’s a bullet hell game where you must complete an attack phase between each action you take (between Fight, Act, Item, and Mercy). In general, the attacks have some sort of pattern that you can follow that may or may not require multiple attempts. Finally, the game is a character driven game. There is an overarching plot and your choices do matter, but if you’re only in it for the satisfaction of the gameplay you might feel like the game is a bit short.
Now for the specifics. The art style, as mentioned above, is nothing impressive graphically, but it is impressive aesthetically. Normally you’d think that the low-res models are actually from the artist being lazy, but it’s obvious that these models possess a fair amount of flavor. The way the models are animated shows so much about the character in question without them having to say a line. The way things bounce and breathe really grant depth, but the bosses in particular have a lot of flair. Certain creatures get a few gestures when taking their turn, but bosses have several gestures and animations to further distinguish them aside from their obvious model difference. The graphics pay homage to the old SNES era, and they do it a great justice.
In the same vein of the art is the music. The game is made by a composer, so it stands to mention that the music is exceptional. The emotion and intensity that the music brings is another way that Toby Fox manages to really squeeze out extra character from sources that aren’t text. The context of several songs may be spoiler heavy, but I’ll link a few songs that I deem “neutral” in order to give you a taste. The first “real” music of the game Ruins; and a piece that plays a ways into the game, Waterfall.
The gameplay itself is fairly interesting if you’ve never played a bullet hell game before. If you have you’d probably think it’s very easy, but it’s clearly meant to cater to the entry-level audience in the genre. As a fairly experienced gamer I was able to get the final boss without too much trouble by using sheer reflex. A less experienced friend told me that he had a learning curve, but he too was able to beat it in a reasonable amount of time. It may look a bit irksome or basic at first, but eventually you’ll come up to a fight where you have to actually think about what you’re doing, and once you’re at that point you begin a process that most games are too chicken to try – Repetition. Sometimes you’ll get to a point where you need to take a break, but that’s fine too. It happened to me twice and after giving it a night I was able to beat it the next day.
I would be remiss if I discussed the gameplay without the “cute” action system. The Fight/Act/Item/Mercy menu is a bit confusing for many new people. Fighting is obvious, make the enemy reach 0 HP and collect the EXP and loot. Act is a bit strange. The game’s description on Steam claims it’s a game where you don’t have to kill a single monster, and by using the options outlined in the Act section you can make the monsters unwilling to fight you, and you can then press the fourth option, Mercy, to end the fight (where they apparently hand you their wallet anyway; no EXP though). Item accesses your inventory and a slew of consumables (which should be used for tough fights). Finally, Mercy has already had its option explained, but the option to flee from a fight (and get no EXP or loot) is also included there. The gameplay does a good job adjusting itself to your preference in either case, so there’s not much risk of messing up your whole game.
Lastly you get to the characters. If you couldn’t tell by the art section, I am really impressed by what Toby Fox did with the characters in this game. They all a very detailed and colorful, which is a breath of fresh air in this era where every video game hero is supposed to be super deep or surface only. This up-front and fun character design really lets the characters feel endearing – even the minor ones! It’s an odd feeling in gaming to feel bad about being a fight with the mobs. Your choices have impact since all the notable characters have connections to each other, so if you choose to fight one to the death and show mercy to another then you’ll have a slightly different scenario than if you had killed both or spared both (this typically shows itself in a few different dialogue lines, probably not worth playing through in every combination unless you thoroughly enjoy the game). The ending you get is at least based in part on the number of creatures you kill or spare.
Now for the important part – a final judgement. Undertale is a game which felt new despite being a very clear homage to an SNES game that came out 20 years ago. The gameplay was unique and fresh, the animations and art was clean, the characters were emotive and gave you a connection to them. By all metrics it was a game that had all that you could ask of it, however it had a few things it lacked. The game is relatively short – it’s only around 6 hours of gameplay in your first play through, and subsequent playthroughs take around 4 hours. Without giving away spoilers, there’s only about 3 routes that are distinct enough that they’re worth playing so it means there’s about 15 hours of gameplay total. But you know that it’s a nitpick if the only problem with a game is that there isn’t enough game. It also has stylized visuals that could throw more modern gamers for a loop (even if I think it fits).
It’s on sale on steam right now for 7 bucks making this a 100% must buy for the price. I think it’s a game that anyone who is up for a quick and well-done 90s style RPG should pick up and play, despite how odd the community may be.