By Isaac Smith
I’m well-versed in the JRPG style of game. I whet my teeth on Final Fantasy, Chrono Trigger and The Secret of Mana. I played indie tributes to games like them. I’ve played games that possess many similar characteristics to them, but manage to be different in their own way.
Undertale is all of these things, and I go into this review defeated, because I know already that I won’t be able to properly explain how I feel about this game.
On the surface, it is a lovingly-crafted game in a 16-bit JRPG style, with chiptune-y music, side quests, random battles, vocal dialogue reminiscent of the original Starfox or Banjo Kazooie, and a plethora of unique characters and environments.
But everywhere you look, there’s more depth to the game. The music is mainly based on a single certain theme (which is integrated into the gameplay, but no spoilers!), but changes mood and orchestration based on your situation. The combat system is intuitive, but presents the player with a huge number of options for how they want to proceed in game or in battle. The overworld control scheme is a simple 8-directional movement, and yet there are many times in the game where a visceral, icy sense of terror and helplessness grips the player. The dialogue is witty, but endears many characters to the player immediately. Every character with more than a couple lines of dialogue in the game feels relatable and human.
To say that the game is made up of different lovingly crafted elements would be doing it a disservice. Every bit of the game works in tandem, often in unexpected ways, to bring an immediate emotional response from the player. Sometimes it makes you laugh. A remarkably short time into the game, you want to cry. As I said above, I’ve never encountered an RPG like this that made me feel so afraid (except perhaps Lone Survivor). Hope, helplessness, determination… they all come and go while the player moves through their journey.
There’s also a sense of morality that comes heavily into play as the game progresses. Initially, the “tutorial” monster tells you harshly in your training that the world is “Kill or be killed.” This idea comes back into play over and over, sometimes making the player believe it’s true, other times making them work desperately towards a third, peaceful option. The ending of the game (predictably) changes based on whether or not you follow the good path, the evil path, or the neutral path (or some variation of the three in between). Because of the way the combat system and overworld interactions work, it is often difficult to see how to proceed with the “good” path. During my first playthrough, I was convinced that there wasn’t a good path to spare a certain boss from death, or to evade conflict in a way that caused no casualties. It was much easier to be “neutral”, because I didn’t realize I had a choice.
And in a way, it’s kind of like life. It’s easiest to be where you are morally when you don’t acknowledge that you could be better. And as soon as you’re confronted with that truth, the game makes you see the value of striving to be better, even at great personal sacrifice.
With as many games as I have under my belt, I am glad that I have never made a top 10 favorite games list. I would have needed to replace one of the current entries with Undertale… perhaps even the top one. I don’t say this lightly: this game is deeply, truly impressive. Buy it, play it, experience it, enjoy it, hate it, love it, remember it. You won’t be able to forget it.