(originally drafted 5/21/2016)
Just in time for its one-year anniversary, I'd like to talk about “the friendly RPG where nobody has to die.” Even if you’ve never read a single comic online, and the last Spotlight review was a handful of nothing for you, you may have heard about Undertale, the one-hit-wonder that made Game Of The Year 2015 according to celebrated reviewers Ben Croshaw (Zero Punctuation) and Jim Sterling (The Jimquisition).
I mention the previous Spotlight because indie developer Toby Fox – the one-man army responsible for Undertale – previously composed some of the music used in Homestuck. That experience shines in his game, bringing characters to life with an expansive 8-bit discography demonstrating just what range and mileage you can stretch out of chiptunes. This compliments the game’s retro-lazy art style which calls back to classics like Earthbound.
The story of Undertale is set up by a tragic history depicting a war between humans and monsters, with the humans quickly emerging victorious and trapping the monsters in a dark underworld. You play the role of a perfectly nondescript child who has, after falling into a chasm, become trapped in the world of the monsters. It’s initially difficult to reconcile that narrative with the game’s tagline, as above: “The friendly RP where nobody has to die.” In fact, the first monster you meet (a cheery, golden flower) immediately tries to murder you… you know, so that he can consume your soul. Standard fare.
It suffices to say that it’s an uphill battle trying to hold onto your morality while traversing the underground in search of escape. The monsters of Undertale are shown to be much weaker than humans because their bodies are made of magic instead of anything substantial (like water), so it’s very easy to kill them… And they will try your patience. This struggle between doing what’s right and doing what’s easy comprises the game’s core theme, and the choices you make can drastically change the story you get. If you’re particularly evil, you can go out of your way to kill absolutely everyone and enjoy a host of new challenges that only the most relentless players get to experience. If you’re not up for a difficulty spike, you’re going to have a bad time.
As with most of my favorite works, it’s carried by its characters. The monsters you meet in your adventure, despite having various levels of enthusiasm for humanity’s annihilation, have never met a human. Once they do, you will find it’s not impossible to befriend them, earning yourself a cadre of quirky creatures willing to aid your passage. This is what makes Undertale “The friendly RPG.” There’s a skeleton who tells puns, a yellow dinosaur with an embarrassing addiction to anime, a motherly goat, an insecure ghost who owns a snail farm, a bartender made of fire… Your journey through the underground goes a long way to show how the monsters aren’t so different from us on the inside. That’s another quality of my favorite stories: they seek to bring together people who, at first glance, have nothing in common.
The reason “nobody has to die” is that the main gameplay mechanic – between all the exploration and dialogue – is a bullet-hell-style fighting system infused with contextual puzzles that allow you to spare the lives of any monster you encounter. If you want to be a real hero, be prepared to dodge magic fire, magic spears, and magic dogs while trying to placate your attackers.
Undertale earned an immediate spot in my limelight because of the sheer scope of its story and dedication to its themes. Truly, it allows you to explore the full spectrum of consequences from being an immaculate savior to being a genocidal maniac. And every time you think you’ve wrung out the last the game can give you, it pulls another card to keep you going with more content and a bigger story.
In total, Undertale is a fantasy epic which finds time for both deadly seriousness and unexpected hilarity. Every chapter has twists to keep you guessing and every area has hints to keep you immersed in the surprisingly colorful underworld. If you want to find out for yourself, Undertale is only $9.99 at Undertale . com.
art by Guzusuru
Published by Matthew Phillips