Two years on, it is still difficult to properly talk about why Undertale is so superb without divulging into spoiler talk. Not just in a plot sense either, because so much of Undertale’s secrets are as mechanical as they are narrative-based. It means you can’t quite go into the true genius of it, but that’s not to suggest there’s nothing to say about it in how it swerves player expectations by twisting conventional genre tropes.
The start of Undertale is as conventional as you could imagine, aping an 8-bit RPG’s text crawl and still images depicting a fairy tale-esque story of humans and monsters. It’s almost RPG storytelling 101, but it soon shows its hand as an often hilarious, and regularly touching, subversion of RPG staples.
You play as a young child who has unwittingly stumbled into the long-forgotten world of monsters. Your task over the next five or six hours is to get back home. Easier said than done when humans are widely despised, and you could be key to the monster’s freedom.
The first character our young protagonist meets is seemingly a friendly introduction to the world, complete with delightfully twee chiptune music, but it ends up with said character duping and belittling you, teaching you not only to expect the unexpected, but also that Undertale wants you to subscribe to the Stone Cold Steve Austin school of thinking: Don’t trust anybody.
It’s a fitting introduction to how Undertale works, and yet no matter how many times you encounter a familiar RPG moment, it’s still surprising when it flips the script on you. That’s entirely down to the novel ways in which it does so, from no-so-subtle digs at how other in-game shops work to the very way in which you handle combat.
At first glance, Undertale’s battle system is, again, a fairly familiar-looking setup. A turn-based battle UI, but it has key differences that encourage a different way of handling enemies. You can attempt to pacify enemies rather than simply slay them (which is done via a golf game-style sliding bar where you have to hit the sweetspot to do the maximum damage). By learning an enemy’s traits, you can persuade or stall them enough to de-escalate the fight, and give you the chance to spare them.
Pulling this off often requires a lot more work than simply battling them in a more traditional sense, but there’s a great sense of accomplishment in successfully talking down any of the oddball underground inhabitants from a fight. It also often produces amusing results, with each boss having a very particular way of being defeated in a pacifistic manner. These range from complimenting a depressed spirit to being charitable to a creepy crawly bake sale, and each is a pleasant delight to uncover.
Whichever route you choose, you’ll have to avoid enemy attacks, and rather than leave it to algorithms and blind chance, Undertale puts your heart on the line (and in a box) in mini-bullet hell style challenges. Each enemy has its own type of obstacle for your heart icon to weave around, avoiding being hit to ensure your hit points stay healthy. Interestingly, not all are as easily brushed aside by simply dodging. One even takes this novel approach and makes a brilliant meta jab at itself. Getting past these bullet hell segments is the real challenge of Undertale, and on the Dualshock 4, it’s a slightly tougher ask than it was on a PC keyboard. Certainly later battles are a stern test of memory and dexterity that can bring some frustration, but the game’s brevity means it isn’t the kind of issue it could have been in a longer game. Surviving them is the reward too, so that helps as well.
So Undertale is a very smart RPG that hides its depth below a relatively simple front, but mechanical subversion alone does not make a game this special. No, Undertale is fantastic because on top of that, it has wonderfully sharp writing that effortlessly takes you through hilarity, shocks, and sadness along the way, highly endearing characters that do more to connect with you in minutes than most can manage in hours, and a soundtrack that burrows its way into your ears and sets up home like a transient worm.
It’s hard to pick a single favorite character, but highlights include the adorably inept Papyrus, and a crazed robot television personality. It’s similarly hard to pick just one moment that encapsulates the overall quality of the game, such is the variety of its surprises and subversions. To say much more than that would ruin those surprises that Undertale provides, and surprises are a big part of what make Undertale such a rich and invigorating experience. Don’t be fooled by that simple front end, Undertale makes many of the genre’s best look backwards.