Right at the end of 2015 it became impossible to avoid Undertale, and I will freely admit that at first I was cynical. We hear about these ‘holy grail’ indie games often enough now that I tend to discount them and move on with my life, but upon being gifted a copy of Toby Fox’s 2D adventure by my co-editor Michael, social obligation demanded that I venture into the underground and find the cause of the fuss. And it’s safe to say I did.
The aesthetic may divide some viewers, and that’s understandable. We’re presented with a classically charming 2D pixel-art top-down RPG, which personally is a style that I love. Those who prefer massive polygon counts and Avatar-level CGI may want to look elsewhere, but I would urge you to play the first half hour or so to experience the general playstyle and overall experience of the game.
And I say this for a reason. Without a doubt, and I feel that fans will unanimously agree with me on this, the core strength of Undertale is in its writing. From the inner thoughts of the character upon interacting with a rather tsundere cactus, or dialogue with other inhabitants of the Underground, Undertale is bursting at the seams with wit and intelligent humour. If Toby Fox did all the scripting himself, he is a comedic genius of the highest order, and it’s one of the few games that has ever had me actively laugh out loud during play. Every preconceived notion you have about traditional RPGs is questioned and played upon, and Undertale never failed to remain firmly one step ahead of me - I never saw the jokes coming.
All the backstory you’ll need for the game is dealt with in a short cutscene before the main menu, and you really don’t need much. Essentially, you fell down a hole, and you want to return to the human world, but in order to do that you’ll need to find and confront the King to find the portal back home. This does not have to be an antagonistic experience, however. I won’t spoil anything, but there is a very large variety in the ways that the game can be played, so you could try and cleverly talk your way out of fights, or simply go in guns blazing and slaughter all those in your way. Be warned - Undertale will remember exactly what you’ve done, and it can be VERY difficult to escape your choices, so think carefully. The world responds dynamically, which will make your own playthrough highly unique and personal.
If you opt for combat, you’ll find a novel twist on the occasionally stilted turn-based systems we are used to. You have the ability to fight your opponent or to act, which usually involves a more subtle interaction with them, such as insulting them or telling a joke - sometimes the key to success. When it comes to the turn of your adversary, you move around in a small bullet-hell style sequence, avoiding the onslaught of your foes. While in theory this sounds simplistic, as the game progresses you must get used to the range of gimmicks Undertale employs to try and throw you off.
A great cast of characters can be met (or not) on your journey, such as a music-producing chronically depressed ghost, a haunted training dummy sick of being mistreated, and of course, a pair of wisecracking skeletons named Sans and Papyrus, two characters whom I guarantee you will come to love. You don’t really have any choice, you’ll always be won over. I should also mention the lovely flower that greets you at the beginning of your adventure - what a nice guy.
It’s quite clear that much of the inspiration for Undertale has come from SNES-era JRPG Earthbound, evident in some of the graphic design and particularly the soundtrack. On that note (pun intended), the audio work is masterful, absolutely masterful. While it is expressed in a classic chiptune, 8-bit form, vastly complicated and orchestral lines can be heard in the background. The music actually works well as an illustration of my overarching view of the game - on the surface it looks and feels rather simplistic, but spend a few minutes paying attention to detail and it becomes a wondrously intricate affair that is clearly a labor of love.
So is it worth the hype? I certainly think so, and I have been well and truly convinced. Literally buy the game through Steam, play the first half hour, then get a refund if you don’t like it. That is all you need to see to get a perfect idea of the rest of the experience, and it’s consistently charming and hilarious throughout, along with some heavy doses of the feels. You have been warned. Go out and get it now, it’s a true gem.