Full disclosure: this copy of Undertale was bought for me by a friend, who told me “I swear to god you need to play this like right the hell now if I can’t talk about it very very soon I’m going to rupture internally somehow”, and they have my heartfelt thanks for doing so because it’s fucking great.
With this review I’m going to break a lot of the guidelines I’ve set myself for reviews. First: I’m using no screenshots I took from the game, just ones I’ve pulled from the game’s website and the Steam page, because I figure those are “safe”. Second: I recommend you look at the score before reading any of the text.
Third, and perhaps most important: I recommend you stop reading instantly if, at any time, you decide you want to buy Undertale and play it for yourself. And don’t Google or YouTube a goddamn thing about it.
Please. I really, really mean all of that, in the most honest and heartfelt way. The less you know, the more surprises you’ll have, and the better time you’ll have. The best analogy for why is to say that it’s sort of like Eversion, in that the unexpected surprises are far more effective if you have no idea that they’re coming. While this might look like a generic RPG, it’s anything but.
So for once, I’m going to try to talk about the game as little as possible. Honestly, I want to just end the review here and tell you to buy it… but for one thing, it’s kinda my job; for another, I’m not sure how many people would buy it on the strength of those three paragraphs alone. And buy it you should.
Alright, here we go. Undertale is a JRPG that draws inspiration from a variety of sources, with Earthbound‘s funny-but-eerie dialogue and aesthetics being the most notable. You play a gender-neutral child who has fallen into the land of the monsters, deep below the (modern) human world. Humans trapped the monsters down there a long, long time ago, and the monsters have built up a civilisation of their own while seeking a way to escape their confinement.
Things proceed in typical JRPG fashion. You wander the monsters’ world, you visit towns, you meet interesting characters, and you get into battles, all while trying to find a way back to the human world.
That said, this isn’t a standard JRPG, and that might actually be the understatement of the century. For starters, you don’t have to fight in battle; fights can be resolved peacefully by figuring out how to either make friends with the monsters or just convince them to leave you alone. Or you can murder them! The choice is yours.
Secondly, defending yourself in battles is done through a system akin to shmups. You have to manually dodge the enemy attacks, most of which are thematically tied to the enemies (frogs leap about after you, emo ghosts cry tears at you), but with some seriously creative twists for bosses and later enemies.
These elements are both kinda neat. Neither of them are why I love this game so goddamn much.
Part of my love is that the game is staggeringly meta. Lots of games make a big deal about how your choices matter, and that “<x> will remember that.” Undertale remembers choices you made even after you reload. That’s the first of many, many big surprises in this game.
Part of my love is that all of the characters are utterly, utterly wonderful. At this point, some of them feel like friends, and I genuinely care about them. A lot of them conform to stereotypes – there’s an anime-loving nerdy scientist and a pair of boneheaded skeletons that are sort of like an inept miniboss squad – but they all have quirks that make them unique and incredibly likeable. They also have reams of dialogue, with plenty of little extra details to be uncovered depending on when and where you chat to people.
In this sense, the writing is incredibly skilful, as is the fact that there’s so much attention to detail. There are lots and lots of little secrets tucked away in Undertale, from throwaway jokes to hints at bigger mysteries. The different ways you can proceed through the game and the different ways you can treat characters all lead to yet more dialogue and yet more possibilities.
Maybe the biggest part of my love for the game, though, is that it has repeatedly fucked with my head and my heart. It made me feel like a hero. It made me feel loved. It made me hate. At one point it made me feel like a complete monster, to the extent that I had to stop playing for half an hour and just sit there and find a way to cheer myself up.
As I said, I care about these characters. No, really, I do; I genuinely care. Some of them are just too goddamn likable. So when it starts delving into horrific creepypasta nightmare fuel territory – which it does, on occasion, and usually unexpectedly – it’s even worse than usual. Or when it breaks the fourth wall. Or when you… gnng.
You know what? No. I can’t say any more about it what I like, because any more I say will spoil too much. If you like JRPGs, or if you like characters and writing, or if you like games that deconstruct their own genre, or if you like games that let you choose your own moral compass, or if you just actually ever play games to experience joy then Undertale is something you should play. And even if not you should play it anyway.
It’s not “perfect”, but then, nothing is. I mean, a few puzzle bosses are a little too obtuse. A few sections drag on a little bit too long. I have a couple of issues with the user interface. But the overwhelming feeling I have, after having finished the game twice on different “paths” and wanting to go back and do another just to see my new friends again, is that this is one of the greatest experiences I’ve had with a game.
I want to call Undertale art, but that word carries some pretty negative connotations in the gaming world, usually bringing up thoughts of either overly pretentious titles or “walking simulators” like the (nonetheless excellent) Gone Home. This is neither, so let’s avoid that word, and just say what it is: Undertale is a brilliant, shining example of how games can make us feel things, can surprise us, can make us laugh, can make us sad, and can make us care, while still being fun to play.
Basically, go and fucking buy it. You can date a skeleton and everything.