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Undertale Review

You’re suddenly confronted by an Ed who’s holding a fishing rod… even though there’s no water nearby.

Looks like here’s been standing here for a while.

You select → COMPLIMENT

Ed grins excitedly! He casts his fishing rod at you! The hook hits you square on the chin! Ouch!

You select → FEED

You bring that cinnamon bun you made earlier out of your pocket and throw it towards Ed.

Ed liked that.

…the hook is snagged on your stripy jumper and he begins to reel it in.

…you’re at his feet already. He extends an open hand.

You high – five.

You low – five.

You hug like true homies.

Ed carefully un-snags the hook, spins on his heels and flees the scene – bun in mouth.

You gain 0 EXP and 50 GOLD.

Before I played Undertale, I hadn’t really played that many indie titles. Often a sucker for AAA releases, I’ll often purchase games at extortionate prices, marvelling at the download bar and the start menu, getting about an hour into the game, then quickly realising that it didn’t live up to the hype. I’ve played my fair share of Nintendo classics, I’ve owned numerous consoles, handheld or otherwise, practically keeping GameStation afloat through financial hardship (RIP), but last year I finally got round to building a PC. And now a year in, I thought it was time to do some branching out… with some guest convincing from a certain fabled sale.

So, as of last week I’d orbited the indie genre, watching it from afar, suspended in my contemporary delights and disappointments, merely admiring the scenery, spouting: “yeah it certainly does look great, yeah, yeah, no, I’ll definitely get round to playing it.”

As a serial web-browser I’d stumbled into a number of articles outlining how sickeningly great Undertale was; I promptly decided to go ahead and just buy the game hoping that my previous experience with Terraria would apply here, my forehead furrowing in disapproval as £5.99 departed my lowly student bank account.

Looking back on all this, it just seems peculiar how – despite so many positive reviews – I felt wary of venturing into Undertale. It’s remarkable considering it was developed entirely by one very talented man named Toby Fox. It was said to have taken him just less than three years to create the game, starting out as a small project but suddenly morphing from a two hour narrative to a much lengthier experience.

Undertale quite frankly, doesn’t give a toss. It has turned up to the annual RPG awards having ignored the dress code, ignored everyone and can be found nursing a pint of Fosters at the bar. Whilst it is undoubtedly an RPG, with all the usual bells and whistles – you make your way through a world, interact with other characters, engage in turn based combat, and save your game at designated points – it’s so much more than that. It goes against the grain of gaming, constantly taking you by surprise as it puts its milk in before adding water, or spreading butter on both sides of the toast just because it can. Sure, it has shoddy graphics but do you really think it cares? It’s not here to follow the rest of the crowd. It’s comfortable in its own skin and you soon find that the poor graphics don’t take anything away from the experience but actually add to its charm. There’s so much substance to the game that its aesthetics and our vanity just don’t come into it; even if you did say it was ugly, it would just flip the finger at you anyway.

You control a little girl who has fallen down into the realm of the monsters. Whilst it sounds like a grave situation, you soon discover that it’s not all as bad as it seems. As you take your first tentative steps into the world you’ll encounter Toriel who embodies everything I hoped Moomins would be. She’s highly protective and lets you into her home, hoping to keep you in her sanctuary attempting to dodge the question that she knows will spring up time and time again: “How do I get home?” Eventually she succumbs to your repeated questioning and meets you in the maze of dark tunnels underground where she tries her best to sway your decision. Again to no avail, she sees no other choice but to stop you in your tracks one way or another. The final outcome is entirely in your hands and it’s a terrific amount of responsibility. I found I’d grown extremely fond of a lady who’d tried her best to keep me safe, offering me a bed and a delightful home. You can end up feeling numb as she says her final goodbye, or a wondrous sense of elation. Again, it’s up to you.

In an interview with The Escapist, Toby Fox stated, “I feel that it’s important to make every monster feel like an individual. If you think about it basically all monsters in RPGs like Final Fantasy are the same, save for the graphics. They attack you, you heal, you attack them, they die. There’s no meaning to that.” Fox has done the right thing, taking the small assortment of characters he’s working with and injecting them with a healthy dose of personality. I remember bumping into skeleton Sans for the first time and bursting into a fit of laughter. Meeting his younger brother Papyrus is even more of a treat, as his arrogance and brash nature practically pour from his bones. He’s dreamed of capturing a human for a very long time so that he can join the Royal Guard. He’s got a love for puzzles, along with a penchant for cooking spaghetti. He cackles with “Nyeh heh-heh” as he makes awful jokes – which happen to be hilarious to me – and despite his flamboyance and boisterousness, there’s an underlying element to his persona. He’s dedicated to achieving his dream, and it becomes increasingly obvious that beyond his confident, charismatic image lies an innocent and kind skeleton.

I remember bumping into a quivering cat dressed as a dog in the Underground and being greeted with…

One of my favourite moments comes from meeting a mer-man named Aaron. He’s a muscular specimen and knows it; he’s got the smirk of a mer-man who knows he’s got it all. All of his dialogue is rather flirtatious and he always ends his sentences with “;)”. I had the option to FLEX, which resulted in a flexing contest between Aaron and I, until something rather unexpected happened, which caught me completely off guard and left me chuckling for a little while.

It’s moments like this that just keep cropping up as you explore the world. You’ll encounter all manner of monsters, vendors and main characters who more often than not have something to say which’ll make you laugh. Sometimes you’ll be ambushed by a monster only to find that’s it’s not interested in the slightest in a fight. The combat is fairly simple, taking inspiration from the likes of Pokemon and a whole host of other RPGs in adopting a turn-based system. You can choose to fight, use an item, spare, flee or select one of four options unique to each monster. Even if the monster doesn’t want to fight, you can still slaughter the poor thing anyway. After each turn you focus your attention on the little box with your heart plonked in the centre. The heart is your soul and your main objective is to keep it out of harm’s way. Each monster has a unique attack to throw at you, and the game begins to mirror a “bullet hell” in which you’re frantically avoiding all manner of crazy missiles, timing your movements to find that tiny safe-spot, to dodging a cute little dog that just wants to say hi.

The amazing thing about Undertale is the option to neglect the fighting route entirely if you so desire, opting for a pacifist approach and ultimately thinking about what to say or do in a sticky situation. It adds a humorous and intriguing component to each encounter whereby you’re talking, flirting or petting your way out of a fight. And it’s this which makes the game so compelling. “Fights” with characters aren’t often fights but feel like a greater sense of interaction as they challenge you to contests or go about their business; although you happen to be in their way. They’re also truly challenging at times, testing your reaction speed and teasing your brain-power as you sweat profusely. Again, it’s astonishing considering you’re moving a little heart around a box with these “battles” still remaining a pleasure to be a part of. You may even find that the game itself will break its own conventions, keeping things surprising and exciting… finally you’re not batting away some dumb Zubat every few seconds with zero care in the world, it’s a refreshing breath of fresh air that every developer should take a moment to inhale.

Despite the humour, Undertale isn’t a joke. The world is varied and replete with interesting little details, even if it’s not ‘conventionally’ gorgeous, it’s still a joy to wander around. Granted, the path you take is linear as you’re guided through the game, but the story certainly isn’t. The decisions you make throughout the game will always have some weight and gravity to them. Some seem small and ineffectual, but later down the line you realise the extent of your actions. Sometimes the decisions you’ve made hit you exceptionally hard, jabbing you right in the chest, slapping you on the back of the head as you tear up and question yourself. The path you tread may be straight-forward (even if there are some puzzles and death-traps) but the outcome is forever changing as you kill, spare or do something out of the ordinary.

Accompanying each area and each encounter is the startlingly brilliant soundtrack. Evoking memories of classic RPG experiences, it has immediately found its way into my regular playlist, barging everything out of the way in an instant. Every moment is made special by the superb artistry that has been put into the music; it’s far from a second thought and it shows. The soaring melodies accompanying boss battles elevate the frantic and frenetic pace, whilst the serene village sequences offer a sense of safety and immediately give you a sense of their place in the world. One of my favourite track happens to have a disco influence to it, and hearing the self-titled “Undertale” track for the first time was something else. It was like watching your favourite anime’s emotional closing scenes, beautifully capturing the magic of the moment and fully absorbing you in the narrative as it begins to reach an enchanting climax… and you guessed it: Toby Fox composed it all.

There are also moments of pure wonder to be found in Undertale, occasionally taking you through a mesmerising and thought-provoking sequence that belies the persona it exudes. Rather like Papyrus, you could argue that lurking beneath Undertale‘s joker of a character lies a touching and slightly unsettling disposition. There’s always a sense that things aren’t as they seem as the magnitude of your journey and your actions gradually begin weighing you down. But in between these moments you sometimes forget your situation and just marvel at the view…

Creator Toby Fox said that he was influenced by a number of different franchises whilst developing Undertale, along with the silliness of internet culture. Regardless of these influences, he’s managed to create a game that’s already a classic. There’s quite simply, nothing like it. Fox has thrown his own sense of humour into the mix, creating a cast of unforgettable characters that you develop a real bond with, and a battle system that calls into question the very nature of a fight. It’s not afraid to challenge convention, chucking all sorts of random surprises at you without a care in the world. It takes jibes at other games that try so hard to stay true to what players expect. What players expect? Undertale gives people what they want without the need of a multi-million pound budget spent on marketing and false hype. Beneath it’s genuinely amusing outward appearance is a game that treads dark ground and a story that turns things on its head. Undertale is a work of genius that’ll leave a lasting impression on you for a very long time and in turn makes for one of 2015’s biggest surprises.

Undertale is available on PC.

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