Developer: Toby Fox
Publisher: Toby Fox
Rating: E 10+
Gamers love the independent development scene because it often provides unique experiences that you can’t find elsewhere. Big AAA developers and publishers are often afraid to take risks because too much money and too many jobs are on the line; they tend to stick with what is most familiar and most likely to turn a profit. Indies, on the other hand, have more freedom to experiment with new ideas. And Undertale, an indie game made predominantly by one man named Toby Fox, is perhaps the quintessential example of this.
Spiritual Content: A handful of characters take the Lord’s name in vain throughout the story. A few mentions are made of becoming “God” or “godlike” if one can acquire great amounts of power.
Violence: Characters can die in Undertale, and while the depiction isn’t usually graphic, since most enemies simply dissolve into dust when you kill them, blood will appear in rare, select circumstances. The player has the option to kill innocent people, and under certain conditions can rob a convenience store.
Sexual Content: A few characters make subtle sexual innuendo at specific points in the story and sly references to a bed or bedroom that imply sexual activity. Several LGBT+ couples also appear in the game.
Drugs/Alcohol: Undertale contains a couple of smoking references, including one scene where a character smokes during a conversation. There’s also a bar in one town that the player can visit; one of the NPCs in the bar appears to be drunk.
Positive Themes: Undertale places great emphasis on the value of friendship, working together, and forgiving your enemies. Showing mercy is portrayed as noble and heroic, while murder and violence are decried as evil — even when the player chooses to engage in such activity.
In Undertale, you play as a human child who stumbles down a deep pit and into a vast system of underground caverns. These caverns are home to the world’s monsters, a race of beings sealed away from the rest of the world by humanity long ago. As you search for a way out of the underground, you meet a quirky and eclectic cast of monsters. Some prove to be friends and others foes, but all of them long to escape to the surface. Your interactions with them as you go about your quest will determine their fate: will you spare them and find a way to set them free? Or will you mercilessly cut down those who oppose you?
Characters sit at the heart of Undertale’s storytelling. The game’s diverse cast—including a pair of wise-cracking skeletons, a scientist dinosaur, and an armored fish lady—inject ample amounts of humor into your adventure, giving you a reason to like each one of them, even those most inclined to defeat you. When you show them mercy and befriend them, you feel like a hero; when you attack and kill them, hearing their cries of sorrow and pledges of vengeance for their fallen comrades, you feel like the story’s villain. Your approach to these characters even impacts gameplay, leading to the pacifist, neutral, and genocide routes — all three of which depend on how many monsters you kill throughout the game. Each contain some unique boss battles and endings, making them truly distinct from one another.
In addition to the humor and lovable characters, a sense of mystery also permeates throughout the story. As you make your journey, pieces of the world’s history slowly come together, picked up during conversations with monsters as well as in books and other recording devices. Over time, you learn more about the plight of the monsters trapped in the underground, and the lengths to which they’ll go to escape.
In regard to the game’s presentation, Undertale’s graphics are downright primitive; the pixelated visuals and simple colors look like they could be reproduced on a SNES or SEGA Genesis, at best — and those consoles produced far prettier games than Undertale when they were relevant. Fortunately, the unimpressive graphics are bolstered by strong art design, especially the various monsters you meet during your journey. The game’s bizarre, eclectic mix of characters all feel distinct and leave lasting impressions on the player, particularly when viewed during combat sequences when the character designs are shown close-up. The environments also feature clever use of the game’s limited color palette, making the world feel vibrant and alive. But the artwork can only go so far to gussy up such homely graphics and the end result is a charming, yet remarkably basic visual presentation.
While the game’s graphics don’t particularly impress, the soundtrack is nothing short of spectacular; filled from start to finish with catchy tunes. Ranging from somber and mood-setting to fast-paced and hectic, each piece lingers in the mind long after you’ve put the game down. It reminds me of the best video game soundtracks from the 80’s and 90’s. Back then, composers didn’t have armies of professional musicians at their disposal to create live, orchestral scores; instead, they had to create the catchiest songs they could using the limited technology available in the console. As a result, we got a wealth of iconic tunes that still hold up to this day. Undertale takes a similar approach, resulting in one of the most memorable gaming soundtracks in recent years.
Undertale also shines in its gameplay, which primarily consists of turn-based combat encounters with monsters that you meet as you wander through the underground. When the enemy attacks, a small box appears onscreen with a red heart in the middle, representing you, the hero. Patterns of bullets or other objects then enter the box and you have to dodge the objects to avoid taking damage. Each attack pattern is unique to the enemy you’re facing and they all cleverly represent that enemy as well. For example, when squaring off against a frog monster, a frog may appear within the box and leap at you. It’s a fascinating and creative blend of Warioware-esque minigames and bullet-hell shooters.
For your turn in combat you have a choice: you can either attack the enemy in an attempt to kill them, or you can choose from a set of non-violent actions, unique to each enemy. Attacking is straightforward, requiring a simple timed button press to do damage. Choosing a pacifistic option, on the other hand, leads to a bit of text that explains exactly what your character did and how the enemy reacted. Let’s take the frog enemy as an example again. Instead of attacking him, you can choose to compliment him. He appreciates it, and if you survive his next attack, you can choose the mercy option to end the fight peacefully.
In addition to the combat sequences, various environmental puzzles are scattered throughout the game world. These puzzles aren’t particularly challenging; rather, they serve to keep the experience fresh. Many of these puzzles also play into the game’s overall narrative experience. Certain characters are keen to throw puzzles your way in an attempt to thwart your progress and the absurd nature of the puzzles themselves add to the game’s already robust humor.
Altogether, Undertale embodies the best of indie gaming. Its unique and inventive gameplay mechanics, along with its quirky characters and heartfelt storytelling, showcase the creativity that you can only find in smaller games. Toby Fox has crafted a true gem, one that stands out in comparison to both the AAA gaming scene as well as fellow indie titles. It’s one of the best games of the generation, so don’t let it slip under your radar.
The Bottom Line
Undertale provides an experience unlike anything you’ll find in the AAA space. It’s a game you shouldn’t miss out on, and one that will stay with you long after you’ve completed it.