The RPG Scrollbars: Undertale

You should play Undertale [official site]. It’s not had much attention since it came out last week, and that’s a real shame, because it’s one of the sweetest, darkest, funniest RPGs I’ve played in ages. It’s rare to find a genuinely funny game, and rarer still to spend several hours laughing and laughing. My only problem with trying to give it its proper due is that by doing so, well, I inevitably have to spoil things. So, if you’re in the mood for a sweet, dark, funny RPG that’s not just about meta references and jokes about XP being stupid, you go check it out, right now, and I’ll see you next week.

If you need a little more than that, hmm. How to describe it without saying too much? Aaah, I know. It’s a bit like Earthbound, only with the big difference that most of the people with nice things to say about it have actually played it. (No, five minutes with a ROM doesn’t count.) And like Earthbound, you’ll kick yourself if you miss it now.

While Earthbound is the go-to for any comedy JRPG style game, the moment that Undertale really connected with me was when it started channelling Chrono Trigger instead – I’m thinking specifically of the trial scene, where suddenly all your seemingly innocuous actions at the fair at the start of the game get thrown back in your face. Undertale loves that kind of thing, down to its basic gimmick being that it’s an RPG where almost nobody has to die. Kill two happily married dogs just after the tutorial, and later on you’ll be shouted at it by a knight who just can’t believe anyone could be that much of a dick. But, there’s no arguing it. You could have found another way.

If you don’t care about that of course, you don’t have to. You still get combat, and you can stabby-stab if you want, with an all-out ‘genocide’ path through the game that unlocks its own stuff (along with a pacifist run). Still, it’s always possible to try and find another way around an enemy. That might be trying to get a shy monster to sing. It could be taunting a monster to the point that they take themselves out of the battle by over-flexing or getting frustrated with an attack. It can be un-hugging them, aka actively avoiding giving them a hug and thus demonstrating your respect of their personal space. It can even, and I loved this gag, be simply shunning an unpopular monster to the point that you and the other monsters just ditch it and continue the fight elsewhere. Or flirting with one until it loses all interest in the fight but wants to go on a date with you instead. A date that you can then go on, and keep in touch afterwards.

It’s just wonderful, and a rarity in comedy any-games in that its jokes come from genuine character and funny situations and wit rather than the more standard ‘mock something for being shit and then make the player do the shit thing anyway’ school of humour. Looking at you on that one, The Bard’s Tale. Instead, when it mocks puzzles, it’s not the idea of them, but several screens of having fun with the characters responsible for them – laid-back skeleton Sans and his over-eager brother Papyrus, whose desperation for friends is matched only by his short-sightedness. He’s a guy whose idea of a fiendish puzzle is a Junior Word Jumble, who writes down his plans in notes just to make sure you understand, and honestly, is pretty much the greatest.

That’s the light side of things. The dark? One word: Damn.

Even basic combat is incredibly cool. Each enemy is its own set of mini-games, with some consistency but generally not too much. They attack with anything from a few seconds of dodging shots, bullet-hell style, to having you jump over things or stay motionless while an attack passes through, while you reciprocate with your own mini-games and occasionally turning their skills against them by bouncing shots right back into their faces. Being a pacifist though is more about surviving the attacks and figuring out how to use your ‘nice’ options against them, which often means weakening them up first or doing something clever with the mechanics that isn’t necessarily immediately obvious. Bosses in particular often demand patience and skill.

The additional catch with this kind of play is that you don’t get any XP for defeating monsters like this, making pacifism an increasingly difficult path compared to hacking and slashing your way past enemies. Needless to say, this is not something that goes unnoticed when the game responds to it. And, sometimes, it’s got its own problems attached, like having to condemn a would-be mother to feeling that she won’t be able to save a single child. In an instant, all her plans for a happy home, a good deed, a fulfilling life of looking after someone are thrown out of the window, and all she can do is give you a big hug and wish you well. And really, that’s a good amount of emotion for a game that looks like… well, let’s be honest… like this. But like all the best indie games, it’s not about the pixels it’s got, but how well it uses them, and Undertale knows where to spend them to squeeze a surprising amount out of very little.

Really, I’m struggling to come up with things to say, purely because when a game has me grinning for a good couple of hours straight, I’m loathe to give away any of the reasons why – the throwaway gags, the repeated characters, the individual lines, the surreal moments. What’s probably most surprising though is how well constructed everything is under the surface. It doesn’t take long to finish the game, and there’s almost no challenge to it. Restart afterwards though and things don’t necessarily play out as remembered the first time. There’s a whole ARG style layer that players are working on trying to crack. Many interactions have a subtlety to them, like a character who openly calls you up as part of a scheme to lure you into a trap, but then later comments cheerfully that they knew you’d know that, so it was fine. Undertale is pretty understated about its subtlety, but it’s got a lot more cards to play than it seems.

It’s wonderfully tight design, with the result that the weirdness goes beyond just throwing jokes at the wall in the hope that enough of them will land with an amusing splatter and actually starts to feel like a world. In that, it’s much like the Mario and Luigi games over on the portable Nintendo boxes; an adventure silly enough to enjoy every moment, but still with the ability to be dramatic and for decisions to have meaning. The music during the first encounter, breaking down if you don’t play along with a friendly flower’s tutorial. Another friendly character called Toriel who takes you under her wing and plans to keep you safe in her house. The little animations of her holding your hand, patting your head, just wanting the best for you are all so understated but effective. And then of course, you can kill her. You monster. But in that fight, in just one of a thousand tiny but clever little details, when you get down to critical health, Toriel will only deploy a magic attack that can’t kill you – throwing the battle for your sake, even if you’re literally beating her to death to get into the main game.

That’s just a basic example of its cleverness though. The more you play, the more it goes from being a goofy little comedy RPG along the lines of Cthulhu Saves The World or the last couple of Penny Arcade games to something far smarter and more deconstructive. It’s fourth-wall leaning for a bit more than jokes, especially when it comes to resets and the nature of character growth. It’s world design that rewards that replay, even if only for really basic questions like why there are cameras in random trees near the start. And in that replay, there’s some interesting throw-away moments, like considering telling a character you murdered them last time, or being asked if you don’t have anything better to do than sit through the opening banter again.

Did I mention that Undertale is totally worth checking out yet?

I’m pretty sure I did, but if not, imagine those words being bellowed through a megaphone. You can safely ignore it if you’re not interested in good games. But! For everyone else, it’s one of the smartest and funniest indie adventures around, and one that deserves to be remembered by PC players in much the same way that Earthbound is for console fans. Nowhere near as epic, it’s true. But not everything has to be.

Undertale. It’s over here. That is all.

20 Comments

  1. Dominic Tarason says:

    Gotta echo everything Richard says here. It’s fantastic. I’d not been able to throw money at the Kickstarter, but just on faith and optimism I grabbed it when it was released for $10.

    I’ve probably played through it four times now, and it has been everything from the funniest comedy game I’ve played in years to one of the most genuinely unsettling horror experiences I’ve seen.

    Undertale is my game of the year. Witcher 3 & MGS5 jointly held that spot, but they’ll have to make do with the one immediately below it. I’m sorry, but Undertale stole my heart and flung it around the room until it just couldn’t anymore.

    • Jackablade says:

      What kind of play time should I be expecting? It sounds like something I might like to dabble with for a few hours but not necessarily sink a lot of hours into.

      • Richard Cobbett says:

        About 5 hours for the first playthrough, but there’s stuff to do after that.

        • Dominic Tarason says:

          I think my first playthrough was about 7 hours, but that was the pure pacifist route and I made sure to backtrack occasionally and try EVERYTHING just to see if it had any effect.

          Nine times out of ten, it did. It’s not a huge game, but the amount of things that can change, both minor and major, is mindblowing.

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        FhnuZoag says:

        Depending on how you play it, it’s a very dense game. There isn’t really any wasted moments.

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        FhnuZoag says:

        (Not sure why my comments are getting eaten by spam filters today?)

        Anyway, if you are worried about length, I’d say that you needn’t. The game is very dense, and it doesn’t waste your time with pointless collectathons or grinding for EXP… unless you choose to play it that way, anyway.

  2. giantspacenewt says:

    I watched the trailer when it came out and figured that the game probably wasn’t for me, since I never played Earthbound or other olde style rpgs and don’t have that nostalgia. Fortunately a friend badgered me enough to try the demo, because I was totally wrong – this game is absolutely worth playing and a good time all around. And the music is really good too!

  3. Dominic Tarason says:

    Oh yeah, I hope this isn’t too much of a spoiler, but when the trailer says that nobody has to die? It means it. And it’s worth it.

  4. Nevard says:

    Honestly one of the best games I have ever played.

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    FhnuZoag says:

    This game is a serious contender for my game of the year.

  6. wilynumber13 says:

    You must roll in dramatically different circles than I, because I’ve been seeing this game (rightfully so) get lots of attention, every day since its release!

  7. MrFinnishDude says:

    The mere existence of a skeleman (or Mr Skeltal, formally) being aware of their memetic status in the interwebs is enough for me to instabuy this game.

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    heretic says:

    Great enthusiasm from this article and comments, checking the demo out!

  9. Nixitur says:

    Napstablook has the best theme.
    That is all.

  10. LionsPhil says:

    Oh, hey, there is a demo, it’s just not on Steam.

    • LionsPhil says:

      …and I guess you must have had to play JRPGs to find this funny, because personally I’ve reached (and lost to) the feign-sleeping ghost and it’s just not funny. The random encounters seem to be being played straight, at least for now, and are already just tedious. (The hideous mismash art style really does it no favours.)

      • Eagle0600 says:

        The humour doesn’t need you to play JRPGs. But if you actually finish the demo and are still completely unmoved, then the rest of the game probably isn’t going to be worth playing, no. Be sure to finish the demo before making that judgement, though.

      • sub-program 32 says:

        I haven’t played a single JRPG and I found it funny (though I have watched JRPG’s to be fair, but not many). If it helps, the random encounters go way down in occurance rate after the first level, and the game in terms of my personal taste only got better as it progressed. Though if you hate the art style I guess you are screwed, though it does go up in detail after the Ruins (whixh is partially because the demo is months older than the rest of the game, and it seems fairly unchanged)

      • Kaeoschassis says:

        Yeah if it doesn’t make you laugh and you find the art ‘hideous’ it’s probably not the game for you. Which is a shame, but fair enough.