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The RPS Advent Calendar, Dec 16th: Undertale

2015's funniest game.

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What’s the funniest game of 2015? The RPS Advent Calendar highlights our favourite games from throughout the year, and behind today’s door is…

Undertale!

is this a reference to the ongoing Gamefaqs voting? MAYBE SO

Adam: I think I use the word ‘delightful’ too much. Trawl through my various writings on RPS and you can probably find a paragraph where I describe a war or the particular way that someone’s limbs fall off as ‘absurdly delightful’. I’m going to use the word here, even if I’ve chipped away at its meaning through repetition, because if ever a thing deserved to wear a little badge informing the world that it is ‘delightful’, Undertale would be that thing.

It’s the funniest game of the year and it’s one of the saddest games of the year. It’s inventive and forward-looking, and yet it never plays on nostalgia for its own sake. Every gesture toward the past is meaningful rather than a mere elbow in the ribs of memory. I don’t want to say too much about the specifics because, as much as anything else, Undertale is a series of setpieces, some comic and some tragic, and everyone should be able to experience them fresh the first time they play. What is remarkable about those setpieces is that with a seemingly limited audiovisual toolset, the game can slide from epic adventure to domestic farce with a few frames of animation.

Thankfully, I don’t need to describe anything that happens because a swift analysis of the battle system sums up everything that I love about the entire game. In this kind of retro-styled RPG, I’d expect combat to occur at random as I wander around the map and, sure enough, that appears to be the case as Undertale begins. The battle music kicks in and the top-down view fades out to be replaced by a battle screen, showing the enemy from a sorta first-person perspective.

At this point, you can choose to fight or to use an item, as you might expect. You can also ‘Act’ or show ‘Mercy’, which is somewhat unexpected. Acting opens up a new sub-menu, with verbs that are specific to the enemy you’re facing. You might be able to flirt or to tease, or to study. Mercy attempts to end combat peacefully. Usually, you’ll need to figure out which actions will lead to a peaceful resolution before selecting mercy.

Choose to fight and a small portion of the screen transforms into an arcade game, in which you must avoid enemy attacks. At first it’s a shoot ’em up style bullet-dodger but just as your choices in the Act menu are context sensitive, based on the character you have encountered, so are enemy attacks. Some are barely a threat at all and some are almost impossible to survive, but they’re all recognisable as extensions of the personality of the opponent.

And that is how the entire game plays out. Those combat menus, which are the repetitive loop of an entire genre, are, in Undertale, simply the window-dressing for a more complex system of interactions and arcade minigames. The entire retro JRPG costume is simply that – a costume.

Beneath the dressing, Undertale is consistently surprising, which is a rarity in any kind of entertainment. Usually, a game shows its hand at some point and lets you know what to expect. Undertale shows a hand immediately – it’s a cutesy nostalgic homage to Earthbound and the like – but then it snatches that hand away and blows a raspberry. The next hand makes shadow puppets on the wall and the next might shake you by your own hand or punch you in the gut.

At times, I thought Undertale was about the difficulty of being the one kind person in a cruel world, and at other times I could have sworn it was about the awkward absurdity of being the one cruel person in a kind world. It’s smart, it’s witty, it’s charming and it’s shot through with nervous energy.

In a word, it’s delightful.

And then, when you reach the end, there’s one final sleight of hand and everything changes again.

Alice: What’s Adam said up there? Don’t tell me, don’t tell me. I haven’t finished Undertale yet, see, because I’ve had a wicked case of the grumps lately and could feel that souring a game I was finding so deeply delightful. I’m saving it.

What I have played is one of this year’s funniest – and warmest – games, which is impressive given how sinister it is.

I still smile thinking about the social puzzles of playing non-violently, the initial encounter of trying to figure out what an enemy wants. Perhaps you’ll notice a frog is doing its best, which surely deserves complimenting. But how do you respond to someone being a loudmouth? And as for boring jerk tagalongs… it’s a rare game that makes generic monsters in random encounters so interesting and funny.

It’s rare for a game to be so funny in a way that’s friendly and supportive too. Hey, be nice to people (and monsters).

I was delighted with the demo, replaying to poke at how it all worked, and what I’ve played of Undertale past that point has me awfully keen to see what’s coming up next. From the not-veiled-nearly-as-well-as-they-think hints and references people drop me, I’ve got a whole load of weird and wonderful to come. And probably a fair bit more of the sinister.

Go here for more of our picks for the best PC games of 2015.

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