Developed by: Toby Fox
Published by: Toby Fox
Platforms: OS X, PC, Linux, PS4, Vita, Switch, XBOX One
Feeling Like: Understated
Undertale is so creative that I’m tempted to shoot it up the list another 100 spots just to emphasize HOW creative it is. This is another indie game made by a single person, Toby Fox. Maybe this is the kind of game that only lone wizard could make. No established developer would risk putting something like this out. It looks amateur-ish at first, but it’s anything but. This is one of the most deliberate, beautiful games ever made but it takes some digging to get to the sweet, sweet center.
Part of the genius of Undertale is that it will appeal to newcomers to the RPG genre as much as it will hardcore players. It’s approachable and well written enough to lull you into a false sense of security and then totally toys with your expectations. It uses your previous experiences of RPGs as a boost, not as a crutch. In nearly every game I’ve played, you kill enemies in combat but in Undertale the best experience comes from being merciful and NOT killing anything. This is more difficult than it sounds.
Upon showing mercy to your opponent, a small window appears. Your job is to dodge oncoming projectiles, much like in a bullet-hell shooter. The projectiles will come in different, often funny, forms. The speed and obstacles will vary enough that it never feels repetitive. The dialogue spoken by the monsters is hilarious and often poignant. The game is not afraid to break the fourth wall. Indeed, it may have the best fourth wall break since Metal Gear Solid.
The first “boss” I encountered was my adopted mother, Toriel. I didn’t quite understand the mechanics and while I felt bad about it, I killed her. Oops.
I reloaded my save and the game totally called me out on it. I felt guilty, surprised and it was then I knew I was playing something special. Toby Fox knew EXACTLY what all experienced RPG players do when they get a result they don’t like – they reload their previous save in an attempt to change things. Undertale doesn’t let you off that easily.
But it’s not just a game of party tricks. Every character you run into is wonderfully written and the main ones are unforgettable. Despite the game’s short-ish length, the themes and story resonated with me far more than most other RPGs. The DNA here is so strong that you quickly forget the graphics aren’t ever going to be cutting-edge. Showing somebody a few clips of Undertale won’t immediately endear them so it’s important to take a holistic approach when analyzing why Undertale works.
It worked for me. It was the first ever game I had in a Top 10, back in 2015. The passing of time changes things and if I was the sort to re-organize my Top 10s, Undertale would be far higher than 10th. At the time, I felt it was a quirky game that was a bit like Earthbound but with better mechanics, but was also too clever by half. The fourth wall breaks were a neat distraction, but I didn’t respond to them as positively as others. Since then, I’ve come to understand how difficult it is to stand out from the mass amount of RPGs made each year. How impossible it is that one person made this. One. In a time where it takes at least 10-15 minutes to scroll through the end credits, the fact that a single developer made something so undeniably fun and unique is staggering. This game and Stardew Valley are small miracles.
The fanbase of the game has taken on a life of its own and there’s so much zeitgeist surrounding Undertale that it’s difficult to wade through it all. It just shows how special the game is, how it can connect with different types of gamers and arise a passion in them that other games fail to elicit.
I’m hesitant to start listing reasons why I love this game because it would be a very long one, but I’ll try to keep it short. The ending is spectacular. Flowey is a truly intimidating villain, ignore the picture above – he’s a scary asshole and just wait until you see his final form. It’s a boss fight unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
The combat is delightful, the locations are colorful and inventive. The pacing is perfect. It feels like an 80s movie where a kid goes on a spectacular adventure that’s mildly terrifying. Think Little Monsters meets Return to Oz.
But it’s the soundtrack that rises above it all. For an RPG to stick, it must have a great soundtrack. That’s probably why I fell off of Dragon Quest 11 – for all the charm, classic battle system and beautiful world, it had a putridly boring set of songs. Not good enough. Undertale is packed with spectacular songs that invoke classic tunes and all of them fit perfectly with how Toby Fox wants you to feel at a particular moment. It’s well worth a listen, and a purchase. Megalovania gets a lot of rightfully deserved attention, but Another Medium might be my favorite. I can’t help but think of Threads of Fate or Super Mario RPG when I hear it.
The end theme is melancholy, perseverance, peace and love all rolled into one.
Undertale is one of those games where the more I think about it, the more I recognize it deserves to be higher on the 500. Far higher. But, I made a promise that I wouldn’t re-order the Almighty Spreadsheet going forward. At the time, I enjoyed the game enough to be on a Top 10 but not enough to place it any higher. Looking back, this may be one of this instances where either I got it wrong originally, or time and nostalgia has pushed it further than I thought it could go. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend Undertale to everybody, but for anybody who is up for something different and has even a remote interest in RPGs, it’s among my highest recommendations. What a strange, clever, magnificent game.
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