Peace and Love

Hey, that’s not how exploring NPC houses in RPG villages is supposed to work!

While frolicking in mud, I have also managed to pay a visit to a popular underground world. Now that Toby Fox’s breakaway indie hit from a couple of years back finally got a physical console release, it was due time to check out why Undertale enjoys such a widespread fame. Obvious straight from its pixel art intro, it’s a game that pays homage to the wonderful JRPGs of the SNES era. Its premise is as delightfully shoddy as one could expect; humans have once again fought a long battle against monsters that were eventually sealed deep underground. Life is once again peaceful and harmonious. One day the player, a young rascal, ventures into the caves of a nearby mountain, trips and falls into a deep chasm, and ends up in the secluded region of scary monsters. It would be really nice to get back home, but the journey is a long and perilous one, and the first monster encountered makes it absolutely clear that this is a bleak world where one’s fate is either to kill or be killed.

Or is it? The game’s slogan is “the friendly RPG where nobody has to die” and sure enough, what first seems like an uninspired and crude ugly duckling of an RPG ends up transforming into quite an original and emotive little charmer. While traipsing along the corridors of this new dark world, the hero bumps into increasingly peculiar monsters that can be fought in a normal fashion. Battles are turn-based and require a swaying hit meter to be stopped in the center of the screen for most damage. Victories are rewarded with money, experience points, and leveling up just like one would expect.

A more thoughtful player can, however, resolve conflicts by resolving to diplomacy rather than violence. By trying out all sorts of unconventional acts like complimenting, encouraging, or even hugging the foes, the hero can try to make them lose their will to fight and then spare them. While figuring out what works, the only way to defend oneself is to move the player’s soul, represented by a little red heart, away from adversaries’ bullet hell -esque attacks. Easier said than done, especially as pacifism leads to zero experience points gained, meaning that those choosing nonviolence are expected to complete the game eternally stuck as a level one character. No matter the approach, game overs tend to happen but thankfully save points are rather frequent.

Giving prominence to deliberately coarse pixel art but also exceptionally good and varied retro music, the game draws particularly heavily from HAL Laboratory’s SNES classic Earthbound. Undertale is an adventure that aims to charm with pure weirdness. While getting into the bottom of the origins of the feud between humans and monsters, the player bumps into increasingly more peculiar characters, locations, and situations. The path is beset by intentionally crappy puzzles, even crappier puns, and plenty of laughing at all sorts of RPG clichés and, exclusive to the PlayStation version, trophies.

Even if the journey progresses as a tight tunnel, it also features plenty of depth. Many scenarios adapt not only to the general approach of the player but also to the items they carry or the way they have acted in the past. The humorous story that eventually also plucks some emotional strings lasts about six hours and remains highly entertaining throughout. While it’s easy to miss out on some things, the epilogue is kind enough to tell what might still be worth trying, so reloading the final save and doing a bit of backtracking can still provide an hour or two of equally enjoyable post-gaming of sorts.

While Undertale is innately quite niche and mimics Earthbound a bit too blatantly for its own good especially towards the end, it’s still a game that worked well in this gaming household, too. It challenges established RPG conventions in a creative and amusing way, doesn’t outstay its welcome, and is full of just that sort of eccentricity that appeals to players who are broad-minded or simply prefer their experiences a bit different. Jolly good show, Toby, jolly good show!