In recent years, there’s been more of a strict divide between game genres. There are games where you can have RPG style combat with adventures and enemies, and this results in having to kill monsters and bosses, or you can have games on the opposite ends of the spectrum; the kind of games that allow you to befriend NPCs and live in peace with the denizens of the digital world, but largely bereft of action or adventure. There are few, if any, crossovers in genre.
And then came Undertale.
Here’s the premise: an RPG where you don’t kill anyone at all. Not a single boss, not a single monster. At least, if you want to get the good ending and not murder one of the quirkiest, most fun cast of characters in an RPG that I’ve seen in literal years.
The premise starts out simple: you are a human, (canonically named Frisk, but choosing that name in-game gives you a Hard Mode, which is literally the most difficult thing to do), and you have fallen through the human world into a realm of monsters. You want to go home. Things become more difficult from there.
The game was helmed and planned by Toby Fox, who some former Homestucks may recognize. Remember all the really great music throughout the series? That’s him. Plus, before that, he got famous for doing an excellent Earthbound ROM Hack—which explains the two games’ similarities.
The combat system has more in common with Japanese shoot-em-ups (or ‘shmups’ if you’re in a hurry) than typical RPG turn-based combat. Turn-based combat is all well and good, but it’s nice to see Undertale tread new ground when it comes to RPG battle mechanics, which can get pretty repetitive.
There’s another option: you can Fight monsters, which requires you to time your attacks for better damage, or an Act option. This provides a variety of options, which differ depending on the monster. (It’s usually good to ‘Hug’ or ‘Console’ or ‘Offer Confidence,’ with the exception of one special enemy.) This is the only option I ever used outside of one boss fight you are forced to Fight in, because the only good run in Undertale is a Pacifist run. But the most challenging run in Undertale is definitely the Pacifist one.
Mind you, even not on hard mode, you are going to die. A lot. If you’re playing a Pacifist run, you are going to have about 20 hitpoints. Buy healing items. But, good news! There’s only eight inventory slots! And you can’t switch to your item box while in battle for more!
Yeah, it’s pretty difficult. But not overwhelmingly so, and I never felt so frustrated I wanted to give up (minus Hard Mode). It’s a game that offers fun challenge, not “tear your hair out” challenge. I appreciate the chance to have fun without feeling bored, and being challenged without being beat down on. (It helps that more plot-important fights make it basically impossible to die.)
Now, I’m schilling the Pacifist run not just because I have reset entire save files after accidentally picking an ‘evil’ option in a game, but because Undertale’s main strength lies in its characters. You care. They’re sometimes silly skeletons, and sometimes fishy lesbians, and sometimes they’re weird nerd scientists who don’t know how to talk on the phone, but they’re all absolutely memorable and unique and fun. And the game emphasizes, by being kind and being heroic, you are loved in return. That’s a nice little payoff!
The environments are nothing to sneeze at, either; there were moments in the game where it’s good to just stop playing and look at the sprite work. It’s something to appreciate and take in, as it puts you in the setting of the game so completely. If pixel art is up your alley, Undertale is a great example of colorful, unique, and fun-to-explore worlds with lovely art!
Even the side characters endear themselves to you and are worth talking to more than once, which is where the game is the most reminiscent of the Mother series. The dialogue is quirky and referential, but not grating or hard to grasp, and it makes every character stand out, distinct. How could you ever kill a skeleton that wears a COOL DUDE shirt and draws sunglasses on his biceps? Or a soft Moomin-esque monster cow who makes you pie?
The difference in endings is both a benefit and a detraction, oddly: while the Pacifist run is the ‘true’ ending, and thus the most plot-heavy, its polar opposite, the Genocide ending, is much different. It cuts entire characters out, completely takes the plot for a left turn, and while it makes for two good boss fights, you have to kill Papyrus, so it’s honestly not worth it.
Full disclosure: I personally am not a fan of bad/kill ‘em all style endings, but I have to admit, while the conditions of achieving a Genocide run are terrible and sad, it at least provides something most games don’t, which is consequence. If you really must do a Genocide run, either delete the app’s roaming data or do a Pacifist run first.
The Pacifist ending is the most story-focused, which is fancy talk for “everything I say is a spoiler,” so don’t touch any wikis, don’t touch any walkthroughs, and just take my advice: use Mercy on everything, save your Stick, and save a Spider Doughnut. Everything will be clear later on.
Honestly, the game is that same sort of wistful unique that made Earthbound such a rare find, with even more emphasis on being kind and having friends. If that sounds like your cup of tea, I cannot recommend Undertale enough. If it doesn’t…then I recommend Undertale to get you started on loving a whole new kind of story!