They just don’t make RPGs like they used to.
That’s not to say that modern RPGs are bad games. On the contrary, franchises like Fallout and Final Fantasy continue to produce exciting and innovative experiences with each new installment, to great critical and commercial success.
However, despite the quality and popularity of these franchises, I can’t help but feel as if there is an element of charm missing from big-budget games these days. In an industry where developers feel pressured to make their games bigger and badder with each passing year, we often overlook the smaller games that sacrifice expensive graphics and scope in order to provide strong gameplay and a compelling story.
Given this tendency, it’d be a shame, then, to ignore Undertale, Toby Fox’s new role-playing game for PC and Mac. Undertale harks back to the golden era of 16-bit RPGs, when games such as EarthBound, Chrono Trigger, and Final Fantasy VI graced the Super Nintendo, just as games were migrating to the Nintendo 64 and Playstation. Undertale does not shy away from its heritage, embracing a 16-bit art style and chiptune soundtrack like its predecessors. However, Undertale also isn’t afraid to pave its own path, and manages to pay homage to some of the greatest RPGs of all time while simultaneously telling an emotional story, full of charming characters and locales, that is uniquely its own. The result is a memorable role-playing game, and one of the best games of this year.
Undertale begins with a simple opening. The Earth was once governed by humans and monsters, but conflict lead to war between the two races. The humans defeated the monsters and banished them beneath the ground, while they themselves remained on the surface. To ensure that the monsters would not attempt to escape back to the surface, a magical barrier was created, thus permanently separating the two races.
One day, however, a small girl playing in the mountains trips and falls down into the world of the monsters. From here, Undertale begins, and the player takes control of the girl (whom the player names) and explores the world beneath the surface.
While at first glance, Undertale’s premise may seem simplistic, its story gets more and more complex over the course of the six to eight hour journey. From a seemingly innocent encounter with a goat with motherly tendencies, to traversing a “deadly” obstacle course constructed by a pair of bumbling skeleton brothers, Undertale bolsters a large cast of supporting characters, each with its own distinct personality and backstory, that the player will meet during the game. In order to avoid spoilers, I will refrain from elaborating more on Undertale’s story, simply because there are many exceptional twists and turns that gamers should experience for themselves. Just know that Undertale will impress you with its wide range of emotions, from happiness and tranquility to sadness and chaos, all while remaining humorous and charming throughout.
As the player traverses the land of monsters, he or she will encounter various monsters and bosses – from frogs and slimes to robots and airplanes – by way of traditional random encounters. From there, gameplay transitions to a first-person view of the monster(s) being fought, much in the vein of Earthbound or Dragon Quest. Players have their choice of actions, between “Fight,” “Act,” “Item,” or “Mercy.” Yet while the former three actions are typical elements of any traditional RPG, the ‘Mercy’ component of combat is sure to take many players by surprise. Simply put, by refraining from fighting in favor of performing actions such as “Hug,” “Joke,” “Compliment,” and many more, players are able to avoid killing entirely during the course of Undertale. In truth, Undertale even boasts about this on its Steam page, and while this fact is put in front of players’ eyes before they even buy the game, I don’t think players will fully understand the ramifications of such a system.
In Undertale, violence is completely avoidable which, without giving too much away, makes up a huge component of the game’s story, which is unheard of in many RPGs. In fact, the idea of playing a game with monsters, let alone a RPG with monsters, without killing any may seem foreign to most gamers. To those people, I encourage that you play Undertale even more, as it will make you rethink all the times you grinded Cactuars for gil in Final Fantasy or killed Shadows for loot in Persona.
Complementing Undertale’s fantastic story and gameplay is a beautiful presentation. Undertale may initially come across as looking dated (after all, it is going for a retro look), but after playing the game for several hours, I came to appreciate its impressively detailed sprites and often gorgeous landscapes. Even when compared to other recent retro-inspired games like Shovel Knight and Fez, Undertale isn’t always the prettiest game. That being said, Undertale’s numerous set-piece moments, such as discovering a new town bustling with shops and homes, or walking past an ominous castle in the distance, managed to stun me in ways that other games had not.
Perhaps even more impressive than Undertale’s aesthetic is its absolutely phenomenal soundtrack. Composed by Toby Fox himself, Undertale’s music instills a sense of wonder and tension that is reminiscent of many of the greatest RPG soundtracks from the ’90s. In fact, after listening to the raunchy, jazzy melody of Sans’ Theme, the melancholy sounds of the Game Over screen, and the haunting backdrop to the game’s Waterfall area, I would even go so far as to put Toby’s music on the same pedestal I put greats such as Nobou Uematsu, Yasunori Mitsuda, and Yoko Shimomura. Yes, the music is that good.
I could go on and on about the magic of Undertale. Epic boss battles that constantly flips the game’s battle system on its head. The heart-wrenching morality system that is embedding with the very fabric of the game. The numerous nods to famous scenes from RPGs of old, including a hilarious reference to a one very famous scene from Final Fantasy VI (you know the one). A twist on New Game Plus that will make you think twice before hitting that “Start Over” button.
There is so much contained in these six to eight hours of story (with some additional mysteries outside of the main game that players have already started to unearth), that it’s easy for me to recommend Undertale for the price at which it’s being sold. In fact, at ten dollars, it’s a steal for one of the most charming, touching, and eye-opening RPGs of recent memory.
If you’ve got a computer and a love for RPGs of any kind, you owe it to yourself to give Undertale a try. Expect it to surprise you in more ways than one.
Undertale celebrates the RPGs of old while creating a unique experience that is entirely its own. Fans of the genre owe it to themselves to pick this one up.