When I play through an Indie RPG, I generally try to make a rant devoted to creating awareness for the game, since most of them don’t get the press that larger developers’ works do, and also have limited options for advertising. Also, in all honesty, I’d rather support the smaller mom-and-pop type of game developer, simply because I believe they have greater potential to push the RPG as we know it into new, exciting, and meaningful directions. I certainly don’t want to see the Big Developer RPG disappear, of course, because there are things that both sides of the industry can offer that the other really just can’t. Of them, though, the Indie RPG is the one that has the greater need, so that’s the one I try to plug, when given the opportunity.
And damn, does Undertale ever give the opportunity.
So, Undertale. As Indie RPGs go, this is the new big deal, making the biggest splash I’ve seen an Indie RPG create since Bastion. It has as close to a universal appeal as an RPG can possess. A lot of people say that it should be the Game of the Year for many trusted, respectable gaming sites. And IGN, too. There are some who say that it’s their new favorite RPG, period.* So, the question is...does it live up to its underground hype?
Pretty much, yeah.
Having revealed this rant’s conclusion too early, I will now proceed to continue writing as though you have any reason to read further after the above sentence. Undertale is incredible. It’s very, very smart, it’s quite funny, it’s one of the most creative RPGs I’ve come across, it plays to nostalgia while never treading within another game’s footsteps, and it’s emotionally gripping to an extreme, able to give you rich, heartwarming enjoyment, or deeply disturb you. I really wish I had known about its Kickstarter campaign, because it’s one of those games that I would feel a tremendous pride in knowing I contributed to its existence.
But I know about it now, thanks to my longtime buddy and, it turns out, reader, Angahith. I’ve mentioned him here a few times (he was the guy who prodded me to play my first Indie RPG, Mark Leung: Revenge of the Bitch), but it bears stating that the guy is just the salt of the Earth, one of those folks you come across sometimes who you’ll just never have anything bad to say about. Or at least, I don’t. I really don’t give frequent enough praise to my friends and family who contribute to my rants, including those who point me in the direction of great RPGs to talk about here, and Anga’s one of them. Good on you, sir, if you’re reading this.
Anyway, Angahith told me about Undertale, I tried it out, and I found it to be the best Indie RPG I’ve played to date. By a significant margin. Seriously, when I do my end of the year calculations, it’s going on my Greatest RPGs List, and it won’t be occupying a low spot, either.
So, let’s get the nitty-gritty. What makes Undertale so great? Well, first of all, from start to finish, it is just incredibly creative. I mean, the creativity infuses pretty much every part of the game. The setting and world of Undertale (as much of it as we’re made privy to, at least) is thoughtful and interesting, and puts a highly creative spin on the existence of monsters in RPGs. The plot is creative, wrapping around itself in deliciously complex and thought-provoking ways, while somehow remaining appealingly simple and straightforward. Relating to that is the clever way that the most fundamental of RPG mechanics are incorporated into the game’s story, events, and lore. It is something I’ve seen before in small ways in Breath of Fire 5, and Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle incorporated some RPG mechanics into its overall plot in a similar way...but if BoF5 and EoWC take a few tentative steps forward into the concept of using conventional game mechanics within storytelling, Undertale runs a marathon with it.
The style of the game is also creative. Now, yes, it’s pretty clear that Undertale adopts more than a little of the Earthbound/Mother style, so you could say that it’s not as creative for that fact, but, well, to be quite frank, this game uses the Earthbound method and surreal quirkiness significantly better than any of the games it borrows from, even the excellent Mother 3. This is a game that out-Earthbounds Earthbound, and by a lot, so I’d say that it’s still creative for that, because it’s forging into new territory with the Earthbound formula.
Also, the premise is creative. This is an RPG where you can go from start to finish without killing a single enemy, if you so choose. Oh, certainly, you can choose to kill any that come across your path, or all of them, just like in a regular RPG. But you also have the choice not to kill your opponent in every scenario, which is pretty damn rare when it comes to RPGs--as far as I know, such a thing has only been made intentionally possible in the Deus Ex series before now. And, at the risk of being spoiler-y, your battle decisions make a major difference to the progression of the plot, to the ending you get, and even to what message the game has for you and what emotional impact it makes upon you--how you treat your foes has as much or more weight upon the meat of the game’s story and characters as any choice made in games touted for player decision-based plot pathways, like Dragon Age or Mass Effect. Which puts Undertale’s premise and practice of providing potential pacifist play paths in its plot pretty far past its Deus Ex peers. Which makes it all the more creative.
Lastly, and related to the premise, the battle system is creative. Now, I generally don’t care about gameplay features, as you well know, at least not to the extent that they sway my opinion on a game at all. But I can (and have) acknowledge when gameplay is done well or poorly in an RPG, and Undertale’s battle system is simple but highly effective for working around its premise. As a seamless blend of traditional turn-based RPG combat and, believe it or not, the Bullet Hell genre, Undertale’s combat is, so far as I can tell, utterly unique to RPGs even as it functions on a very traditional and generic foundation. And by making the primary mode of action in this battle system a form of Bullet Hell gameplay, Undertale very effectively accommodates the play style of pacifism that the game touts as a feature, since the gaming skills of a Bullet Hell game are, first and foremost, about dodging and surviving attacks, less than concentrating on your own offense.
So yeah, the game’s creative. Very creative. One of the most creative RPGs you’ll ever come across. But creativity alone doesn’t make an RPG great, of course. Anodyne was very creative, but ultimately underwhelming because it didn’t know how to use its creativity to any effective end, in my opinion, while Grandia 2 can be seen as incredibly uncreative since it pretty much entirely employs overused tropes in its plot and characters, yet the way they’re used is so masterful that every cliche seems fresh, thoughtful, and engaging. So what about the rest of Undertale?
Well, the plot’s really strong. Whether you’re a saint, an amoral abomination, or somewhere in between, the simple story of Undertale is engaging, particularly in its beginning and later stages, and it expands its scope and its depth with masterful subtlety. This is a story which is simple and straightforward, yet it is also layered, nuanced, and ripe with the opportunity to mentally pick it apart in minute detail, to theorize about its behind-the-scenes aspects, to recognize tiny connections and recurrences within itself that betray its storytelling artistry, to rejoice as you hit upon a private insight on subsequent playthroughs. Rarely do I see such far-sighted care in arranging even the tiniest details to have significance, whether light or heavy, that can be found later. It’s a clever, secret subtlety that you see in creations of high care, precision, and vision, things like Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle, or Steven Universe. Like Planescape: Torment or Revolutionary Girl Utena, you’ll never truly know Undertale without viewing it from start to finish multiple times, even if you’re just repeating the same playthrough style. That’s not because it’s clumsily over-complex (like, say, Chrono Cross), but rather, because there’s just a lot of layers to everything, and you need time and repetition to peel them away. Mind you, it’s definitely not on the same level of brilliance as PT or RGU, but frankly, anything that’s in the ballpark enough to warrant significant comparison to either of them is doing something really, really right.
The characters are good. They’ve generally got a good level of depth and complexity, and they are extremely personable. Each makes his or her own unique bid for your affections, and I’d have some trouble conjuring up the kind of player who could resist the cast’s charms. Which is good, because this story of the value of connections and making peace with others, and/or of the disturbing, nay, horrifying repercussions of apathetic malice and self-interest, really would not work without a cast as lovable as this one. Likewise, the game’s got a good villain.** The villain has depth, performs the role really well (he will infuriate you, and also freak you the fuck out), ties strongly to the messages and themes of the game, and is a great foil for the protagonist.
Also, Undertale is funny. Or disturbing. Sometimes both. Like I said before, this game basically out-Earthbounds Earthbound. Included in that is the fact that it is terrifically funny in a quirky fashion, and the fact that it can seriously creep you out. But generally, it’s a lot of fun, and much like Mother 3 does, Undertale uses its quirky humor as an expert way to invest you all the more so that the meaningful moments have greater impact. I wouldn’t say it’s better than Mother 3 in this regard, but it’s close enough to be quite adept at playing with your joy and sorrow.
The music’s pretty nifty. Not as big a deal as the other stuff I’ve mentioned, but it sure does its part, and then some, to create the mood and underscore the emotion of whatever’s going on. If you’re really into the soundtrack of the games you play, I daresay this one is another selling point for you on the game.
Creative, funny, with a great, simple-yet-complex plot, and characters you really connect with. What else do you need from Undertale? Well, you’re the readers of an RPG blog written by a guy named The RPGenius so I’m gonna go and make the crazy assumption that you just might have some interest in RPGs, and that being the case, you’ll likely also really benefit from the interesting deconstruction of RPGs that Undertale performs. Now, it’s not exactly unknown for a game to look at and play with the conventions of its genre within its own story, but any time this happens with RPGs, it’s usually just to make lighthearted references and jokes about it. Which is fine, of course, I rarely tire of having my genre of choice poke fun at itself.
But Undertale goes a considerable step further with it. While it does make a few jokes about RPG conventions, Undertale is much more interested in looking at some of the things we take for granted about RPGs, looking critically at their moral and philosophical ramifications, questioning them and what they imply about we who take part in them. It’s interesting to see the game go about this, and I’ve been privately interested, perhaps even a little concerned, for a few years now about certain aspects of RPGs that we just take for granted but seem disturbing when you think about them. So yeah, that’s another point in Undertale’s favor for me.
Also, while this is something that some players have bemoaned, I like the fact that Undertale remembers. What you choose to do in this game matters, and it stays with you. You may be surprised at just how seriously Undertale wants you to understand that actions have consequences. I don’t want to spoil things here about the game...but I know that there are players out there like me, who are capable of attaching a real, meaningful value to the fictional individuals they meet in a game, and care about what happens to them, and if that describes you, I’d feel bad if I didn’t provide proper warning to you. So here it is: in this game, think about your reasons for taking any action you think you could regret if that action stayed with you. If your only reason is “to see what happens,” just...maybe think it over a second time. All I’m saying is, Let’s Plays exist.
So...yeah. I think that’s enough of a recommendation, right? Undertale is 1 of those real gems that has pretty much no flaws (besides a lack of a run button; backtracking for dialogue completionism takes forever), and a hell of a lot of virtues. I definitely recommend it, and if that recommendation holds any weight, you can head over to the official website to buy it. You can also get it from Steam, if you prefer that, for some reason. It’s only $10, and that’s a steal for an RPG of even half the quality as Undertale. Check it out.
* Enough to be noteworthy, that is. When it comes to RPGs, there seems almost invariably to be at least a couple people for any given RPG who will say it’s the best one ever. I’ve even seen people claim that they’ve never played a better RPG than the Mega Man Star Force titles, for Hades’s sake. Still, Undertale has more people making this claim than the standard.
** Or villains, you could say. Depending on things. A lot of things. Complicated things. Play the game.