I teared up after a boss fight midway through Undertale. Not out of frustration (which happened more than a few times when I was still under the age of seven) but because I had personally failed to find a peaceable resolution and had instead found myself forced to kill a friend of a friend. As soon as I could find a save point, closed the game, smoked a cigarette, and attempted gather myself. I was only partially successful and still find myself wishing there had been another way…
It’s these kinds of profound moments that Undertale specializes in, turning unquestioned gaming tropes of leveling up and monster slaying on their heads at every turn. You control a child who falls through a hole in the ground into an Stygian dreamscape populated by friendly and not-so friendly monsters, monsters who have lived underground since being banished from the surface world by our human ancestors thousands of years ago. Journeying through this surreal kingdom. your character can become an angel of salvation or an angel of death, or something in between.
At first Undertale feels much like a recasting of Earthbound and other classic JRPG’s: the focus is more on puzzles and exploration than combat, curiosity is rewarded, the graphics and music are all delightfully lo-fi yet haunting, and pacifism is encouraged pretty much from the get go. A kindly cow person, Torial, takes in your character and feeds them, immediately becoming a surrogate mother figure. A wonderful pair of skeleton brothers/guardsmen are met and possibly befriended, perhaps even wooed. A story is set where clues are carefully parsed out through various conversations and environmental clues, including ghostly flowers that always echo the last thing they’ve heard. The player is beckoned to take a mysterious journey and explore as much of the world they find themselves in as they can.
Combat, both random and story driven, is still a factor, though, but with a neat twist. Enemy attacks are dodged within a constantly varied (and often funny) bullet-hell mini screen. Each enemy has their own little attack sprites to shoot at your red heart icon (which represents your human soul). Basic attack and item options are present, but with the addition of dialogue and mercy options: oftentimes a diplomatic solution can be found in random encounters (complimenting a frog who doesn’t understand your words but senses their meaning, having a flexing contest with a brony seahorse until he flexes his way right out of the room), which cause enemies to attack more charitably and eventually gives you the option of choosing to spare them. There are also plenty of opportunities to flirt with these monsters, an option which I beat into the ground.
Being merciful gains you gold but not experience, killing your enemies gains both. I’m someone who pretty much always goes for the evil/power option in games where a choice of morality is given (I’m looking at you Knights of the Old Republic. Force Lightning is the best!). Butchering these cute, often benign little monsters, does allow you to level up quite quickly (though its referred to as gaining Love in Undertale, a cruel irony). Even more than turning to the Dark Side, gaining Love quickly turns your lost child into a super beast who can easily one-hit most enemies. But this can quickly lead to feelings of regret and sadness, as friends learn to avoid you and possibilities narrow.
There are quite a few different endings to discover and different conversational choices to make. But in a very real way the game remembers your previous choices, even if you’ve gone back to a previous save to try and salvage a situation that didn’t play out as you had hoped. There’s no forgetting in the world of Undertale, even once it's been beaten and a new game has started.
I should also mention how very intuitive everything in the game feels, in terms of combat, puzzles, and conversations. Each bullet-hell combat scenario has an inner rhythm and pattern, sometimes requiring your Soul to hold perfectly still and sometimes to stay in a constant state of motion. Often these encounters are funny and sad at the same time, like fighting the ghost Napstablook (amazing name) towards the beginning and trying to avoid his tears and speech letters within the mini screen.
Puzzles are challenging without being too difficult, and often oddly beautiful, and revisiting characters and conversations (even signs) often reveal new facts and jokes. The sound of each main character’s dialogue text is slightly different from each other, almost lending a vocal quality to what is basically just the digitized sound of typing. Backtracking and wandering around the melancholy cavern vistas are encouraged, which helps to contribute to the surreal adventures and mysteries of the main plot.
Undertale is a game that stays with you, that reveals hidden thoughts and feelings within yourself in the same way that any great work of art should. Through a combination of often relaxed but sometimes tense gameplay, a dreamy atmosphere, and genuine characters that feel like they’re actually alive and all living together in this isolated society of longing, Undertale transcends its medium and becomes a genuinely moving experience I would recommend to anyone who is open to a sometimes sorrowful, sometimes hilarious, always bizarre and engaging emotional journey. Set aside a few hours to enter this delightful underworld and see, as I have, how difficult it becomes to leave.