Undertale is an indie RPG put together by a tiny team headed by Toby Fox. Fox had little game-making experience prior to Undertale, which was cobbled together on GameMaker Studio. Its puzzles are pedestrian, its replay value is slim, and its graphics probably wouldn't count as impressive on the NES. And yet the game dominated Steam through the last quarter of 2015.
The cycle of the seasons hasn't done much to cool off Undertale fans' enthusiasm for the game, even though we've seen pretty much nothing in the way of added content or updates. Nevertheless, Frisk, Chara, Sans, Papyrus, Asgore, Toriel, and Undyne have more emotional pull than most characters born from games with much larger budgets. Whatever you think of Undertale, Fox's success is still a welcome demonstration of how a simple-looking game brimming with wit and heart can sell itself without fancy graphics or an advertising budget.
What we said at the time
Our own Bob Mackey reviewed Undertale and branded it with a 5 / 5. I actually paid the game zero mind until I read his review, which is coincidentally when people started getting excited about a certain plucky Steam game. When I first played Undertale, I adored it as much as Mackey did.
Granted, Mackey and I have creepy identical twin thoughts when it comes to Earthbound and games inspired by Shigesato Itoi's unorthodox SNES RPG. We can spend hours picking apart tiny story points – and anyone who's read our work on Nerve.com's now-defunct 61 Frames Per Second blog knows we have. So maybe it's no huge surprise that Undertale, a game inspired by Earthbound and Mother 3 in too many ways to count, took over our lives for a small time.
But I think that'd be selling Undertale way short. As it turns out, "It's like Earthbound!" isn't enough to sell me on a game: Nothing's more Earthbound-y than Citizens of Earth, and I could not get into that game at all. No, Undertale's made an indelible mark on fans' hearts thanks to what Mackey described as its "gleefully absurdist humor."
Undertale's "feels," as the kids say, go way beyond funny stuff, though. There are jokes a-plenty, but when you scratch just below their surface, you find there's a lot of suffering and heartbreak in this seemingly cheerful Land of Monsters. Even Sans, an Undertale NPC who's since graduated to Gaming's Most Beloved Skeleton, isn't the simple laid-back goof-off he presents himself as. When you discover the reason why he drifts through life the way he does, well, it kind of hurts.
Mackey also praised Undertale's unique battle system, which combines traditional menu-based RPG mechanics with projectile-dodging reminiscent of a bullet hell shooter. There's nothing else quite like it in any RPG. Fox designed the system with the intent of keeping battles fresh and interesting, and it works for two reasons: The bullet hell sequences keep the player on their toes, plus monsters' personalities sometimes also manifest in their attacks. It's neat.
When I first played Undertale, I was so shook up, so turned upside-down, that I couldn't imagine anyone hating the game, ever. Then a good friend of mine tried it, and detested it. That was an important reminder that people's enjoyment of games is always, always subjective, no exceptions. It was also a reminder that anyone who's not a fan of old JRPG clichés like menus, random encounters, and squishy overworld sprites might have a hard time getting much out of Undertale, even though Undertale pokes fun at those tropes.
Even if you are a fan of every mundanity that powers JRPGs, you might find it's hard to go back to Undertale if you've already finished all three moral pathways Undertale offers – That is, Neutral (kill some enemies), Pacifist (hold off on violence of all types), and Genocide (KILL. EVERYTHING). Once you've picked the game's story down to its skeleton, so to speak, there's not much to re-visit. Playing through the game again a year later, I have to admit the game's puzzles are boring, and its graphics aren't anything you want to look over one more time.
Mind, going through any of Undertale's three moral pathways for the first time is incredibly intense. I never finished the game's infamous Genocide route because I couldn't bring myself to slaughter the characters I'd already made friends with twice over (okay, and Undyne demolished me, never mind even reaching Sans). When we talk about games we wish we could experience for the first time all over again, Undertale is my number-one pick. I want to go back and face off against Toriel for the first time. I want Flowey to rip through the fourth wall like wet paper towel, screw with my save files, and freak me out. I want to face off against the nightmarish abominations wasting away in the True Lab. Alas, I'll never get to experience those small, raw shocks ever again. Curse my healthy memory.
One popular bit of Undertale criticism that I still vehemently argue against is the accusation that its Pacifist system mainly exists to deliver a smug message of violence in RPGs, and video games in general. It's a valid point, but keep in mind you can't experience all of Undertale's story unless you finish every moral pathway. If you hold off from the Genocide pathway, you never learn about Flowey's identity and motivations. That's quite a story gap to leave open. In other words, if you don't turn into a murderous mad-person at least once, significant chunks of Undertale's story is withheld from you – and that's not even taking into account the hyper-hardcore boss battles you can only attempt if you plunge your toy knife into the left eye of every monster you meet.
Is Undertale a game worth trying out, even if you're not absolutely one-hundred percent sure you'll dig its JRPG heritage? Yes, absolutely. Better to risk the $10 and potentially click with the game's remarkable story and characters than to never take the plunge. Undertale's not a very replayable game once it gives up all its secrets, but that doesn't make it any less special the first time through.