Playing Undertale fills you with determination
Undertale's almost two years old. Yet I only bothered to play it this year. If you have a PS4 and never got it on PC, it was released this week. While the PC version will have been much cheaper while on sale, and runs on just about any hardware, if you really must play it on a console, now you can.
Why didn't I bother sooner? Hype is one reason. When it's that vocal — and with Undertale, it's near deafening — I always tend to do as Public Enemy instructed. The other is its resemblance to 16-bit Japanese RPGs (JRPGs). While I appreciate those games are much loved, I've never really shared that affection.
When I did actually get round to Undertale on PC, it happened to be on sale. I figured it was cheap enough to see if they hype was warranted and I wanted an escapist diversion from real world events. It seemed as good a game to try out.
Without spoiling too much, you're a human that finds yourself fallen down a mountain, and lost somewhere in the underground world of monsters. The rest of the game sees you journeying through to try and find some route home. Mostly this is done by exploration, although there are a few puzzles dotted along the way that need solving before you can progress, and monsters that you can fight. So much, so familiar.
But it's a wonderful game.
Those aspects of JRPGs that I never got on with are kept to a minimum. There's a minimum of backtracking. The random battles, a staple of that genre, that prevent you from walking more than a couple of footsteps — because swoosh swoosh swoosh TWO SLIGHTLY SURLY ENEMIES IN MATCHING OUTFITS APPEAR, and cue battle music — are thankfully omitted too.
When you actually battle, the system is novel: a mixture of strategy and shmup bullet dodging. Battles can even be avoided, and these options are left open to the player to decide. Both in and out of battle mode, the dialogue is predominantly witty and charming, and avoiding lazy territory, instead of prolonged and awkwardly translated.
Another thing that the game does well is, without any spoilers, is continually confronting you and challenging your expectations of the situations you're placed in, at times akin to what something like The Stanley Parable does in trying to break the fourth wall.
Without playing and without spoiling it, it's hard to convey that without being anything other than handwavingly effusive. Characters and combatants that only appear briefly don't just feel like they've been arbitrarily placed there, but like they have a real back story, even if that's not ever entirely revealed. And while the game has this rich assortment of characters, it also has character itself, full of soul and heart.
Fantastic Mr. Fox
Undertale's singular cohesion is likely because it was largely the product of one person's imagination, Toby Fox. And while its graphics are simple, but functional, it is a polished game, backed by an incredibly strong soundtrack also composed by the developer.
I've been fairly lucky that the few games that I've played through in recent years have been particularly good choices for one reason or another. Undertale's another, and one of the more memorable. It genuinely feels like an experience that would only work as a game, not a book or film. True, you could describe a similar journey with similar characters in print or on screen. But it's the act of playing through and having to make decisions on how you play through that's intrinsic to how it works and how it makes you feel; that's very different to a more passive experience.
Where many otherwise good games fail is extending their gameplay through repetition and tedium, churning out more of the same. Undertale avoids this, keeping the core game short and sweet, but giving you the opportunity to play through in a very different play style. I'll definitely look forward to revisiting that world in a few months. (That's a really strong compliment from me. I have so little time to play games these days that there are very few that I'd ever return to once I've played through.)
Undertale is the perfect game for a Sunday afternoon where rain is beating down your windows, a dull Tuesday where you're miserably plagued with cold, or maybe even a snowy Thursday where you have the luxury of being snowed in, unable to get to school or work, and are just warming up with hot chocolate after already having been out to play in the snow.
It's that kind of game.