Undertale Is A Triumph Of Indie Gaming

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“Boy, that is the ugliest looking game I’ve seen in a while.”

That was my first reaction to Undertale, a video game that was released on my birthday, September 15th, of 2015.  Although my opinion about the art still holds somewhat true, the charm of the character designs mostly winning me over, the rest of the game has earned my undying praise and respect.

Even when the art doesn't land for me, the jokes always do.

Even when the art doesn’t land for me, the jokes always do.

I was told very little about the game from the outset, and I didn’t really want to read anything that would ruin the experience.  A friend of mine said it was very reminiscent of Earthbound in tone and ingenuity when it came to the battle system.  Something about being able to completely avoid fighting enemies came as a real shock to me, and I had to try it for myself.  And you can.  You can play the entire game without killing a single soul.  In fact, the game actively encourages you from the outset not to hurt people, but rather talk with them, become friends, and spare them from harm.  It’s a incredibly unique and refreshing approach to the RPG setting.  Regardless of if you play the game as a fighter or pacifist, a small bullet-hell style minigame happens after each attack or attempt to talk to enemies.  Each of the monsters in the game has a different style of attacking that you must dodge between turns, adding a new element to each fight not seen in other games in this genre.  The pacifist route also has a different kind of difficulty, as you won’t level up and therefore won’t gain any more than your starting HP of 20.

Undertale laughs

Fights play out with your heart in a box. And a bird delivering jokes.

Undertale is indeed heavily inspired by Earthbound and you can see it in the art, how the battles play out, and most importantly, the writing.  The writing is absolutely phenomenal.  I felt a tinge of Super Mario RPG and the Mario & Luigi series throughout the game as well, as it constantly made me laugh and did things to keep fights fresh each and every time.  The music was swelling in all the right places, danceable in others, and parts even had me tear up a bit.  I don’t say that lightly either, because what was happening on screen wasn’t in high-def 1080p with excellent voice acting or amazing facial motion capture work.  It was pixel art and a text box.  And that made me cry.

I’m not sure I can stress enough just how good and engaging the writing is.  The character you control essentially stands in for you, like the old RPGs where the hero never speaks.  It’s the characters you interact with, their stories, their unique traits and individual plights, that truly draw you in.  The overarching story is both funny and heart wrenching, always using the right amount of both in all the critical spots.  With branching paths, the story can also turn extremely dark if you so choose.  The sheer depth in what you can accomplish is astonishing, especially when you consider it was nearly all done by one man, Toby Fox.

Undertale Characters

Much like Stardew Valley, another successful indie hit developed by one person, Eric Barone, Undertale boasts similar feats.  Fox even did the entire score, all of which is extremely memorable, harkening back to old SNES games and their extremely catchy tunes for each new area you entered.  Just listen to this, and tell me you aren’t pumped to start playing this game.  This is MENU music!

The slow building of additional instruments and elements happens as you progress through the game, reminding me heavily of Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island and it’s similar feature on the world map screen.  The music here is simply happy, inviting you into the world, and I always let it play through at least once every time I booted up the game.  And for some real emphasis on how the music can pack an emotional and memorable punch, listen to this:

The use of midi-style trumpets to create a fanfare of epic proportions is so excellently crafted here.  This is a theme fit for the leader of an army, and her salute could not be more accurate.  The first time it appears is not only amazing to listen to for musical reasons, but the way the hits are employed also makes for some excellently timed jokes.

I don’t want to spoil the game for you and I’ve kept exactly what happens in the story as vague as possible for that reason.  I’d be doing you a disservice ruining anything, it’s well worth playing.  It’s truly a masterpiece of modern video gaming, and it’s done in a style that comes from twenty years before.  It subverts your expectations at every turn, has a battle system that always keeps you on your toes, and employs some of the best writing I’ve had the pleasure to play through in years.  To think that the graphics nearly turned me away.  It’s the third indie game I’ve played in as many months, along with Stardew Valley and Hyper Light Drifter, that are comprised of either one person, or a very small dedicated team of developers.  It’s inspiring to see such extraordinary work being done without million dollar budgets and still managing to find ways to surprise me.  I can’t wait to see what comes next for Toby Fox.  I can’t wait to see what the indie gaming scene delivers in the future.

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