I won’t lie. When I first heard of Undertale‘s Kickstarter, as much as I liked the idea, the graphics immediately caused me to shut the page and forget about it. A lot of my non-gamer friends see some of the “ugly” games I play and think I’m weird, so by no means do I really feel like a graphics snob, but I do prefer something a bit more polished. I’m willing to admit that I made a mistake with Undertale though.
Like another Earthbound inspired game, actually getting my hands on the game won me over. I’d read very little about the game, but what I read enthralled me: a tutorial that was remembering people’s decisions, down to their resets, and confusion about how much the game really knew. It made it seem almost human. I immediately shut the page for fear of spoilers, and you should do the same thing. In fact, if this first paragraph is speaking to you, I advice you to go play the free demo right now. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.
Now, for those of you who are just coming back, or wondering what happened next, I’ll be upfront: the game toyed with my emotions very quickly. From the start, you learn that you can’t rely on the other characters telling you the (whole) truth. The controls feel awkward at first, but then you get your first fight and see that your defense isn’t the usual text based dice roll but a shoot’em up, Asteroids type mini-game. Attacks require you to strike a moving bar at the right point to inflict the most damage or… don’t attack. Just Act. Figure out what the enemy’s problem is and resolve it.
It’s at this point the minor niggling about graphics, controls, and certain map areas looking like bridges actually being oddly stylized support beams melt away completely. I actually forgot about these issues until one of the harsher (non-gamer) critics I referred the game to got back to me. Even then, they admitted that the soundtrack starts to hook you in. Everything clicks for a moment. You think you know everything. You get impatient with your progress and do something bad. You regret it and try to change it, and then it notices. Someone notices. Others are starting to notice your various actions, on various textual levels. The game feels like it’s watching you, and it’s playing with you. You’re technically alone, but the game feels organic, even though you know it’s programmed to be this way.
That is the best way I can describe Undertale. It is a hyper aware game that starts off simply, even a bit sloppy, but snowballs into a mountain of game, much like Earthbound when it was released. Both games have their own way of reaching out to the player with a mix of modern feeling settings and humor, but Undertale also makes use of ideas that those who enjoyed Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross will appreciate. I won’t go into details because they’re massive spoilers, but trust me on this.
Without a doubt, Undertale’s greatest strength is its ability to reach the player. Few games honestly will challenge your gamer identity directly, but with the weird, off-beat humor, it’s masked, like a baseball bat with pillows duct taped to it. This is a game you can let your kids play, and they’ll enjoy it, and probably obsess over it. I don’t like to link to videos made by minors, but the only voiced “Let’s Play” videos I’ve kind of enjoyed were by kids because they really get the game (even if they’ve seen some spoilers). Adults seem to be having fun with it too right now, as the game’s got a healthy dose of fan art and music within only a few weeks.
However, as an adult, the game really gets under your skin. I normally am critical of games that keep making me a child and emphasize the power of youth, but Undertale treats you like a kid in the most natural ways possible. You’re led through dangerous traps by the hand, put to bed, allowed to wear any gender’s clothes you like, have play dates, and even do some bad things that make you clearly dangerous, but you’ll still be treated as a redeemable youth. That’s something very rare in games. I think anyone who’s ever felt like an outsider, who’s done something wrong and was fully aware of how bad it was, will have quite a cathartic experience with the game.
And that’s why, in hindsight, the graphics for Undertale are probably just right. The simple touches tap into a nostalgia factor I usually feel immune to. The game becomes, well, comfortable. If anything, I wish I could play the game on my 3DS instead of just on my PC, though I know a few things might need to be changed if that were to occur. Combined with the humor, nurture, and a willingness to accept the player for who they are… I really can’t think of many games that do that without feeling preachy.
The only potential problem I see is that something with the game may make replays difficult. This is why I tell people to play naturally. It’s not a long game, and replays make it more personal, but “doing it right” the first time is wrong in my opinion. You’ll still have fun, but as someone who, without spoilers, almost played perfectly the first time, I couldn’t bring myself to do more than two playthoughs. This isn’t bad, because it’s helped me better understand why people watch Twitch and “Let’s Play” to an extent, and that’s important. The game has a nostalgic feel while also having a mechanic that practically encourages taking advantage of modern gaming trends in an inclusive, social way.
I don’t do this lightly. I’ve reviewed some big name games in the past, but I have to give Undertale a perfect score. That doesn’t mean the game is perfect, but the flaws it has are inconsequential when compared to the experience I and many others have had with this game. It’s as close to perfect as realistically conceivable, and I say that as a highly critical person. Because of that, I know some picky people, but this game has been easy to convince them to play and buy it. It’s really that good once you give it a chance. Undertale is the very definition of digital art, and unless your idea of games is limited to gaining levels and seeing a victory screen, it will move you.