Retro-styled games are not in short supply on Steam, from those using the art-style due to the restrictions of an indie budget to those who aim to push the boundaries of pixel-art and create refined amalgamations of classic mechanics. Undertale takes a very different approach to pushing boundaries, using old-school visuals and mechanics as the jumping off point for a very, very big dive.
The game’s format resembles that of a turn-based RPG, with a top-down world to explore, villages with side quests and turn-based battle-screens. Players have the option to fight or try to reach a peaceful solution. After the player’s turn they must guide a small heart on the screen, with challenges being thrown at the player in a fashion reminiscent of Warioware. These segments show influences from shoot-em-ups, dancing games and even Flappy Bird, making receiving enemy attacks an engaging experience. They are never simply just cheap, nostalgic recreations but instead create a unique and fun experience.
The world is enjoyable to explore, with plenty of towns, inhabitants and secrets. The layout, while giving the impression of an open RPG overworld, is actually quite linear. As the game begins, the puzzles, which are similar to those found in Pokemon gyms, feel unoriginal but they improve as the game goes on. Boss battles are similarly a mixed-bag, with solutions ranging from smart to obtuse.
Themes and music never stagnate as they develop every few screens. The soundtrack is a highlight of the game, providing sombre atmospheric tracks and catchy, funky tunes during boss-battles.
Where Undertale will shine for many is its daring narrative which touches on themes and techniques that are rarely seen. While some games do break the fourth wall, in this game there isn’t one to begin with. The commentary and self-awareness isn’t over-indulgent or pretentious and is usually funny or intriguing. Undertale is of a very small cohort of games that can call themselves comedies. The script hits all the right notes, with touching moments and laugh-out-loud jokes.
The overworld may be linear but the narrative is not and the game is begging to be replayed. Not only are there multiple endings, but the entire tone of the game changes depending on approach. Attempting to kill every enemy in the game has frightening consequences which seem influenced by videogame creepypastas. The game remembers everything you do across all playthroughs meaning that doing such a run will have permanent effects. Simply having an awareness of the cruelty and tragedy possible in the game gives Undertale great depth.