I neglect my Steam games far too frequently. I own almost ninety of the damn things. I’ve played perhaps a handful of them; beaten only a scant few. However, the desire to acquire games remains strong within me, an addiction that Valve is only too happy to enable through their periodic and highly gamified Steam Sales.
I’ve been very good this year during the Steam Winter Sale! I haven’t yet purchased a single thing! Some of my friends and students, on the other hand, have been gifting me yet more games. Well, that doesn’t count, right? If I didn’t buy them? Of course not. And obviously, if someone has spent a bit of coin on a game to bring me joy, I most certainly owe it to them to play the game right away!
One of my students bought me Undertale, a game that has been on my Steam Wishlist since I read a very positive review of it in my October Game Informer. The review was rhapsodic in its praise of the game, but gave few specifics, explaining that too many details would ruin the game’s surprises. My interest was piqued, but I forgot about it until the game appeared in my inventory last week.
As I was stuck at my family’s house for Christmas, and I was experiencing a deadly combination of jet lag, insomnia, and being forced to sleep on the living room floor, I played a lot of Undertale in lieu of slumber.
I would argue that playing Undertale might have been better than sleeping.
The game, by indie developer Toby Fox, was a successfully-funded 2013 Kickstarter project. Fox’s goal was $5,000. He received a total of $51,124. He developed every aspect of the game on his own, a process that took a little over two and a half years. The finished game was released in September of this year, at which point everyone who played it collectively lost their shit.
The Game Informer review had the right idea; if I reveal too many details about the plot and a few of its gameplay aspects, some of Undertale’s mind-blowing charm will be irrevocably sullied. I think, however, that I can share enough to build a compelling argument as to why you (and everyone you know) should play this game right now.
The jumping-off point for the plot is that long ago, humans sealed the monster race underground with magic. You play as a small, pudgy human child of indiscriminate age and gender who has fallen from above into the world of monsters. The game chronicles your journey to return to the land of the humans. While on the surface this seems pretty straightforward, the game quickly breaks its 8-bit RPG mold, bending genre conventions and slyly breaking the fourth wall in in startling and unexpected ways. What sorts of ways? I’m not going to tell you. You’re just going to have to play the damn game and figure it out for yourself.
If you yet stubbornly cling to your skepticism, here are some other reasons that you should play this game that I am actually willing to share.
For one thing, the game is hauntingly beautiful for an 8-bit game. Fox made some really lovely design choices, letting the limits of the retro art style work for him. Exploring Undertale’s environments is a magical, otherworldly journey. Adding to this dreamlike quality is the truly excellent soundtrack. I’m very fond of 8-bit music, and Fox’s beautiful work stands among the greats, with tunes that evoke in me an excitement and wonder similar to the soundtracks of the early Final Fantasy games. This is high praise indeed, and lest you think I hyperbolize, give this track a listen.
The gameplay is equally compelling. Simple puzzles and interesting dialogue interactions encourage you to take a look at everything in this weird, wonderful, and frequently humorous world.
Like the RPGs of old, Undertale has random encounters, though never so many that they at any point become tedious.
Although the battle system is ostensibly turn-based, it adds a few fascinating wrinkles to that tried-and-true RPG standby. Most interestingly, there are lots of options in combat that do not involve actual fighting. Negotiation is possible with your enemies, though you need to take into account their personal proclivities in order to get anywhere, in a diplomacy system not unlike the demon negotiations present in most of the core Shin Megami Tensei games.
In addition to having a great many unique combat options, the battle system itself is not purely menu-based. After you select an option, you must stay on your toes to dodge the attacks of the monsters you encounter in fast-paced tiny levels of miniaturized bullet hell.
Some of these attacks are pretty tricky to dodge (and frankly, I suck at them), but it makes for tense and fun battles that rarely become too frustrating.
I have thoroughly enjoyed every minute of my time with Undertale so far. It constantly surprises me, a rarity in RPG games. Spending time in its ethereal, pixelated environments reminds me of my earliest experiences with interactive entertainment, filled constantly with delightful surprises and strange beauty.
You have absolutely zero excuses to avoid playing this game. It isn’t too terribly long, it will run on almost any computer, and it’s on sale RIGHT NOW in the Steam Store. Really, go buy it right now. Play it. Be transported. Stay determined.