There are games that come screaming into existence, demanding that you play them. Games with loud and expensive year-long PR campaigns. You know the games I’m talking about. The Call of Duties. The Dark Souls. The games that demand you subject yourselves to their flames and gauntlets, to the virtual bullets whizzing past your ear as you pump your own rounds into nameless, virtual foes, each falling one after another to your might like dominos.
And then there are games like Undertale, which shyly introduced itself to me on a quiet September evening. I stared at headlines and tweets wondering what the hell this little game was that the whole world was suddenly chattering about with great enthusiasm. Intrigued by the game’s reception, I downloaded it and began playing immediately in spite of my skepticism about its JRPG influence. The genre has never resounded with me despite my many attempts.
The game places you in the shoes of a human who’s fallen into a hole in the ground and found themselves trapped in a kingdom of monsters. Your goal is pretty straightforward: escape to the surface. However, Undertale soon rises above its conventional premise by way of its wacky, endearing characters and its genius tinkering with the JRPG battle system that’s been the standard of the genre for several decades, appearing in Pokemon, Final Fantasy, and the quirky cult classic Earthbound.
Undertale doesn’t just ask players to simply choose whether to attack enemies or use items. Instead, it forces them to manually dodge enemy fire in battles by moving a heart avatar around the box-shaped battlefield. Different enemies have different attack patterns—a frog might leap around the box, a magician might cast a circular spell that moves around the area—and if you’re hit you lose some of your health. This injection of bullet hell gameplay is a smart way of keeping players invested in every second of each battle, instead of having them spam a combination of menu items until it ends, and it works rather well.
The other addition is a variation of a mechanic seen in Shin Megami Tensei, in which you can choose to placate enemies through negotiation instead of fighting them. In SMT you’re usually negotiating with them or paying them compliments, but a lot of the time it feels random more than anything else. One monster might reject your compliments or paltry bribe and use the situation to get a free hit in just because you’re unlucky. However, the monsters in Undertale are misunderstood beasts with their own anxieties and insecurities, which you can sniff out by “checking” them in battle and listening to their chatter. After that It’s up to you decide whether or not to spare them or simply strike them down once you’ve exploited their weakness. This is the crux of the game and Undertale allows you to determine what kind of person you are: gentle and understanding or hateful and murderous, and you better believe the game remembers.
Unlike most games that allow you to make choices that affect the story—such as Mass Effect and The Walking Dead—Undertale does not allow you the luxury of making decisions in a moral vacuum. The game judges you. It judges you harshly because every life has value. That monster you killed four hours ago? There was a way to beat it that didn’t involve raising your fist, and you failed to find it. Way to go, “hero.” While this will understandably aggravate a number of players, I found it refreshing to play a game that’s so confident in its own philosophy that it rejects the accommodation of perspectives its creator would find repugnant. Most games that have lethal/non-lethal paths stress that You Are The Player and You Can Totally Do Whatever You Want and Won’t Be Judged Harshly At All We Promise but Undertale refuses that notion, instead strongly encouraging you to find the peaceful option that will allow you to progress.
The game shows you the consequences of any violence you inflict. If you’re kind and deal with battles and situations gently and mercifully, you’ll be treated to the humorous shenanigans of characters like Papyrus and Sans, skeletal siblings fond of pranks, puzzles, and puns. Kill everything you come across and the world will be barren and angry, a blunt punishment of your quick temper and lack of patience. However, being non-violent doesn’t lead to sunshine and rainbows either. In spite of Undertale’s wacky sensibilities, the game has a bittersweet core. Its unexpected tragedy and pain urge you to see enemies as characters with their own hang-ups, not things to beat to death.
If there’s any major criticism to be levied at Undertale, it’s that the game doesn’t always abide by its own rules, especially toward the end. There are several difficult fights where no peaceful option exists except for surviving as long as you can, but given that the bullet hell segments of these battles can be absurdly difficult, it’s often a matter of retrying these sections over and over again until you luck out and survive long enough to be triumphant. This is directly opposed to the game’s emphasis on having the player search out how to end fights peacefully. These are frustrating roadblocks that distract from the game’s charms, but they are mercifully brief and ultimately a tiny flaw in a piece of work that’s put together exceedingly well.
This is a gem of a game, radiating with passion and consideration, that manages to celebrate its influences without becoming trapped by their shortcomings. It dares to expect players to be generous and kind and punishes them fittingly when they’re not. It’s bittersweet, and masterful in a way that many games aspire to be but few ever reach. Undertale is simply one of the few essential games of 2015, a joyous and strange test of character that’s ready to hold you accountable for every single thing you do.
Javy Gwaltney devotes his time to writing about these video game things when he isn’t teaching or cobbling together a novel. You can follow the trail of pizza crumbs to his Twitter or his website.