Talking to the monsters
Three years since its original release, Undertale remains a unique masterpiece. A game rooted in classic JRPGs but developed by an American, a JRPG that doesn’t demand a hundred hours of your life, and an innovative take on turn-based combat despite the key message being that no one has to die. At first glance, the game may look basic, even ugly, but it has more charm and beauty than most cutting-edge AAA titles can dream of matching.
Playing a human child who has fallen into the Underground, it’s up to you to find a way back up to the surface while encountering this world’s diverse population of monsters, who aren’t necessarily trying to hurt you. There’s traditional random battles but the way they unfold is anything but. Your attacks are fairly straightforward timed QTEs but when it comes to the enemy’s turn, these have their own unique variations which turns into a mini-bullet hell as your soul, represented by a red heart onscreen can avoid damage by dodging the white pellets and later a whole other barrage of shapes and colours.
But if this wasn’t enough to show up the old-fashioned turn-based battles, what really makes Undertale special is that you don’t even have to harm any enemies. This game really does let you ‘talk to the monsters’, or indeed a whole bunch of other silly contextual actions that may get them to leave you alone altogether. Given that it’s an overall short tale, the options to see multiple endings depending on your choice of play style gives you plenty of reason to play through it at least a few times, without the bloat of the grind. For those who grew up loving JRPGs but unable to commit the same length of time towards them, this is a huge blessing.
And the jokes. There’s honestly not been a game that’s had me genuinely laughing out loud at such a regular rate as Undertale, whether it’s all the meme-worthy gags from skeleton Sans to the moments it playfully subverts JRPG tropes, from the first time you try to sell your items at a shop to how even the supposed big bad is by all accounts a furry pushover. That the presentation is overall lacking is of little concern when basic dialogue boxes and basic animations are still able to communicate comic timing and sight gags so effectively.
But even though it spends a great deal of its time making you laugh, it also isn’t afraid to cross over to much darker tragic tones – in fact, the beauty is how well this is all balanced without any element distracting from or undercutting the other.
This isn’t the game’s first port to a handheld device – that would be the Vita last year – but once again, I know I’ve said this ad nauseum now, Undertale is a perfect fit on the Switch, all the more so given how the game’s eccentricities are so reminiscent of classic SNES JRPG Earthbound. If you haven’t already fallen in love with Undertale before, now is the perfect time to get to know all the denizens of the Underground.
One of the most original modern JRPGs of all time, and beatable at the fraction of the time. Once you get over its primitive aesthetic, you’ll soon realise why everyone else has been so captivated by Toby Fox’s creation.