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A surface examination of Undertale might make it look like a charming if rather rote take on the traditional Japanese roleplaying game with a unique alternative to turn based combat welded on, but digging deeper will reveal a game that's rich with subtext and manages to cleverly undermine the tropes of the genre. This is a game that asks players to examine their behavior and rewards multiple plays. Match that with the gorgeous retro design style and the unconventional design of its characters and monsters, and Undertale shapes up to be one of the best indie games of this generation.
In terms of narrative, Undertale takes an eccentric approach to its fantasy setting that fits comfortably in the same class as the works of Lewis Carroll and the stranger of the Studio Ghibli films. You play a young boy who's tumbled down into a subterranean world where monsters have created their own society. The creatures here are drawn in a minimalist style, but their bizarre anatomies and especially strong writing on the part of the creators lends them a lot of personality. The world of Undertale is as much a society as it is a monster prison, and that notion colors everything that happens over the course of the game.
The natural response of players used to this genre will be to fight their way through hordes of monsters on the way towards their goal, and that's both a fun and viable option. Rather than prescribing to a traditional turn based combat system, Undertale's battles have you controlling your heart in what more closely resembles a bullet hell shooter like Galaga. While doing so, they have to choose between options that resemble a more traditional roleplaying game of this breed. You can slowly whittle down their health using a fight option, imbibe a variety of different tonics, and even surrender, but the truly revolutionary option here is the ability to engage with them directly. This option allows you to peacefully resolve your issues with the creatures, but it brings with it its own challenges. A variety of options are available to you, and finding the ones that will bring an end to the threat means coming to understand the monster's personality and properly ingratiating yourself to them.
Simply fighting your way through monsters is the easiest path to success, but it's also the least rewarding. Fortunately, Undertale allows you to play through the game multiple times, but it doesn't offer you mercy based off of the decision you made on your first experience. Monsters remember what happened before, and it will affect both the actions available to you and their verbal responses. As a result, Undertale is a game that bears repeating, and while the core thrust of the story is better discovered on the player's own, it's a touching reflection on the consequences of our actions and the value of empathy.
- Employs a retro art style that's truly gorgeous
- One of the cleverest takes on traditional RPGs in years
- Could turn off genre traditionalists
- Requires a huge investment of time
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