I finally played Undertale and I learned monsters have feelings too

backlog undertale logo 2

There have been many genre-defining indie games throughout the years and Toby Fox’s Undertale is certainly one of them. Its popularity has lead to merchandise, console ports, and even a spiritual successor called Deltarune that will be arriving on the Nintendo Switch and PS4 later this month. Ahead of its release, I decided to finally play Undertale and what I found was a surreal dream.

No one has played every video game. Not even the experts. In Backlog, Digital Trends’ gaming team goes back to the important games they’ve never played to see what makes them so special… or not.

I have a bad feeling about this

I’ll never forget the day Undertale first released on PC. Everyone was talking about the new RPG with its strange story, quirky characters, and bizarre combat choices. Despite its simple appearance, Undertale offered players an interesting new world where their choices in battle determined what kind of ending they would get. With enough determination and careful decision-making, you could finish Undertale without inflicting any harm, and it was causing waves.

undertale screenshot

Following a story in a world where humans and monsters once lived in harmony, a great conflict arises starting a war between them. Humans emerge victorious while the monsters are banished and sealed away in a place called the underground. The only way for monsters to escape is through a magical barrier that requires seven human souls to be opened.

With enough determination and careful decision-making, you could finish Undertale without inflicting any harm.

As a human that’s fallen into the underworld, it becomes your mission to find a way back home. But the underground is dangerous and unpredictable, and you’ll have to travel through many places and interact with all sorts of characters that may help you or have it out for your soul.

This is a lesson you’ll learn early on as the first character you encounter in Undertale is a seemingly harmless flower that you’ll exchange pleasantries with. But the conversation quickly turns dark when its smile turns into a grimace and it threatens you with the words, “In this world, it’s kill or be killed.”

Friend or Foe

The best part of Undertale’s journey is the random encounters and scripted battles that impact the path you take. I was determined to take the Pacifist route and that meant that I couldn’t kill anyone. Whether I was faced with the most innocent enemy or the mightiest and most ruthless villain, all I could do was respond in different ways to the monsters I was faced with.

In one encounter, I complimented a frog that, even though it didn’t understand me, was flattered by it anyway. In another, I helped a couple of knights realize there might be love between them and even helped a mermaid fulfill her dream of becoming a singer.

While the way you approach each monster in Undertale is unique, battles usually follow a very similar format. Whenever you’re being attacked, a small heart inside a box will pop up on the screen that you’ll have to repeatedly defend against all sorts of attacks. You’ll do this until the monster dies, escapes from the battle, or refuses to attack you any longer.

Idle movements and facial expressions as I thought about my next action made each enemy feel real.

What’s interesting about the Pacifist path is that you earn no experience whatsoever so you end up stuck with the same amount of health you started with. Instead, you’ll need to rely on items to increase your defense and gain special attributes like healing one health point per turn or moving faster. This made combat incredibly difficult at times, but the interactions were always memorable.

That’s what’s so satisfying about fighting monsters in Undertale — it makes you think twice about your actions. In most RPGs, I would not hesitate to slay a slime or a dragon. But in Undertale, I grew to love finding new ways to avoid hurting enemies and finishing the game without hurting any monsters was immensely rewarding because of it.

Weird, but in the best way

Both the art direction and the soundtrack in Undertale deserve praise. The visuals have a very similar style to Earthbound and there’s a lot of impressive elements that make it stand out. Even with its 2D pixel art style, small details such as enemies making idle movements and facial expressions as I thought about my next action, created encounters that made each enemy feel real. Camera angles and screen effects prior to boss fights create atmosphere and add intensity to combat sequences.

The music in Undertale compliments the experience in ways that only a few games have achieved. There’s a tune to match every crucial moment and songs for even the silliest situations. One of my favorite jams takes place at a snail race that I stumbled across accidentally while exploring. If you bid on a snail, you’ll hear a track called ‘Thundersnail’ that sounds just like something you’d hear in an old arcade racing game. Every song serves a purpose, either by perfectly complimenting the personality of an enemy or by using some element of nostalgia, making every moment memorable.

As someone who jumped into this blind, I’m just now discovering secrets and special encounters I missed in my first run.

Sure, Undertale is an experience that goes to some weird places. It may seem random at times but in its sporadic story hides interesting lore and an unfolding narrative that changes based on your decisions. Its thoughtful dialogue pushes players to see enemies as more than just monsters to be slain. Its art and soundtrack still hold up even years after the game’s release. All this to say that Undertale is far more memorable than any RPG I’ve played recently.

As someone who jumped into this blind, I’m just now discovering secrets and special encounters I missed in my first run. There’s also an entirely different path for me to try that will challenge me to face Undertale’s monsters with weapons instead of using words. I’m unsure whether I’ll be able to muster up the courage to confront the characters I’ve grown so fond of — but what I do know for certain is that I’m excited to find out.

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