As I walked into the next room I immediately saw it coming. It was so playfully obvious, and despite its uncanny ability to catch you off guard again and again with its offbeat sense of humour, sometimes this game just can’t resist a big obvious joke. Undertale was about to parody one of the most iconic gaming moments of all time and not a punch was pulled. It was at once meticulously dedicated to paying tribute and hilarious in its lampoonery. I actually stopped playing to physically applaud.
But I can’t tell you anything about that scene. Or about much at all when it comes to this game. This is a game where every signpost hides a gag and every rock may be lying in wait to subvert genre expectations.
Over the course of an initial ‘Normal’ play through I have experienced joy, sadness, dread and, most of all, gleeful stupid laughter. This game is so rich with tiny details and odd little characters that you can’t help but get wrapped up in the world. In almost 9 hours of total play time I was never once bored.
If Earthbound was the first post-modern video game, Undertale is what happens when you take it one step further by subverting that which is already subversive. At the core of this is the fact that every battle can be won through pacifistic means. This approach is cleverly encouraged as the endless slog of hitting attack and dealing damage when trying to play it like a normal RPG is revealed as dull and frankly quite grim compared to the ever fresh cycle of negotiation and defence that plays out between yourself and the various characters you encounter.
Did I mention that defending in the game takes the form of an old school shmup? Its a mad idea, and proves both satisfying as a mechanic, and perfect as a medium for even more oddball creativity to make it into the game.
There’s actually a third ‘Genocide’ ending available if you choose to stubbornly play like its a normal RPG, but be warned, it’s intended to be a soul destroying ordeal by design. It may even prevent you getting the better endings permanently, because this game remembers everything. Reloading a previous save file to correct a past mistake will never quite clear your conscience as characters will have a vague recollection of what happened prior to your quickload; sometimes just a hint of deja-vu, sometimes something far more omnipotent.
I should probably end this section with another screenshot, but I really don’t want to spoil any of the good bits, so here’s only a moderately funny bit in the grander scheme of Undertale. You’ll have to take my word for it, but seriously, this isn’t even the funniest cooking sequence in the game:
If you’ve read this far you might be thinking this game sounds like a bag of ideas with no coherence, and it can feel that way on a Normal playthough, but when you start to truly invest in the game by pursuing the various goals which build towards the ‘True Pacifist’ ending does it start to reveal the painstaking care that the game’s creator has poured into creating scope for connecting and bonding with the strange characters that cross your path. This works to ground the game in surprising ways, working towards a true ending that is among the most satisfyingly coherent, complete and rewarding I have ever encountered.
And if all that promise of emotional investment and payoff isn’t quite your thing, haven’t you always wanted to play an RPG that lets you lie down next to a mute slime mould enemy and wiggle endearingly to try and make it become your friend?
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