Lots of people are talking about it (or at least were talking about it back when I started writing this post ages ago), but when asked, not many people will tell you anything about it. The common refrain is that it’s best experienced knowing as little as possible, and that’s true. However, it’s not exactly a convincing recommendation when someone says “this is the best thing ever but I won’t tell you why”. Thus, I’ll try my best to explain why Undertale is good, while remaining as spoiler-free as humanly possible.
Undertale is, at its core, a game that subverts your expectations. This is the principal reason that people are so reluctant to say anything about it, because even hinting at the nature of some of the better surprises in this game can ruin them. Will knowing that the game intends to surprise you spoil the surprise? I say no, because another one of Undertale’s strengths is that it never pulls the same trick twice. The manner of the surprise is also a surprise, if that makes sense.
Let’s talk about the story, in a non-spoilery way of course. The setup is pretty simple: Long ago, humans and monsters coexisted in the world. War broke out, and the monsters were driven underground and sealed in with a magic spell. The opening slideshow takes us to the present day, where a young child falls through a hole in the ground into the world of monsters. Now they have to get out.
That’s about all there is to the story, or at least the “surface” story. In my opinion, Undertale’s greatest strength is its layered narrative. The main plot that you experience as you play is only a frame for something much grander, and you could be forgiven for completely missing it your first time through. With a single playthrough only lasting about five hours, it’s something that you’re meant to play multiple times to learn all its secrets. Beware of searching too far, though – you might find something that should have remained hidden.
If this sounds confusing, don’t worry. The way forward is pretty clear, and the way the game does it is quite brilliant. This is a small spoiler: you are essentially guaranteed to not have a happy ending your first time through. It might be bittersweet, but it certainly won’t be perfect. This motivates the player to seek out a better ending, and a second run through the game makes the alternate paths quite clear.
This isn’t a “gimmick” game, however. Yet another one of Undertale’s strengths, which is a strength shared with many other great games, is it doesn’t simply start with a good idea and leave it at that. As such, it has one of my favorite casts of characters in video games. Like the story, the characters are layered – their initially one-dimensional but nonetheless appealing personalities show much more nuance when they react to the player’s actions. This is another way that Undertale shines: the way that the world and the characters respond to your choices has set the bar for any other games I play in the future.
And finally there’s the soundtrack. Man, where do I even start with the soundtrack. Unfortunately recommending a title simply based on the soundtrack to someone is rarely effective – often a person’s fondness for a particular track is deeply tied to the experience of hearing it in-game, and someone who hasn’t played it won’t have the same experience. Nonetheless, I have to say that Undertale’s soundtrack is extremely special. With over 100 tracks, it has a perfect balance sad, mysterious, tense, funny, and outright thrilling songs to fit the story.
Not only that, but it’s a soundtrack that I’ve only gained a greater appreciation for after finishing the game, as I came to better understand the talent behind it. Leitmotifs, or bits of music common between multiple songs, run wild in Undertale’s soundtrack, forming a wide web across almost all of the tracks. These can connect different locations or characters thematically and even foreshadow upcoming plot elements if you know where to listen. I’ve enjoyed many game soundtracks before, but Undertale’s took an already great game and made it legendary.
So that’s about all I have to say. Undertale is a game of surprises, but it’s also a game with some genuine heart. It’s a mere $10 on Steam right now, which is an absolute steal.
Oh, and avoid anything anything Undertale-related on the internet if you have even the remotest intention of playing it. Not only do spoilers run rampant, but the fandom of this game…