If there is an opportunity to go into UNDERTALE with little to no knowledge, it would be a massive disservice for this review to ruin that experience.
That being said, it is possible to start UNDERTALE with complete walkthrough-level knowledge and still carve out a personal experience that won’t be forgotten for a long time.
With that warning out of the way...
UNDERTALE, created and developed by Toby Fox, is an RPG with bullet-hell combat where almost every action makes a difference.
After a brief cutscene explaining the history of the world, the story opens up with the player having fallen onto a small bed of flowers in the ancient underground ruins.
A small flower, named Flowey, will greet the player and explain how the rules work in the underground.
This is the introduction to UNDERTALE's combat mechanic, which is referred to as the “bullet box”.
Flowey will explain that in the underground the stat LV, commonly the abbreviation for level in other RPGs, is actually called LOVE, and to gain LOVE the player needs to collect friendliness pellets which appear as floating white ovals that slowly fly towards the red heart controlled by the player while in the “bullet box”.
From this moment on it will be apparent that all but basic decisions will have a lasting effect on the world, because how the player reacts to Flowey's advice and actions will change the outcome.
That is part of what makes UNDERTALE so charming.
Every decision should be well thought out.
It is up to the player to either show mercy and befriend the monsters, or to fight and obliterate all enemies in their path.
The story of UNDERTALE follows the player throughout their journey as they explore the underground while trying to make their way back to the surface to be with their fellow humans.
On the way they will meet many monsters, such as a kind-hearted goat woman with excellent taste in food, a wise-cracking skeleton and his overly confident, if not mildly careless, brother who loves a good puzzle, an undefeated member of the Royal Guard who happens to dislike the heat, a shy genius with an addiction to anime and all things nerdy, and even a plethora of dogs as far as the eye can see!
As progression is made, the story will unravel and it will be made clear that these monsters have been trying to escape the magical barrier placed by humans after a war between the two races.
To do so they must use the SOULS of seven humans.
Each SOUL pertains to a different aspect of humanity.
PATIENCE, BRAVERY, INTEGRITY, PERSEVERANCE, KINDNESS, JUSTICE, and the player’s soul, DETERMINATION.
The monsters have harvested six souls of other humans who have fallen down into the underground, and the player's DETERMINATION is the last SOUL they need.
Using DETERMINATION the player will have to decide how to react to every monster they meet, and those decisions will follow them throughout.
Perhaps they will join a ghost DJ in their family traditions of laying on the ground and feeling like garbage.
They could violently murder an animated washtub and never be clean again.
Maybe they will donate to the cause of spiders by buying delicious eight-legged baked goods.
Any choice made will affect the game forever, and every player's journey can be slightly different.
UNDERTALE provides options for the player which will help grow or quickly end the relationships made, and provide a story that is truly their own.
The main gameplay mechanics of UNDERTALE take place within the form of combat, which has four options.
Fight, Act, Item, and Mercy.
“Fight” allows the player to select their target and go into a quick mini game that involves stopping a flashing white bar, which scrolls across the screen, in what appears to be the middle of a pixel eye, that determines their damage output.
This is also the only way to actively harm monsters.
“Act” lets the player check the monster to gain information, as well as providing different options depending on the encounter to influence the enemy in non-violent ways.
“Item” opens up a menu for the player to use health and non-combat items to affect either the player or the monster they are fighting.
“Mercy” gives only two options when available.
Spare or Flee.
Flee will let the player run from battle when possible and Spare will allow the player to end combat positively after certain conditions are met.
These combat mechanics provide an interesting puzzle like system to what would otherwise be a normal turn-based RPG.
Each enemy can be defeated without the use of violence, which was an important mechanic to Toby, creator of the game, and is masterfully achieved.
Between player turns the enemy may counter attack with a bullet-hell style mini game where the player controls a heart within the “bullet box”.
The goal, like all bullet-hells, is to dodge any incoming attacks.
Those attacks come in different forms as you fight different monsters.
As progression is made, new mechanics will be added on to enemy turns which change the way bullets are avoided, or even blocked, by changing the color of the players heart icon.
There are also changes to the enemy bullets, also color coded, that require different methods to avoid or sometimes grab the bullets.
This keeps the combat system feeling fresh, even with the unusually small play time to complete a single run-through, which is about six hours.
Outside of combat there are different puzzles, memory challenges, secrets to uncover, areas to unlock, and NPCs to speak with to learn more about the lore of the world.
As a special treat for anyone who has played UNDERTALE on a different system since its release in 2015, there is a secret boss that features special controls on the Nintendo Switch using the Joy-Con.
Audio & Visuals
The original soundtrack accompanying UNDERTALE is phenomenal.
Featuring a combination of chiptunes and instrumental tones, it’s easy to spend hours listening to the background music.
Each moment is carefully and expertly guided by song, and Toby often uses hints of familiar tunes to help the player reflect on past events and provide a familiarity to new experiences.
Most major enemies will have their own theme, and many players will find a theme that sticks with them long after their journey is over, often being hummed quietly to themselves while going about their day.
This is coupled with the sprite styled graphics that give each screen and character a charming yet definable look.
The color palette is vibrant and beautiful in the overworld while contrasting with a minimalistic black and white style during fights.
An interesting parallel to this is how fighting and shop menus show off drastically more character detail than their overworld counterparts, giving a reason to take in each display.
Artwork was designed by Toby, using MS Paint, with help from Temmie, who makes a special appearance in the game, as well as other artists using GraphicsGale.
The soundtrack for UNDERTALE can be purchased here and was written by Toby using Fruity Loops Studio.
UNDERTALE is a magical journey.
As stated in the spoiler section, going into this game with complete walkthrough level knowledge did nothing to distract or dilute the experience had during a playthrough.
There is something truly wonderful about this game and the feeling it leaves behind.
As a final word of advice, it should be stated that there are roughly three true endings to achieve.
A True Neutral ending, a True Pacifist ending, and a True Genocide ending.
A word of caution to the player looking to get the most out of their game:
UNDERTALE is touted as being a game that “remembers”, and it can be felt throughout multiple playthroughs.
Because of this, it is highly recommended by this reviewer that the True Pacifist ending, which requires that you spare everyone, be achieved first, as achieving a True Genocide or True Neutral ending can have a lasting effect on run-throughs that follow.
Doing so also creates an interesting emotional feedback loop for the players mentality as they go through a True Genocide run after creating bonds with the characters they met.
With this in mind, try showing mercy to the enemies first, and grow as a player, rather than a character.
You may just find yourself filled with DETERMINATION.
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