Most Japanese-style role-playing games have a clear group of protagonists fighting a group of antagonists. The heroes of “Final Fantasy VII” are a clear resistance group fighting against an obviously tyrannical corporation. “Mother” sees a group of youngsters fight an evil and strange alien menace. Occasionally the odd game like “Shin Megami Tensei” might mess with the setup, but there’s always a clear hero and villain.
That isn’t always the case in “Undertale,” an indie role-playing game about two races who fought each other long ago: humans and monsters. When the humans emerged victorious, the monsters were magically sealed underground. You play as a young, player-named human kid who accidentally finds his way on the wrong side of this barrier, and must make his way home without getting killed by any of the monsters.
Note that I never mentioned that you have to kill anything in that last paragraph, and that is important. A key mechanic in “Undertale” is that every monster has not only a physical weakness, but a social one as well. By exploiting those social weaknesses (be it through threats, or flirting, or gifts) monsters can be spared instead of killed, rendering them non-lethal to the player.
It’s a system similar to games like “Shin Megami Tensei IV,” where monsters can be recruited instead of outright fought, but it’s a lot more intuitive and easy to grasp in “Undertale.” Finding a strategy to befriend a monster can be just as difficult, if not more so, than killing it. Non-lethal runs of “Undertale” require a lot more out-of-the-box thinking than RPG fans may be used to.
Of course, if you’d rather just kill every monster you see, go ahead. While the endings of non-lethal and genocidal runs are radically different, neither of them should be neglected. Playing “Undertale” as a warrior is a far different experience than playing “Undertale” as a diplomat, and that inherent choice in mechanics lends the game the ability to be replayed.
This game is really funny, too. Don’t mistake that for a lack of emotional depth. This game carries the kind of weight that makes “Mother 3” players weep, but the underworld is packed with character. It makes sense that if you’re going to talk through every battle instead of fight, the monsters should at least have some entertaining things to say, and they do. A few of their jokes are cringe-worthy, but it’s always endearing, like a father telling his kid an awful joke.
“Undertale” is often a very powerful experience, whether or not you decide to play it peacefully. It’s mature in its storytelling, but also has a bit of childlike innocence and nostalgia to it. The combat system is fresh — borrowing “bullet hell” mechanics from games like “Ikaruga” — but it’s not that that sells the game. It’s the strong writing and the complexity of its kill-or-don’t-kill system that makes “Undertale” worth playing, and if you can spare ten bucks and a weekend to play it, you should pick it up.