So... I just got to the very end of this game and, Wow. I just had to give my wholehearted recommendation as soon as I can, because, I mean, wow.
I had pretty high expectations going into this game. I played the demo and even paid three times the minimum asking price into its Kickstarter. Still, it waaaay exceeded my expectations in a pretty incredible way. I had some doubts based on early previews, but I'm glad they did not turn out true.
Undertale is a game about love and compassion. It is an Earthbound-style JRPG in which violence is only an option. To put it in more blunt terms, it is an RPG—a genre where most conflict is resolved by violence modeled with numbers—where you can always just be nice to your enemies. On top of that, a lot of this game feels just as, if not more quirky and light-hearted than Earthbound itself.
The combat system in this game is surprisingly complex for such a light-hearted game. The by-the-numbers aspect of the usual RPG is abstracted into a simple pair of Attack and Defense numbers, but the actions of attacking and defending have borrowed from other, more action-y game genres. When you attack enemies, you have to play a mini game that looks like centering the ball in a bowling game. Opponent attacks come in the form of "bullets" that you have to dodge as a small heart symbol in a two-dimensional box, as if in a shoot-em-up game. These attacks are unique to each type of monsters, and learning the bullet patterns of enemies are vital in defending yourself.
On top of all of that, there is the Act system. You are given some options on what to Act upon a monster, which could be mean or nice things. This could usually be determined by first Checking them out for monster descriptions, or by common sense (I mean, insults are probably mean.) These Acts could affect the monsters' behavior and status, making them angrier, or weaker, or happier. These Acts can also eventually make them not want to fight you anymore, at which point you can use the Mercy options to spare them from fighting. Mercy also generally means that you do not want to fight monsters, and how this is to be interpreted in combat situations is surprisingly loose. However, not fighting the monsters also mean not getting EXP rewards that can increase your LV and make you stronger in combat.
This aspect of "combat" is the strongest point to the argument of the game: it takes a lot of effort to love everyone. I played this whole game wanting to be nice to everyone and it was not easy. The bullet patterns get all sorts of crazy and a LV 1 player eventually dies in under five hits. It is also never clear how you can proceed without hurting anyone, in contrast to the violent, but clearly defined "kill monsters to move on" method. This is far removed from most other games that have more "gamified" morality rules. Bioshock's binary moral choices come to mind, where choosing the "good" over the "evil" (in what is essentially a multiple choice question) would only mean different, maybe-more-valuable rewards. I have a feeling that good games tend to have these very clear morality systems because, well, that's just good game design. There is no reward for being nice in Undertale, other than good feelings and new friends. And what are those friends worth in game terms? Nothing.
But the game would be worthless without them. It is SHOCKING how much you get from making friends with your opponents. There is so much story to be uncovered by just being nice to people, and the writing is just delightful. It's sincere, and so, so corny. I can't remember the last time I genuinely laughed so much playing a gam—wait, I remember now. The answer is never. I have never laughed so much playing a video game. And it was not just laughter that this game got from me. My eyes really welled up at multiple points in the game. I even got spooked in some places. One thing I was afraid of when going into the game was the lack of "breathing room", that it would all be nice-nice saccharine bullshit 24/7, but it managed to pack a lot of breadth and ups-and-downs into a relatively short game (it took me about 8 hours to get to the end.) Every monster, and let me reiterate, have their own personalities, backstories, and personal struggles to learn about. Many, many times, I wondered if I would have seen most of it if I just killed everyone. I don't think I will ever find out, because I don't think I even have it in me to do that to any of them. All the stories have something to say about loving and being loved, and it's just... lovely, I guess.
The art direction of this game is another surprising part of this game for me. I saw a couple of the early Kickstarter previews and I was a little confused at how some of them just looked like they're from different game. This is where the tone of the writing really helps to establish that yes, this is a very silly and whimsical game, so don't be so surprised even when—SPOILER—a cute dog suddenly springs out of your pocket (SPOILER END). Honestly I don't even know if that was really a spoiler since there is simply no way you could see it coming either way. Anyway, that helps to turn the shock of things that look different into something positive, and it goes to really weird places. If you have played the game, you would know what I am talking about.
The music is, unsurprisingly enough, very, very good. I am not ashamed to admit that I have been such a fan of Toby Fox's music that I even wrote a college essay on some music he made.... OK, maybe half-ashamed. The range in fidelity and musical style that he employed is just the thing the game needs to become one coherent whole. I do have little bits of nitpicks about the sound effect quality and sound playback issues, but the ideas are in-place enough that they barely mattered.
So honestly, how much of that did you read? If you skimmed through that like I usually do with something so... long... then perfect. Don't even bother reading anything more about this game, please just play it! It has done something about love, compassion and non-violence in video games in a way that most games fail to do. It feels good, not just in my eyes and hands or my brain, but in my heart... I can't help but to feel sentimental after playing this game, haha. It's a nice game.