Along with our group-selected 2015 Game of the Year Awards, each member of the PC Gamer staff has independently chosen one game to commend as one of the year's best.
If the phrase ‘Final Fantasy VI opera scene’ doesn’t mean anything to you, that’s OK, I had to look it up on YouTube myself. Undertale’s references go deep, but it’s so much more than a JRPG tribute game. It’s a tribute to fans, really—a celebration of our sincere love for game characters and stories, without cynicism or judgment (outside of a few inward-looking jabs, maybe). Either that, or it’s a horror story. It depends.
Undertale can be a lot darker than it looks. You’re a kid who’s fallen into an underground realm of monsters who were banished from the surface and trapped there in a war the humans have long since moved on from. While you may want to help the monsters, it isn’t always easy, because they keep trying to fight you. Encounter a hostile monster and they’ll attack with bullet hell-style minigames, and on your turn, you can fight back—but you don’t have to. You might compliment their good looks, or choose not to pick on them, or just show them mercy whether or not they want it. Undertale doesn’t assume you’re a killer, and battles can be resolved without attacking—it’s like a whole game based on the final boss of Earthbound, as a friend put it. I sort of got the reference, and then looked it up to make sure I got it. It's apt!
Or you can just kill ‘em all. But how could you? The monsters all have great personalities—a vegetable who just wants to feed you, a depressed ghost, a dog who does dog stuff, a bumbling skeleton who loves puzzles—and the story is one of the most heartfelt this year. When it ended (I mean, really ended), it was like watching the Portal credits for the first time. Undertale will go down as having one of the best video game endings of recent memory.
It’s also a wonderfully inventive take on the RPG format, and an examination of games in general. Without spoiling too much, Undertale is always a step ahead of the player, predicting your next move and respecting the little decisions you make. Keep a disposable item for the whole game and use it at just the right time? It knows what’s up. And it also knows when to withhold resolution—when you get to the end, you may not find what you were looking for. It can take two or three playthroughs to really be satisfied with Undertale, and that’s how it’s meant to be. I highly recommend avoiding guides unless you’re really stuck, because it’s far more fun to go in unaware, making friends and figuring it out along the way—that’s really the point. Give it a chance to play with you, allowing its internal logic to stay hidden.
Undertale doesn’t take long to get through. It’s largely linear, though there’s some backtracking, and takes about five hours on the first go—quicker in subsequent playthroughs. The introductory area is a bit of a chore, and some of the bullet hell battles are a real pain in the ass, but it’s all worth the effort. The soundtrack is one of the best of the year, full of variety and emotion, and the graphics, while minimal, become comfortably charming over time (and get pretty flashy in certain instances).
Undertale is one of my favorite games of 2015 (maybe second to Rocket League), and I wholeheartedly recommend it. Getting the most out of it just takes a little determination.