Are you a skeleton dater, or a skeleton hater?
If there's one thing Undertale isn't very good at, it's selling itself. “The RPG game where you don't have to destroy anyone!” proudly proclaims the Steam store tag-line, failing to recognise that while this is technically true and adequately sums up the game's most interesting system, it's a bit like selling Doom with the line “the FPS where you do the Lord's work on the surface of Phobos”; the connotations of the phrase all-but completely soil the appeal. Strictly speaking there's nothing wrong with supplying a pacifist approach in games - Thief II just wouldn't be the same if you couldn't ghost your way through it - but it's one of those things that tends to be in there just so people can say it's there, you know? “Hey losers, violence is for people too clumsy to get things done the right way. If you're a real hardcore gamer you'll do this without hurting a butterfly.” The unspoken words, as always, are “provided that you really like extra-hard, no-fun-allowed challenge runs where you spend most of your time either running away or hiding in cupboards.” Like it or not, most games are built around confrontation, and subtracting that confrontation from their formulas is like trying to play a game of Monopoly with no scrappy plastic money. Undertale isn't like that; it's the kind of game where pacifism is not only a completely viable approach, but also - in the landslide of majority of cases - much more fun than just pummelling things into submission.
Oh dear, that's not really selling it either, is it? Let's try again. Undertale is, to be as succinct, blunt and upsetting to fanboys as possible, the game I wished Earthbound had been. Technically speaking I suppose it’s a JRPG, an experience normally only matched by downing a bottle of antihistamine and trying to do your tax returns while somebody watches cheap anime in the background, but all the elements that typically come with that label - random encounters, levelling up, taking turns to punch floating numbers out of each other - have been either toned down or transformed beyond all recognition to uphold an adventure that's equally likely to leave you with an ear-to-ear grin or wake you up at four in the morning, drenched in sweat. You are a small, defenceless, expressionless child who has supposedly fallen into a subterranean world full of monsters - many of which try to kill you, but few of which actually want you dead, if you see what I mean - and your job is more or less to keep moving to the right until you find your way home. All very standard fare in the plot department for a fish-out-of-water fantasy, but the strength of the game's writing lies not so much in the narrative as it does in its characters, its sideshows, and the strange artefacts it leaves lying in your path. It's the kind of game that's difficult to write about because it stays afloat almost wholly on its ability to have something fresh and delightful around every corner, and to discuss such things in any significant detail would be like starting a review of The Stanley Parable with a binary tree diagram of every choice you could possibly make. I could wax on for at least another page or so about ******'s fight and how she ****** her attacks ******* **** if you ***** ***** *******, or about the extraordinarily silly ****** sequence with *********, or the utterly bonkers ****** ******** with ******** after he ********** the **** ****** ********. But like all the surprises in Undertale, they're best discovered by yourself. That's why this last bit is censored.
So let's move onto something I can actually write openly about without being incurably wracked with guilt: combat. You can, if you really want, just hit an enemy until they die, timing button presses for bonus damage a la Paper Mario, and that's all well and good if you're the kind of person whose sandwiches only ever contain cheese and a bit of margarine. Undertale makes it pretty clear, however, that you're missing out on the good bits. Every enemy you bump into has a highly distinct design, both visual and behavioural, and by opening up the 'Act' menu you can interact with them in various ways tailored to the enemy itself. Taking the pacifist approach usually means solving a lovely little character puzzle of sorts where you work out an enemy's grievance - usually with clues communicated through their appearance or actions - and take steps to calm or otherwise neutralise them: you might have to laugh at somebody's dreadful jokes in order to boost their self-esteem, play with an excitable monster until it falls asleep, steal the magic hat off somebody's head or just outdo them in a show of bravado. Outside of the boss battles you can normally just fumble your way through these puzzles by trying whatever your gut says sounds about right, but like pretty much everything else in the game, the relative simplicity of the systems is obscured by the overwhelming charm of the writing.
Of course, nobody's going to withhold their attacks while you work out their psychological issues for them. Rather than just standing there and taking a beating, the damage you actually take is determined by how many times you're hit in a little shmup-like minigame that pops up for a few seconds, where you must manoeuvre your soul - represented by a tiny pixelated heart - around projectile attacks generated by the enemies on the field. Attack patterns are usually themed around the enemies producing them - like, say, a pair of sentient vegetables showering you in bouncing eggplants - and can be combined together into some ferociously difficult patterns when you're up against multiple foes at once. It's a neat way of adding a hair-raising mechanical challenge into the usual mindless back-and-forth, and since the whole premise of 'dodge things to not die' is so simple and flexible, it forms yet another outlet for creativity in a game that already exudes it from every orifice. Projectiles can have any size, shape and pattern, so long as they can be dodged, and the variety in the monster designs means you'll be assaulted by the likes of boomerangs, inverted crosses, bars of soap, literal teardrops, throwing knives, leaves, jets of flame, and on one exceedingly rare occasion, actual bullets. At times it can get a wee bit annoying since the hitbox of your soul isn't immediately obvious, but since getting hit once or twice only takes off a few hitpoints at most, there’s usually not an awful lot at stake.