In the modern era, a game’s hype cycle tends to go as follows. First, a game releases to great critical and audience reviews. It is the sole subject of media discussion for a short time. Once the next big thing comes out, the game fades into the background. Often upon revisiting these titles they don’t stand up to scrutiny. They were good, sure, but it’s easy to see how the hype cycle and marketing influenced the title’s popularity. These games might win awards, but they don’t stick around in the discourse of video games for very long. Not every title falls prey to this cycle, and one game that has stood the test of time after its release is Undertale.
When I think of a truly modern game – not due to technical performance but modern in themes and writing – Undertale is the game that comes to mind. Many people love it for different reasons. Some love the excellent soundtrack full of tunes which are both catchy and impactful. Others cite the cast of quirky and lovable characters. Still others may reference the messages and themes of the game, and the clever criticism of game design that Undertale performs. And then there are those have dived headfirst into the lore of the game world, the ones who have played every combination of endings and learned every secret the game has to offer. Regardless of why folks love Undertale, this indie title managed to stay firmly lodged in the minds of gamers even when bigger-budget games failed to accomplish the same.
Now Toby Fox – along with a much larger creative team – has revealed his next project, a game called Deltarune. He released for free a first chapter of the game, a demo of sorts that introduces the characters and world as well as the game mechanics. Having now played through the chapter twice, I wanted to share my thoughts on the game and how it both resembles and differs from its spiritual predecessor. If you haven’t played Deltarune yourself, I highly recommend you check out the demo on your own at deltarune.com. This article will include SPOILERS for the first chapter; I’ll be diving first into the game’s mechanics, and then talk about story afterward. So if you want to know about the gameplay without any story spoilers, you can read the next section safely.
Deltarune shares more in common with Undertale than just the letters in its name. When it comes to gameplay, a lot of the core essentials remain the same. You move around an overworld with the arrow keys and press ‘Z’ to interact with objects or characters in the environment. ‘C’ opens a menu where you can check your items, your stats, or make phone calls. ‘X’ cancels out of menus, and holding it down while you move makes you run. One small change is that you can now take harm in the game’s overworld. When you’re near something which can heart you, the screen changes so that your SOUL (still a small red heart) is clearly visible and your health bar appears at the bottom of the screen.
A little about the overworld without diving too heavily into story just yet – there are two distinct worlds in Deltarune, Chronicles of Narnia -style. In what I’ll call the light world, you have the same starting stats as in Undertale and you won’t face any combat situations or circumstances which could cause you damage. In the dark world, you’ve got a lot more health to burn and gain the ability to equip weapons and armor. The dark world is where all of your combat, trap-avoiding, and puzzle solving is going to go down. At least in the demo, it is.
Combat is the differences from Undertale begin to become more substantial. You still have a battle menu with the option to fight, act, use an item, and spare enemies. You also now have a defend command, and defending on your turn reduces the damage you take as well as increasing your tension points. Fighting works similarly to Undertale in that you have a small timing minigame which determines the hitting power of your attack. Acting still allows you to check enemy stats or to take actions which can pacify them rather than kill them outright. An enemy so pacified can be spared in order to defeat them non-violently, which still grants no EXP but nets you some money to spend (called D$, or dark dollars).
As you can clearly see in the pictured combat tutorial, you’re no longer fighting from the player character’s perspective – these battle scenes are closer to Final Fantasy than Dragon Warrior this time around. This also allows you to see that you can now have multiple party members on your team. Each party member has different abilities to utilize during combat, with the Act ability being unique to the player character while your partners can use Magic. Magic costs tension points, which as I previously stated are obtained by using the defend action in combat. You also get a couple of tension points from attacking, and more if you time your attack properly. There’s another way to gain them, though, and this is where the “bullet hell” aspects of Undertale come into play.
When an opponent chooses a party member to attack, their SOUL is pulled into a battle window where the arrow keys are used to dodge enemy bullets. This is classic Undertale, but there’s one major change – you are now rewarded for allowing bullets to just barely skim past you. This is indicated by a white heart outline that appears when you perform this technique successfully. Allowing bullets to brush so close to you builds your tension points, and this is your primary method of obtaining them if you focus on acting rather than fighting.
Adding party members to the mix spices up the way you can solve problems in combat. Your act command often includes special orders you can issue to allies in order to perform more powerful actions. This allows you to potentially make a whole crew of enemies vulnerable to being spared all at once. You can also use your allies to spare someone on the same turn that you act on them – having your main character compliment the enemy and then spare them immediately with your partner gets enemies off of the field faster and makes combat safer for you. Just like in Undertale, it’s possible to spare enemies who have been weakened by the fight command – one of your allies has a spell for putting enemies who have been worn down into a state of sleep, rendering them defeated without killing them.
Where Undertale was a little unclear as to whether or not it’s proper to fight or act, Deltarune very much encourages the nonviolent route. You can ignore those instructions and go through the demo/first chapter by fighting everything until its HP drops to zero, but you still don’t kill enemies or gain EXP. It’s unclear if that’s how things are going to be in the full game – one might assume this would carry over from Undertale, but the messaging of Deltarune is that your choices don’t matter, so perhaps this applies to the inability to kill enemies in combat as well. Fighting does change the outcomes of certain moments in subtle ways, and perhaps these changes would be more significant if given the full length of the game to play out. As it stands, the differences between fighting versus not in Deltarune are more like the differences between a violent or peaceful neutral run of Undertale rather than the differences between pacifist and ‘genocide’ runs.
This brings us, I think, to the story section of the discussion. If you intend to avoid story spoilers until you play the demo yourself, this is where you’ll want to say farewell. If you’re here for story spoilers, well then – let’s press on!
The chapter opens on a character creation segment where you can choose a head, body, and legs for your SOUL’s vessel. You then customize their personality by choosing favorite food and color, as well as describing some of the vessel’s qualities. The answer options here range from funny (such as choosing ‘C’ as its favorite blood type) to disturbing (such as stating that the emotion you feel when looking at the vessel is fear). Regardless of what you choose, the vessel is ultimately trashed and you end up playing as Kris, the game’s protagonist. This is a funny moment and likely a criticism of the meaningless choices that many character creators give you – why does your appearance matter in a first-person title? Why name a character whose personality is going to be the same no matter what you name them? Whether or not this criticism is intentional, this moment is the first time that we are introduced to the idea that your choices don’t matter – a pretty grand departure from Undertale, a game that was all about different outcomes based on the player’s decisions.
Deltarune stars an ambiguously-gendered character names Kris (get used to anagrams) who is the seemingly-adopted child of Toriel and Asgore. These aren’t the characters as Undertale veterans understand them, though. The light world of Deltarune features many familiar faces from the world of Undertale, but few if any are the characters you know them to be, and it doesn’t seem that their lives were affected by the events of Undertale. Alphys, for example, is a schoolteacher, and while she’s still a closet nerd her opinions about anime have changed somewhat. She also has no connection to Undyne, who appropriately in this world is a police officer. You get very little time with these characters before the end of the chapter – you see them just long enough to form questions in your mind, and then the story continues on.
You, as Kris, are sent along with another student named Susie to get chalk for Alphys’s classroom. Susie is the classic 80’s “bad” kid with a dark edge that promises some very intense scenes in the full game if you portray Kris as violent and hateful rather than kind and pacifistic. She teeters on the edge of misunderstood and broken, and it feels as if you have the power to push her in one direction or the other. She is the one who falls with you into the dark world via the school’s supply closet, and the closest thing that Kris has to something familiar in the alternate world.
Once in the dark world you meet Ralsei, a prince of darkness with a kind nature. Ralsei serves as the shoulder-angel of the party, encouraging Kris and Susie to play nice with enemies and using spells to heal the party and pacify enemies. His cute aesthetic and sweet personality make him a charming character to have in the party – his earnestness is balanced by a wit which makes his dialogue fun to read even when it can trend towards being overly-sentimental.
Your main opposition for the majority of the first chapter comes from a young spade named Lancer, whose father rules the Card Kingdom. If you’ve played Undertale, Lancer’s character will feel quite familiar as he shares many qualities with Papyrus. He is driven to stop you in order to prove himself to someone else but ultimately is looking for validation and companionship. He finds that in Susie, who joins him for a time as a villain before finally returning to the party. Lancer captures you to prevent the inevitable confrontation between Kris and his father, not wanting either party to be killed. In the end, though, his father’s cruelty motivates him to create an opening for the party to battle and defeat the Card King.
Lancer’s similarities with Papyrus were originally a bit of a turn-off for me, and overall I felt like the first journey through the dark world too strongly resembled the Snowdin leg of Undertale. I think his relationship to his father and ultimate willingness to turn against him help to make Lancer stand on his own, and as long as future chapters of the game don’t tread similar ground as characters like Undyne or Metaton then I think overall this isn’t too much of a concern. Many sequels – spiritual or otherwise – can feel overly familiar to the source material until they have time to build up to the aspects of the story which are unique.
Interestingly what doesn’t feel familiar is the light world. Despite sharing a number of characters from Undertale, their new roles in a more “traditional” society as well as the changes in their relationships makes Deltarune feel unique. Why are Toriel and Asgore separated? Why did Sans move to this quaint little town? Why did Alphys start setting out bowls of milk in a dark alleyway before she knew a cat would drink it? Kris’s family drama and their connections with the mayor and her family feel promising, and I can imagine that Deltarune will be a game where the “boring” real world is as compelling – if not more compelling – than the fantasy world.
Deltarune left me with a ton of questions, not only about the Undertale characters and their roles in this new world, but about what we can expect from future chapters of the game. Will it always be impossible to gain EXP by fighting and killing enemies? How will Kris’s emotional journey influence Susie and her actions? Does Ralsei have a connection to Asriel outside of name and appearance? And what the heck happened at the end of the first chapter? All of these questions are accompanied by one answer, the one certainty I did draw from the experience: I definitely want this game!
What are your thoughts on Deltarune, adventurers? Have you checked out the demo yet? I’d love to hear your thoughts about the story or gameplay in the comments below. From what I’ve read online, it looks like we’ve got a long wait ahead of us for more Deltarune action, but this demonstration has firmly fixed my attention on Toby Fox and his crew as they continue to work on this project.