WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD.
All images in this post are from my playthrough.
(note: text that looks like this beneath screenshots is my personal commentary as I played the game)
I’ve played a lot of Undertale.
I wouldn’t say too much. Over 20 recorded hours on Steam isn’t that much. And nine runs really isn’t that many.
What really drew me in to play for all that time was Undertale’s vibrant world, the gorgeous soundtrack, the relatable characters, and the utterly crushing, compelling, and (literally) heartbreaking story.
The news that Toby Fox was releasing a free “demo” of his new game made me immediately download the game file from the cryptic launch site. Deltarune was developed and published by Toby Fox, and I played it on my laptop computer after I downloaded the volume called SURVEY_PROGRAM_MACOSX_ENGLISH from the launch website. I fangirled for a good solid hour and a half with my roommate (this is all without either of us actually opening the game). We were ecstatic that a new installment of Undertale had arrived.
After experiencing Deltarune…I feel full and empty at the same time.
As someone who has played a lot of Undertale, I continually reflected upon how the two games connected throughout my run of Deltarune. Familiar characters reappeared, the colorful and thoughtful world design persisted, and the characteristically dry and esoteric “Toby Fox humor” permeated the entire game with its all-too-familiar stench of broken dreams and butterscotch memes. Deltarune’s soundtrack was snazzy, though not as memorable as Undertale’s soundtrack (though, to be fair, I have listened to Undertale music much longer than Deltarune music). I felt like I was home. Toby Fox had re-opened the door to the Underground and let me back into his curated game world.
In many ways, I was back, and it was better than ever.
I laughed and gasped and smiled as I played the hero I aspired to be in Pacifist runs of Undertale, with the added bonus of directly influencing several characters in battle scenarios. Deltarune features a party battle system in which the player must make several decisions based upon multiple heroes and personalities, as opposed to Undertale’s single player action screen. This adds multiple levels of complexity – additional opportunity for strategy, the need to account for strengths and weaknesses of each character, and group dynamics as the group fights as one. Additionally, Deltarune pays great attention to details in the items and character attributes screen, with added layers of characterization and customizability in order to prepare you for battle. The updated game interface and mechanics, plus familiar plot and characters, made Deltarune whole.
Yet, I felt unsettled. Something in the coding, perhaps? The storyline, the characters, the music? The fact that everything seemed very much the same both comforted and disturbed. Every reference to Asriel, striped shirt, flower, and “enemy” encounter felt comfortable yet wrong. “Deltarune” is an anagram of “Undertale,” the dark prince “Ralsei” is an anagram of “Asriel,” and the name of your playable character “Kris” is an anagram of Undertale’s playable character “Frisk” minus something…are these indicators of connection, broadeners of meaning, or as additional ways to manipulate one’s perceptions of Deltarune vs. Undertale? Small details, like the creepy rusted cage at the foot of Kris’ bed at the beginning of the game, paired with all of the familiar elements a la Toby Fox, coat this game in a thin film of dissonance – especially if you have played Undertale extensively and have engaged in its lore and details.
When you approach Deltarune, it’s important to remember that it is a separate game with a storyline separate from Undertale.
Toby Fox has stated that this game is not a direct continuation of Undertale’s storyline. This game may be played without having played Undertale first, although the site from which you may download the demo states plainly that it is intended for people who have completed Undertale. In a sense, the creator’s inclusion of familiar elements is brilliant, as this game readily pulls in fans and supporters of his previous game and still attracts newcomers to play both Undertale and then Deltarune. It is difficult to determine how closely connected the universes of Undertale and Deltarune are – we will all have to wait until the full version of Deltarune is built (the Halloween free release is technically only chapter 1 of the full game).
In Deltarune, you play as a human child named Kris who falls into another realm (from inside a supply closet) with the school delinquent/bully Susie, a purple-colored monster with a penchant for eating chalk, beating/threatening to beat people up, and generally being rude. You meet a fluffy creature named Ralsei, who claims to be the prince of the realm and states that you and Susie are the heroes meant to restore the balance between Darkness and Light. You traverse the landscape, encountering various monsters that you may or may not fight, opening item chests, and solving puzzles as you progress through different areas on your journey to the tyrant king’s castle. You meet many characters, including a bearded puzzle piece, a coat rack, a “hunky” incompetent duke, a checkers piece, and the king’s eccentric son, Lancer, (potentially) making friends along the way. The objective of your travelling party is to seal the new dark column and return home.
The theme of dark vs. light strongly persists throughout this game. In Undertale, the fight was between the Humans (who live in the light above) and the Monsters (who live in the dark below). In Deltarune, the “protagonists” live in an above region that includes both Humans and Monsters, while the “antagonists” live in a below region that consists solely of monster-like creatures. The legend which Ralsei tells Kris and Susie has its foundations in the dichotomy between the Dark and Light coexisting in a delicate balance. The party of three that travels through the Dark realm has a representative from each plane of existence – Susie from the “Light,” Ralsei from the “Dark,” and Kris, the neutral traveler whose position within the game is a controllable, speechless husk that gains autonomy only through player choice and action.
However, the world of Deltarune cannot be divided in a perfectly black-and-white, good-and-evil manner. Lancer literally announces himself as a bad guy (Hohoho!!!), yet is a total goofball. The characters “representing” each realm (in a broadly-sweeping generalization) exhibit very different personalities. Susie is brash, mean, eternally pessimistic, and disturbingly murder-y, while Ralsei is sweet, innocent, perpetually hopeful, and disgustingly naïve (before instances of plot development). These two act as direct foils to each other in a very forced, artificial way, which causes great tension as rhetoric about what it means to be a “true” “hero” drives the plot. There are both “good” guys and “bad” guys in both realms, and neither place is necessarily “good” or “bad” – just driven by individuals making decisions that further desired ends. There is even a game mechanic of warning enemies about bloodthirsty Susie if you as the player do not wish to fight “enemies.”
I feel that it is worth examining this division further, though I believe that it can only be explored properly once more of Deltarune’s story is written. This dimension of the game, plus all of the unsettling feelings, is the foundation of the game. Knowing the plot twists in Undertale, Deltarune will surely use this as a mechanism of major plot points.
As I played, I thought a lot about the concept of choice in gameplay. As Kris, you control Susie and Ralsei’s actions in battle. But does Kris really have power? The player is really the one who controls this character within the game world, as is the case when one plays as a character in a game. However, there are segments in the game where you are continually reminded that Kris and you as the gamer are not in control. The opening to the game prompts you to “create a vessel,” from favorite color and food to favorite blood type. However, this is all an illusion, as the game’s scrolling text informs you:
Your answers. Your wonderful creation. Will now be discarded. No one can choose who they are in this world.
Additionally, in acts of bullying, Susie informs everyone that their choices don’t matter, particularly with regard to fighting and continuing on the journey. I felt like I was back playing The Stanley Parable or Doki Doki Literature Club, both games where, no matter how you act, you will always be swept away by the story that the game must tell.
One prominent feature of Undertale is the existence of multiple possible endings based upon route taken – Pacifist, Neutral, and Genocide. The Pacifist route includes the “True Ending,” while the Genocide route flouts player advancement all the way with incredibly difficult boss battles and (often permanent) corruption of game files. As a game marketed as an RPG without the need to harm anyone, it may be assumed that the creator’s intent (to some extent) was to discourage Undertale’s Genocide route; however, players continued to experiment with the route due to its challenging nature. Deltarune, in its final iteration, will only have one ending, reducing players’ choice in the culmination of the narrative.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed Deltarune (even though my emotions and thoughts are all over the place). I plan on doing another playthrough soon. I will wait however long it takes for Toby Fox (and hopefully his team!) to complete it – I’m excited to play more. There are many questions that are left unanswered (like how Susie and Kris return to the upper world in the abandoned classroom full of playing cards and pieces of board games like the aesthetic of the lower world), and many characters we have yet to meet (Asriel) and get to know (Noelle).