Around three and a half years ago, we saw the arrival of an innocent, unassuming little game named Undertale from developer Toby Fox. It seemed rather simple on the surface, and it even left some players disinterested after they had made their way through the game’s earlier segments. But breaking through that surface and diving deeper, it soon became clear to many players that Undertale packed in a heck of a lot more than you might think from just a first glance. A strange world, an intriguing story, quirky characters, fantastic soundtracks, and amazing visuals strongly defined Undertale. Of course, it was also a game that “watched” you and remembered everything you did, whether that was for good or for evil. All of these elements made for a truly excellent game that emotionally invested hundreds of thousands of players.
A short little while had passed since our ventures through Home until last October rolled around, which saw the surprise PC/Mac demo release of Fox’s newest project, Deltarune. And now, of course, it has made its way to the Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 4. Containing a generous couple of hours’ worth of content, the demo serves as a little sampling of what we can expect to see from the upcoming game. According to Toby Fox, things from this demo are subject to change, so what we see right now may not be totally reflective of what the final product will be. But given that, let’s dive once again into this odd little universe and see what it has in store for us this time around.
Deltarune‘s chapter 1 demo is available for free on PC, Mac, Nintendo Switch, and PlayStation 4.
Deltarune places you in the role of a young, gender-ambiguous human child named Kris. However, this child is older than the one from Undertale by a number of years, looking to be more of a pre-teen or early teenager. You’ve just woken up from a strange dream, and you’re late for school. Toriel quickly drives you to school, during which you pass by a number of other characters from Undertale. You get to class, where Professor Alphys is just about to begin the lesson. But alas, the chalk has mysteriously gone missing. You and the school bully, Susie, are tasked with retrieving some chalk from the supply closet.
But what starts out as a menial task quickly turns into the two of you becoming trapped inside the dark closet and the floor collapsing, causing the both of you to fall down into a dark abyss. When you awake, you find yourself in a strange land. After finding Susie and heading further into this new world, you come across a creature named Ralsei, who introduces himself as the prince of this dark kingdom. He describes a prophecy of three heroes saving the land from an encroaching doom caused by a disruption in balance between light and dark. And so, it is the player’s duty and obligation to make their way to Card Castle, seal a “fountain” that emanates dark power, and restore the balance of light and dark to this world. Here, the adventure begins.
Without going into specific spoilers, I like the direction the story has taken thus far. There’s enough here in the preliminary first chapter to hook the player, while also alluding to the fact that there is more to come, hinting at ideas and characters that will make their appearances in the chapters to follow this one.
Deltarune oozes charm and personality, and that is owed to the characters you’ll travel with and come across along your journey. Their personalities are strongly conveyed via their dialogue, mannerisms, animations, “voices”, and character portraits. You’ll laugh at their silly antics and empathize with their struggles. You’ll watch them grow and mature, and you’ll likely come to love them before too long. Specifically, the dialogue is wonderfully witty and always entertaining to read, be it something a character has said, or the description of something you examine. It’s definitely worth your time to slow down a little sometimes to speak with everyone and examine everything. Observant and explorative players will be rewarded here. You may even come across a secret or two.
In classic Toby Fox fashion, even the game itself has a personality of sorts, and tends to watch you as you play. At times it will catch you completely off guard. In one instance, I was attempting to solve a puzzle that was fairly similar to a previous one I had just completed a room or two prior. In that first puzzle, spikes blocked my path to the next room until I solved the puzzle. Arriving at the second puzzle, without really thinking, I assumed it was the same as the first; before moving forward past the spikes and into the next room, the puzzle must be completed. After failing to complete the puzzle multiple times, Ralsei suggested we just try going to the next room first before completing the puzzle. At that point, I realized that indeed there were no spikes preventing my passage and that I was just being really stupid and unobservant, which I deservedly got called out for. Little touches like that make Deltarune special.
Something important to note is that Deltarune, unlike Undertale, follows a linear story. That is, no matter what actions you take, the story will always turn out the same. That’s obviously a huge departure from Undertale, given that choice played such an integral role and was a center piece to the story. Some players might not be into this sort of shift for Deltarune, but I can appreciate Toby Fox trying out this new direction and attempting something a little different, and I believe this method of storytelling was executed quite well in Deltarune‘s first chapter. The very fact that this game is linear in the context that the previous game was not linear may even play an important role in Deltarune‘s story. On top of giving Deltarune that same sense of self-awareness we came to love and fear in Undertale, this is an excellent bit of storytelling, and I’m looking forward to see how that progresses.
Deltarune is a similar beast to its older brother, and you will find many similarities carrying over from Undertale. You’ll play as a human, traversing a strange, alien world you don’t completely understand; conduct some light puzzle solving; fight enemies in turn-based combat; and gradually learn the story that unravels as your journey progresses.
Deltarune does, however, introduce a number of new mechanics that distinguish itself from Undertale. One striking example is that rather than having to travel alone, the player has the company of Ralsei and Susie during the course of the journey. They will follow you around and join you in combat, during which you can give them battle commands. As you explore the nooks and crannies of the world with your party, you’ll come across items, as well as weapons and armor you can equip to each character. Certain items can only be used by certain characters, and each character can equip up to one weapon and two armor pieces at one time. Each piece of gear offers differing stat increases, but this isn’t the focus of the game; you won’t be fiddling around with mountains of loot that you’ve found/bought, coming up with different builds, or experimenting with your many unique weapons. There is, however, plenty of environment to discover, explore, and interact with. Often, you’ll be rewarded with funny bits of dialogue between characters just for experimenting with something a certain way or subverting the game’s expectations of you as the player.
Getting back to combat, the addition of Susie and Ralsei drastically changes up how combat works in Deltarune, as you’ll now have up to three different combatants to play with. Essentially, Kris acts as a sort of warrior class, Susie is the tank, and Ralsei is the healer. Combat now also takes on a third-person view, with your characters appearing on the left of the screen and your foes to the right. Your characters have a couple of choices on how to spend their turn. They can fight, act (in the case of Kris), use magic (in the case of Susie and Ralsei), use an item, spare the enemy, or defend for that turn to reduce any damage taken. Once you take your turn, the enemies will take theirs, who fire projectiles that you must dodge. If a party member hits 0 HP, they’ll be downed and won’t be able to fight until they have at least 1 HP again. Downed party members automatically regenerate a small amount of HP every turn. You can also give them healing items, or have Ralsei cast a healing spell on them. If everyone gets downed, you’ll lose the game and will have to start over from the last save point. Winning the battle will earn you some Dark Dollars, the game’s currency, which is used at various shops to buy items and gear.
Kris can “act” either by themself or with Susie and/or Ralsei as part of a combo, depending on what enemies you’re fighting. Acting, as in Undertale, allows you to interact with enemies in different ways, one of which will give you the option to spare that enemy, immediately removing them from combat. By choosing certain other options, Kris can alternatively make enemies tired. Enemies can also become tired if their HP drops low enough. These enemies can also be removed from combat, but through the use of Ralsei’s Pacify spell.
Speaking of spells, Susie and Ralsei both have access to magic. Susie can unleash a powerful surge of dark energy from her axe to deal massive damage to a single enemy. Ralsei, in addition to the aforementioned Pacify, can also heal any party member. Spells aren’t free though, as they require a certain amount of Tension Points (TP for short). The amount of TP you have is displayed during combat in a bar at the top left of the screen. You gain TP by getting close to enemy projectiles, but not quite hitting them. You can tell if you’ve gotten close enough to a projectile to receive TP if you see a large, white outline appear around your heart. Your TP is reset to 0 after combat, meaning it doesn’t carry over between battles and you will have to build it up again for every fight. This system creates an interesting dynamic where rather than trying to outright dodge every attack, you’re incentivized to put yourself in harm’s way a little bit. If you want to use spells, you’ll have to take a little risk here and there.
Combat feel & difficulty
The combat in Deltarune is excellent, sometimes downright addicting. In the case of one boss battle, I just wanted to do the fight over and over again. I would save before the fight, do the whole thing and win (which takes a bit of time), then quit without saving just so I could do it again later. Learning the boss’ attacks and becoming a pro at dodging and weaving between and through the onslaught of projectiles was and still is incredibly addicting. Deltarune isn’t particularly difficult and you likely won’t have too much trouble making your way from beginning to end. However, there are pockets of challenge in the form of some of these combat encounters. Though personally I might like if there was a touch more challenge than there is, difficulty isn’t necessarily meant to be the focal point of the Deltarune experience. This is also just the first chapter, and I expect there will certainly be more opportunities to have a bad time, so to speak, in later chapters.
It’s important to know that it is actually impossible to kill anyone in Deltarune. While yes, there is a distinction to either “fight” an enemy or “act” to spare it, both options will result in the enemy being non-lethally removed from battle. When you deplete an enemy’s health, they actually just run away from the fight. They do not die and you never gain any experience points. And I have to admit… I’m a bit disappointed you can’t kill anyone! I was looking forward to seeing the ramifications of my actions and going down that particular path of being a ruthless monster.
Obviously, this expectation comes off the back of me having played Undertale, which featured the same two methods to dealing with enemies. I was disappointed not so much that I wasn’t able to play that way, but more that it initially appeared as though I could, only to find out later that I couldn’t. Of course, Deltarune is perfectly allowed to be its own thing, to stand on its own feet and hold its own merits without needing to be exactly as Undertale is. And ultimately, not being able to kill enemies doesn’t take away from how I feel about this game. I am completely willing to see where Toby Fox is going with this.
Deltarune comes with an amazing selection of tracks to serve as the backdrop for your adventure. I don’t think there’s a single bad piece of music in here. The ongoing mood of the game is incredibly varied, and the tracks consistently step up and down to match that diversity. These tracks are zesty, inspiring, epic, relaxing, mysterious, goofy, chaotic, chilling, and triumphant. There’s a massive spectrum of feelings at play and there’s so much to love here. Some favorite picks for me would have to be Rude Buster, Field of Hopes and Dreams, and The World Revolving.
The enemy battle music (Rude Buster) is the perfect example of what frequently heard battle music should sound like. It’s so irresistibly catchy that the second it kicks in as you launch into battle, you can’t help but jam out to it, even after the 100th time of hearing it. It’s something you actually want to listen to. Even when not playing Deltarune, I regularly pop this soundtrack on to listen to while I’m working on something. Even the dang post-game menu music is so chill and nice to have on in the background. Expect to update your playlists, because Deltarune‘s music will stick with you long after journey’s end.
Similar to the audio design, the graphics also portray a lot of diversity to match a range of emotions you’ll experience throughout the game. In particular, the character portraits are really well done, and help to contribute to Deltarune‘s strong sense of personality. The facial expressions in these character portraits can help sell a goofy moment just as much as they can amplify a far tenser one.
One of my favorite examples in particular is when Ralsei is confused/bewildered about something a character has said. Rather than just simply looking puzzled, his portrait transforms into this silly, poorly-drawn version of what he would normally look like, which I just can’t help but laugh at. These portraits (and the rest of the graphics, for that matter) are full of character and will warm your heart, make you chuckle, or even sometimes straight up intimidate you.
More generally speaking, the presentation of everything is pleasing to the eye and can be downright beautiful, character designs and animations are interesting and help to further boost their personalities, and the environmental design is well-varied for the handful of hours you’ll spend exploring the game’s landscapes. Each level is aesthetically unique and distinctive, and what becomes particularly interesting is the reasoning as to why the environments exist the way they do, which becomes clear after defeating the final boss. It may play some kind of part in the story, but we’ll have to wait and see how that unfolds.
In this preview, I tried to avoid saying things like, “Undertale did X” or “Undertale had X but now Deltarune has Y”. After the monolithic success of Undertale, it’s easy to expect the world of Deltarune, that somehow it’s two, three, four times better than its predecessor. With expectations so high, it’s equally easy to feel let down with the game we ultimately wind up with on release. Honestly, I think part of the reason Undertale did so well was exactly due to the low expectations people had of it. In fact, there probably weren’t many expectations of it whatsoever, seeing as it came almost out of nowhere. But because it subverted those non-expectations so drastically and blindsided its players, it garnered a lot of love and respect for being something so completely, well, unexpected.
Now, that’s not to say to have no expectations of Deltarune, because that would definitely be a mistake and does the game a great disservice. Just that Deltarune should be allowed to step outside of Undertale‘s shadow and be its own thing without being compared in every way. And truly? Deltarune can and does stand on its own. Before us is a new, exciting, quirky little adventure in this universe. It’s packed with lovable characters, witty dialogue, fantastic soundtracks and visuals, an intriguing story, and endless personality.
If you enjoyed Undertale, you owe it to yourself to at least try out the Deltarune demo (it is free, after all). It’s a pretty safe bet that you’ll love what Toby Fox has created this time. Deltarune jokes with you, entertains you, and surprises you. It loves to have fun and be downright goofy, but it also knows how to get serious, real fast. It will keep its eye on you as you progress on the adventure, and it’s not afraid to even poke fun at you sometimes. Deltarune is a stunning reminder of the fact that this industry is filled with incredibly passionate, genuine, and talented developers who truly care for the work they do. In summation, Deltarune is “Excellent. Truly excellent”, and I can’t wait to see and experience the rest of it, whenever that may be.