“Undertale” seemed like the magnum opus of developer Toby Fox, but “Deltarune: Chapter 1” proves he has another ace up his sleeve, even if it’s far from completion.
“Undertale” needs little introduction, as its lovable characters, memorable soundtrack and metacommentary on player choice helped it achieve a cult following. A rabid fanbase and online oversaturation turned away potential fans when the hit indie RPG peaked in cultural relevance, but the game itself still holds up after its initial popularity. It’s a hard act to follow, but “Deltarune” aced it by acting as the antithesis to “Undertale.”
The fact that “Deltarune” is an anagram of “Undertale” has an underlying meaning: every piece of the first game is there, but rearranged into a new story. The game takes place in an alternate universe where monsters were never forced underground, so returning characters live on the surface. They have different jobs and lifestyles, but retain their personalities.
That said, returning characters are relegated to background roles in the first chapter. Instead, the plot revolves around Kris, a silent protagonist who accidentally enters a dark world inside a school closet. Kris is joined by Susie, a violent bully, and Ralsei, the dark world’s kindhearted royalty, on a quest to stop the tyrannical King. Since it doesn’t rely on returning characters, “Deltarune” doesn’t require prior experience with “Undertale.”
“Undertale” commented on choice and morality by allowing players to kill enemies on a Genocide route or find peaceful solutions on a Pacifist route, and its plot changed depending on the player’s actions. The same routes still exist here, but they don’t affect the plot. In contrast, “Deltarune” shows how little the player’s choices matter, from trashing a player-created avatar to villain characters interrupting dialogue before players can make choices.
While this contrast is interesting enough, it’s further explored by how little agency Kris has in the story. In fact, it could be argued that Kris is a background character to Susie and Ralsei’s character development. Not only does this change of focus further the story’s themes, it makes Susie and Ralsei two of the more interesting characters in either game.
The story isn’t the only aspect that “Deltarune” improves upon by adding these two characters. The combat system retains its basis from “Undertale,” with timed button presses for player attacks and the ability to dodge enemy fire, as well as being able to interact and reason with opponents. The additional party members provide new roles in battle, with Susie dealing massive damage and Ralsei as more of a support character.
Each character has special moves correlating to their abilities; Kris’s moves change depending on the enemy, Susie’s Rude Buster axe crushes anything in its path, and Ralsei can end fights early by putting enemies to sleep. These moves require Tension Points, which are accumulated by dodging attacks from a close distance. This change turns fighting into a game of risk vs reward, making even basic enemies as engaging as major bosses.
“Deltarune” has a more reasonable difficulty curve than “Undertale,” likely because this is only the first chapter. Mechanics are introduced at a rate that doesn’t bore or discourage players, and while the game is relatively easy, a challenging boss is available in the postgame for those seeking higher stakes. Additionally, Susie automatically attacks enemies for most of the game, meaning Pacifist runs better engage players by planning around her attacks.
One of the only major flaws of “Undertale” was its visuals; compared to other indie games that use pixelart, the graphics were static and bland. While “Deltarune” still doesn’t reach the excellent sprites of games like “Owlboy” or “Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove,” it’s an improvement over “Undertale” with cleaner character art and more movement in animation. Additionally, the dark world’s motif of playing cards gives the character designs consistent theming.
“Undertale” is often praised for its excellent music, a category in which “Deltarune” doesn’t disappoint. While the soundtrack will be completed in future chapters, the first chapter alone has an arguably better soundtrack than “Undertale” due to leitmotifs that more clearly express the story, cleaner instrument samples and more memorable composition. Overworld music has particularly improved, with the standout track being “Field of Hopes and Dreams.”
This first chapter is available for free, and yet it has a significant amount of content comparable to about half of “Undertale.” “Deltarune” keeps its cards close to its chest about what will happen next, but even though it hints at future events, the content that’s currently available is still satisfying. Chapter 1 provides an afternoon’s worth of entertainment at no cost.
Despite the game being marketed to previous “Undertale” fans, this is an experience that even newcomers can enjoy, and the story, presentation and gameplay show promising improvement. If the developers play their cards right, “Deltarune: Chapter 1” will be just the beginning of a fantastic sequel that steals hearts once again.
“Deltarune: Chapter 1” is available as a free download on PC, Switch and PS4. Future chapters will release at an undetermined date but won’t be free.
Go to the Electric Retrospective blog at https://electricretrospective.wordpress.com for more game reviews and news. New posts release every Tuesday.
This is Sean’s third year on the ECHO, having contributed to the site during journalism class in his sophomore year and becoming a columnist and blogger in his junior year. Sean writes Electric Retrospective, a column dedicated to gaming editorials and reviews, as well as a blog also titled Electric Retrospective that posts news stories and reviews every Tuesday.