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Discussing Toby Fox’s Undertale often splinters into playstyles or how long it took for them to realize that they could get through every encounter non-violently. It’s a testament to the role-playing game’s stellar design that player choice winds up having such a lasting impact, both in-game and emotionally upon the player. However, Deltarune chapter 1 makes one thing immediately clear: your choices don’t matter here. (Spoilers ahead!)
The opening moments of Deltarune are pulled off tremendously. The unannounced game came in a file called “SURVEY_PROGRAM,” and it starts out as one would think. It asks players several questions, and they eventually wind up creating their own character after choosing from different body parts. It’s a standard procedure in many games, and it is one that Toby Fox uses in order to subvert expectation once again.
As soon as players finish making their character, they are greeted by a sudden message: “Your answers, your wonderful creation will now be discarded,” says the text prompt. It then delivers an important warning: “No one can choose who they are in this world.” This is an immediate statement by Fox. He’s speaking directly to the player by telling them that this isn’t the same world as Undertale, and its main theme (that your choices matter) won’t be carrying over.
Deltarune Chapter 1 – Subversion at Its Finest
That brilliant opening segment does a great job of setting the tone that Deltarune follows throughout its first chapter. It uses the original basis of Undertale to set player expectations and then it constantly throws it on its head. From the way text is presented to the battles, there’s an underlying sense of familiarity with the game since it’s so familiar to its predecessor. However, all this really does is help highlight what has changed.
Immediately upon the actual game starting, players are greeted with a familiar sight in Toriel. The goat once again is cast in a similar role, as she serves as a mother to the player. However, instead of doing everything in her power to protect the player from the dangers that lurk in society, she instead is happy to have her child interacting with others.
Toriel drives Kris to school, and that’s where even more familiar faces are seen. The lovable klutz that is Alphys has gone from being a scientist to a school teacher, and several other Undertale inhabitants can be seen in the classroom. By throwing all of these callbacks in the face of the player upfront, Fox is making sure they mentally recall the events and themes of the first game. It’s all setting up further subversion whilst not sacrificing the game’s own story by beating the player over the head with direct references to the original.
Deltarune Chapter 1 – Battle Studies
Players quickly find themselves in some sort of “dark world,” and that’s when Deltarune starts to play on expectations. The battle system in Undertale was heavily praised for its innovative use of bullet hell mechanics while still being a turn-based role-playing game at heart. The first encounter in Deltarune has a foe uses these same mechanics.
However, the game doesn’t go into a secondary battle screen. Instead, it shows the player’s heart on the overworld, and the player has dodge on-screen bullets while exploring the world. It’s yet another twist on a formula, and takes advantage of players thinking that they were safe from danger when exploring.
The rest of Deltarune chapter 1 continues delivering twists to how the original played. A partner character joins the player as they try to figure out how to escape the dark world, and this adds an entirely new dynamic to combat. Despite the importance of friendship in the original game, players always fought their battles alone. It was a great way to underline how important the player’s actions were to the story. By doing the opposite and adding in other playable characters, Toby Fox is further de-emphasizing the importance of choice. This isn’t just your story, but a glimpse into a carefully crafted world that you only have a part in.
My favorite thematic inclusion comes once Susie joins the player’s party. She doesn’t initially care about sparing other characters so she automatically attacks every turn. Not only does it immediately challenge the idea that players are choosing the actions of their teammates, but it also serves as a wonderful twist upon the original game’s basis of not harming anyone.
This is a character that will cause major harm without a second thought, but they’re still a protagonist and hero to the story. As such, it’s up to the player to open every battle by warning their opponents (the very people that they are fighting in combat with) that they need to dodge the attacks of Susie. It’s an action that is hilarious in of itself, but it also drives home how difficult it can be to rely on the actions of others since people can’t be controlled.
Toby Fox has confirmed that there will only be a single ending to Deltarune. This is in stark contrast to Undertale, which was ultimately defined by its various endings. It’s a divisive choice, but I’m glad we’ll get to see Fox’s exact vision without any compromise rather than attempting to shoehorn a feature in just because a previous game had it.