Undertale is a game that has been on my radar for quite some time, although, as I like to do, I quickly ignored it after discovering it in late 2013. Two years later it’s the talk of the town with ModeSeven and Ian Samson doing fanart of it and tens coming from all sorts of gaming outlets, putting Undertale up in the higher 90s on those ranking sites that tweens like to obsess over. After playing the game, I agree that this is completely justified, as Undertale is nothing short of fantastic.
Platforms: PC(Reviewed), Mac
Developer/Publisher: Toby Fox
Undertale is a game about righteousness, mercy, determination, forgiveness, depravity, love, friendship, and goofy jokey shenanigans. It is a story that runs the emotional gamut of child-like delight, somber despair, ruthless resolve, and overall wonder. Okay I say that even though my most apt summary of the game’s story is that, “A kid falls down a hole, meets some friendly monsters, and then goes save the world by being nice to people.” But it is true, if only somewhat. Undertale is a game about player choice in a way that manages to both change the experience at large and how the player views both the world in their actions. As they choose to either befriend this strange new world full of monsters, getting to know them and leave them be afterwards, to murder them with an impromptu weapon, in order to increase your own physical strength. But I’ll get into the Genocide run later on.
Yet that is only a side effect of what makes Undertale such a gem of a game. Its characters are incredibly memorable and likable. It’s world, while not even very interesting conceptually, manages to house so much personality and care that just about every screen is memorable in some aspect. The twists and turns the game takes, and how it pokes fun at and turns so much of its respective RPG roots and the medium as a whole on its head. It amounts to a story that I was almost stunned by at points, and feel nothing but fondness for.
Then we get to the gameplay, which I do enjoy, at least to a certain point. At its base level, it is an RPG with a limited inventory spot, random(ish) encounters, and a series of menus that are used to get through battles. But instead of any real abilities, you are given a series of monster specific prompts that you can use to either hug, comfort, tease, flex, flirt, or just talk to the monsters you run into. Each of which has their own sense of logic to them, and all of which make for at least a snicker as you uncover how to spare an enemy without killing it.
It’s actually pretty enjoyable to break down this game’s quirky sense of logic, but there is one particular sort of logic that I really did not care for, and it was the logic behind enemy bullet patterns. In short, every enemy has one or two unique ways to attack you, each bullet having a unique pattern, and all of which need to be dodged in order for you to survive. A nice concept to be sure, but one I found to be ever so slightly frustrating with its deceptive simplicity and the fact that, this being an RPG with limited items and item space, you need to preserve your goods. Combat relies on a skill I sadly don’t really have, and the way to compensate for it goes against my, admittedly foolish, RPG playing principles.
It actually got to the point where I was so frustrated with the spider boss, that I backtracked to purchase a suit of armor by selling loads of regenerating dog feces in order to pick up the best armor in the game. Or at least I was going to before I edited my save file and got 9999 gold instead of wasting two hours of my time or changing my stubborn ways. This actually really does make me wonder why there is no sort of easy mode for this game that helps those who would want to play this story driven game for the story.
But that was just the pacifist path, while the genocide path is one that I honestly was loving for how deranged, malicious, and warped it can be, but I realized that the “bad time” the game kept saying I would have was very much literal. I say get to the first true boss, exit the game, and watch a playthrough to see everything that was changed in the run. I understand the gesture, but it really does act as a nasty bloody booger on this fine oil painting of a game.
As for the presentation, Undertale make initially look like just another retro-inspired RPG, but it very clearly has a defined style with minimal colors, memorable areas in both theme and layout, and character sprites that do evoke a lot about their designs and even personalities. With the soundtrack acting as a highlight of tunes that run the spectrum from energetic, foreboding, joyous, mellow, and even a little inspiring. All while being very melody driven, helping to make the soundtrack just as memorable as its world and characters.
Despite my fundamental issues with some of the gameplay (namely that I am terrible at it), Undertale is stellar. It is ambitious, heartfelt, and offers an experience that, while I can see its influences, feels alarmingly fresh and nuanced. Undertale is a glowing reminder of the potential and capabilities that lurk within this medium, and is one of the few games I can truly say I love.