Game Review: Undertale

There are a few things that I look for in a game: a strong story, relatable  characters, interesting gameplay, and enough content (including replay value) that I feel makes it worth its asking price. The lack of compelling characters and story is what caused me to take The Legend of Legacy off my wishlist (and I was really looking forward to it).

Undertale is a game that seems to have flown under the radar for many, and TBH, I wouldn’t blame anyone for looking at its minimalist presentation and goofy description on Steam and figuring that it’s another dime a dozen RPG made in something like RPG Maker, but as the title indicates, it’s what’s under the candy-coated surface that makes this game something special.

Long ago, the world was ruled by humans and monsters. A war broke out between the two races, and the victorious humans sealed the monsters underground. One day, a human child falls into the underground ruins. Their journey will take them through monster territory as they try to find a way to get back home.

It’s a simple premise, one that you’ve probably seen in many RPGs. In fact, the entire game is an affectionate parody of 90s RPGs, anime, and geek culture, and I suspect if that were all it was, some would be content with that, though i doubt it would have so many people naming it a game of the year. It’s mostly a labour of love of one man, Toby Fox, and that love shows, trust me.

The central premise of Undertale is that you do not have to kill anyone. Many games treat pacifism as more of a self-imposed challenge or claim that you can avoid combat except for certain boss fights. Undertale, on the other hand, actively encourages the player to find ways to resolve conflicts that don’t involve smacking monsters with weapons until they stop moving. It might be as simple as cheering on a depressed ghost or encouraging a shy mermaid to sing.

Encounters are random but break from the typical turn-based fare of many JRPGS. There are four separate commands you can use: Fight, Act, Item, and Mercy. Using the fight command allows you to attack an enemy by pressing a button when the indicator is over the center of the image that pops up. Item lets you use consumables and equip weapons and armor mid battle, whereas act allows you to perform certain actions that are unique to each monster (sort of like the Talk command in Shin Megami Tensei). Monsters will drop hints as to their likes and dislikes, and picking certain options can make fights easier or harder. For instance, not picking on a monster who says “Don’t pick on me!” can cause them to lose their will to fight. The Mercy option allows you to flee or spare an enemy when their name is in yellow. Enemies attack you through “bullet hell” like sequences where you are represented by a heart and must move around dodging attacks until it’s your turn to act again. This system keeps both aggressive and pacifist approaches interesting, and it makes battles challenging without being unforgiving. In case difficulty is a concern, let me assure you that I’ve never played a bullet hell shooter and I’m terrible at shooters in general, and I managed just fine, only having to stock up on healing items for particular boss encounters.

I chose cinnamon, for the record.

For such a short game, Undertale has a quirky, endearing cast of characters, from the motherly Toriel to the skeleton brothers Sans and Papyrus, the former who deals out terrible skeleton puns at the drop of a hat and the latter who seems to take everything seriously, to the nerdy, anime obsessed reclusive scientist, the passionate guard captain, even the random monsters you encounter have their own quirks. One complaint I’ve always voiced about the SMT games is that sooner or later using the “talk” command on a demon involves picking an option and hoping the RNG is nice to you. In this game, I dealt with two monsters of the same type in very different ways.

Another important facet of this game is the way it reacts to your choices. Even something as simple as buying a doughnut at the beginning of the game can have an impact on a certain boss battle. Actions you take during some random encounters will have an impact on other random encounters. For instance, convincing a monster to overcome their shyness and sing will allow you to sing a lullaby to a different monster, putting them to sleep and allowing you to spare them. The game will not only remember and comment on how many enemies you’ve killed, but will even recall what you’ve done in past saves, yes, even if they’ve been overwritten. When I was playing the demo, I ended up killing a character I liked so I started again without saving, only to have the game acknowledge this character’s death and call me out on it. Much of the game is very lighthearted but make no mistake, it can and will tear your heart out at times, especially if you approach it the way you would any other RPG, where overcoming enemies through physical force is often the easiest way to progress the story.

This review wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the soundtrack, which takes me back to hours spent playing Final Fantasy IV, V, and VI, in fact, there’s a really well done parody to a notable scene in Final Fantasy VI that had me laughing my ass off. Boss battles feel epic, going on a “date” with a skeleton is accompanied by an upbeat track that underscores the ridiculous situation. I highly recommend purchasing the soundtrack to go with the game.

It’s difficult to say anything more about this game without spoiling anything, and this is one of those games that you really need to experience for yourself. I finished the game and got the “True Pacifist” ending in 17 hours, although most are saying a single playthrough can take half the time. There is another route you can take through the game, labeled the “Genocide” route, which, as its name might suggest, is far more dark and sinister, but personally I am content with the path I took.

This is probably one of the queerest games I’ve played this year. The main character is canonically non-binary (characters refer to them with “they” pronouns), one character you can “date” is possibly aromantic, the aforementioned nerdy scientist is bisexual and has a crush on the (female) guard captain. There are also two guards that you can set up who decide not to fight you in lieu of going to get ice cream together.

If I had any criticism of Undertale to make, it’s that the middle portion of the game (at least, in the Pacifist run) focuses more on self-referential humour but makes up for it with a strong beginning and ending. If you’re the sort of person who is a stickler for graphics, Undertale probably won’t win any points from you for its very minimalist pixel graphics.

In terms of triggery content, there are some puzzles and encounters in the game that feature flashing images (such as the colored tiles in one of Papyrus’ puzzles) and fast scrolling text (the latter is particularly true during the endgame). Boss battles in particular can get really hectic with fast moving shapes and the final boss is particularly flashy, I would say it would be best to avoid this title if you are epileptic. The worst ending you can get (which is practically impossible to get by accident) features a jumpscare and scrolling text. As was previously mentioned, the game remembers things like how many times you’ve died to certain bosses or who you’ve killed even if you’ve deleted that save file. There is a particular boss fight where the game will crash to desktop if you die, and, once again, the worst ending causes the game to come up as a blank screen (you just need to wait a bit). If you have issues with paranoia or unreality, this is probably not the game for you (although if you can tolerate it, there are plenty of video walkthroughs on YouTube for you to watch). The true ending also has a sequence that involves some body horror. There is additionally the ableist implication that a character who loses the ability to express their emotions turns into a killer.

Undertale is a game that will make you laugh and cry, sometimes in the same scene. It’s at once hopeful and terrifying, filled with both puns and punches to the gut. If you are a fan of JRPGs, or just RPGs in general, if you can appreciate much breaking of the fourth wall, want an emotional roller coaster ride, or are just really fed up with games that seem to lack heart and want something different, I absolutely recommend you at least try Undertale’s demo. This is one purchase that is well worth the $10 or so price tag.

Stay determined.

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