Undertale Designed by Toby Fox PC Released in 2015
Editor’s note: This is a game best enjoyed without knowing too much about it. Every little spoiler I provide throughout this review means you lose out on discovering it on your own, so feel free to close this review now knowing I am going to give it a 9/10 and a solid recommendation.
There was no way we weren’t going to end a month celebrating the greatness of indie games with any other game than Undertale. To say that this game blew up would be an understatement: this is easily one of the most famous and beloved indie titles we have seen since the independent gaming scene gained traction. Cave Story, Bastion, Dust, all great games, but they couldn’t hold a candle to the massive hype that formed around this humble RPG. Even though it’s technically too young to be featured on this site, for this special occasion we decided to bend the rules ever so slightly.
Below the earth
In ancient times, humans and monsters both lived on the surface until one day a war broke out that the monsters would eventually lose. Humanity forced the monsters deep underground where they settled in a series of caves and their enemies erected a barrier behind them, sealing up the only exit. Only a human can pass through, but by extracting the souls of humans and weaponizing it, the monsters stand a chance to break the barrier themselves. This is where you come in, a small human child that falls through a hole into the realm of monsters.
You must journey through the many areas of the underground in search of the capital city where King Asgore’s throne is located. Beyond that is the barrier and your only chance of escape; many monsters are out for your blood and you’ll have to make your way past hundreds of them to reach your destination. You’ll find yourself battling royal guardians at the bottom of erupting volcanoes, skeleton warriors of dubious caliber, and even frogs; the most monstrous of amphibians.
The appeal of Undertale is difficult to put to paper, it presents you with a world where you are unwanted and hunted, but fills it with sympathetic and well-written characters. Each encounter is an opportunity to learn about a character and the game depends on your interactions to make it through each one unscathed and without violence. While some are simple like the aforementioned frogs that just want a compliment, there are some really fun and wacky characters in here with story-arcs that are remarkably sincere and intriguing.
Even more impressive is how branching the story can be. Many of your tiniest actions are recorded and the game will refer back to these or introduce splits and optional dialogue for them. After all, violence is still an option in this RPG and the story you get will vary greatly depending on whether you fight with words or swords, or prefer a middle a ground. And regardless of what paths you choose the dialogue is strong with plenty of personality worked into each line.
If there is a weakness to Undertale‘s storytelling, it is it’s over-reliance on exposition. Many, MANY times you’ll find yourself in long corridors with signs or other mediums that contain a few passages of back-story for you to read. This comes off as pretty clumsy and makes the fun world Toby Fox created a bit annoying to explore, as getting the full picture involves lots of walking and stopping at each scribble on the wall to read it.
Besides that this is exactly what a story needs. It has mystery and drama, love and friendship, all told competently and involving characters you’ll surely grow to love and sympathize with. And when you stand before Asgore’s throne, ready to make your escape, it’ll be hard not to feel a little emotional as your story concludes.
Story score: 9/10
The friendly RPG in which nobody has to die… except you
Just like Rock of Ages a few days ago, it’s particularly difficult to fit Undertale into any one genre. Many would place it with the RPG crowd since you have HP and Attack Power that you increase by buying better gear and leveling up. Except by that standard Undertale is terrible as it only has a paltry amount of items to acquire. Also, you are kind of encouraged to not fight anybody, so leveling up goes out of the window fast. Instead, let’s just call Undertale “an experience”.
It’s not a game to play because its mechanics are particularly refined, you play it because it offers hilarious set-pieces that are each more surprising than the last. The game is driven entirely by its characters as each zone will introduce you to a new nemesis that you must overcome. They have you solve puzzles to proceed further through each zone, do battle with funny mini bosses, and partake in weird distractions like an impromptu cooking show that comes out of nowhere. There is so much to see and do that even after replaying it multiple times I still seem to find new secrets each time, even entire boss-fights I somehow managed to miss before.
Combat plays out on a board on which you control a small, red heart, the representation of your soul. Enemies will fire projectiles at it that behave in increasingly strange patterns and you must avoid these for a small period of time before you get to retaliate. If you choose to fight you’ll perform a quick-time event to deal damage, but alternatively you can also try to calm the monster down. The “Act” menu has a small set of choices relevant to each monster, so for example a bird that wants to be a comedian will have the options “laugh”, “heckle” and “joke”. You try to figure out how best to respond to a monster and act accordingly. Do this in the right order and you’ll eventually turn them peaceful again.
I am a bit torn on this mechanic. I love the bullet-hell sequences where you dodge projectiles, especially when multiple enemies show up at once, but I do have to admit that the peaceful route is way too easy. Each zone only has a four or so enemies and you just apply the same solution every time. The random encounter rate is also remarkably low, so it’s not even like the enemies can overwhelm you between save points. What I do like is that the game encourages you to be pacifistic, what with most characters being so lovable and funny, but the difficulty spikes really encourage you to resort to violence. Talking a monster down gives you money, not XP, so playing it peacefully all the way to the end means taking on late-game bosses with a pathetic 20 HP.
And the game is great at making you face the consequences. Deciding to take a few lives to get the easy way out means some bosses will be even more powerful and characters are certain to remind you of your actions. You can even choose to kill every single monster in each zone, leaving it barren and desolate, though I don’t recommend a playthrough like that for your first time.
Yeah, calling Undertale an experience really is the best way to go and it’s indeed a game that you need to experience to understand its appeal. All I can guarantee you is an interesting take on a combat, lots of hilarious set-pieces, and lots of room to decide how you wish to play it with benefits and consequences to each route. It’s solidly designed despite not being very polished or deep.
Gameplay score: 9/10
Sprite art at its finest
And the visuals certainly follow a similar trend. Though sprites may seem sloppy and rough at first, they hide a great sense of style and some really good animation. I remember the first time I saw Papyrus, a skeleton warrior guy, and thought he looked pretty bad, until he started to emote and pose and it all came together really well. I can’t say for sure if this is an happy accident or an interesting design choice, but it works great and makes each character even more of a joy to see. That is… with the exception of the protagonist, who is a dull-looking sort who I grew to tolerate, not appreciate as the game went on.
Scenery is also nice and manages to actually work in some interesting sights for a game that seems so simplistic at first, but the real star here is the music, a mix of all sorts of styles that really get your adrenaline kicking when a boss shows up, but is equally suited for mysterious caverns, cozy villages, or comedy segments. Bosses are by far the most interesting as each one has its own exciting leifmotif that adds so much to each battle with them. It’s almost a shame you can avoid some encounters with them, since that also means missing out on this music.
And finally there is the comedy. Toby Fox really showcases an excellent grasp of comedic timing with Undertale, with sequences like the introduction of Sans and the pre-battle reveal of Undyne being parts I always look forward to seeing. Some of the random throwaway jokes that random villagers tell fall a bit flat, but once you get into Undertale it sucks you into its nonsensical world and you’ll find yourself not minding the few bad jokes out there. If you go into it stone-faced and absolutely determined to be serious, then yeah, it will not be that fantastic, but let yourself be drawn in and you’ll have a hilarious and memorable time with this game.
Presentation score: 10/10
Undertale boasts two distinct endings and a middle road that features many variations based on which key characters are still alive and what you did throughout the game. Each ending is rewarding and interesting in its own way, so there is a reason to get all of them, but the game punishes you for it severely. Getting either on the extreme end (kill everything or love everything) permanently changes the game and especially the “evil” ending is bizarre, as it will then forever pretend that your game is broken afterwards by booting it to a black screen that remains for several minutes. Even if you bypass that, it will forever bar you from getting a good ending again, which severely harms the game’s replay value unless you know one of the many tricks to undo it.
Overall the game takes maybe six to seven hours to complete, but that is just scraping the surface. It’s also a game I just want to relive from time to time, to remember all the fun, little puzzles and the smaller enemies that often go overlooked, or even just to hear the boss music in the proper context. It’s just a shame that I need to mess around with the game’s files every time to make sure my save is wiped and I can play it normally.
Extras score: 8/10
I freaking love Undertale. There is so much to this game and so many theories to be discussed that I haven’t actually uninstalled the game since I bought it, which is saying a lot because I am paranoid about keeping my rig clean. Despite my love for the game it was quite difficult to write up a decent review for it since it’s so difficult to relay what makes it great without spoiling the whole thing. It’s a game I recommend to go into as blind as you can, hence the note above the page. Try it if you are up for a funny game that has some great storytelling to it.