Not a lot of activity lately, is there?
Well, how about discussing a little indie game that came out two months ago? Of course it has already been discussed to death by the internet, but to be fair, there is a lot to say; the subject matter is just that interesting.
I’m talking about Undertale. The reviews for that game have been overwhelmingly positives, and critics usually gave it a perfect or near-perfect score. And I can see why. Despite what I am going to say later on in this review, it’s definitely one of the best games I played this year.
It’s one of those games that most people will say are really good, but won’t tell you why. They will tell you that you have to experience Undertale yourself, without any prior knowledge. But weirdly enough, hearing that makes me even more likely to look up spoilers. You might disagree, but I feel the most important aspect of a story is not how well it surprises you, but how well it’s executed. Knowing things in advance has never ruined my enjoyment of a piece of fiction, and I like to know what I’m getting into. But for what it’s worth, here is the obligatory spoiler warning. I will try my very best not to reveal anything that you may want to discover on your own, but there is no way to talk about Undertale without talking about the plot.
So let’s mention the plot, then. You are a human kid (with an androgynous appearance, interestingly enough) and you fell into the Underground, the world populated with monsters. Now you simply want to go home. The story itself is indeed very simple, but what makes it truly work is the writing. The game references and makes fun of many video game tropes, or fiction tropes in general, but still manages to keep a coherent narrative with real stakes and clear character motivations. In many ways, Undertale reminded me of Super Paper Mario, which is an interesting case in and of itself. In most Mario games the plot is simply an excuse for the gameplay and doesn’t amount to anything, which is why I was so surprised when Super Paper Mario turned out to have one of the most engaging and best-written stories in video games. But I digress.
The real selling point of Undertale is that your actions have real consequences. And not just in the current playthrough: even subsequent playthroughs will be affected by your decisions. Some of the characters, including yourself, will remember the choices you made and how the story unfolded the last time you played the game.
As in most RPGs, every now and then monsters will randomly attack you as you walk across the world. You can then kill them, which is what you would do in a regular RPG. But in Undertale, you have the option of sparing every single enemy in the game. Instead of choosing the “fight” command, you can use the “act” command instead, which will give you a certain number of options as to what to do. If you choose properly, you can convince your enemies to stop fighting. Though I have to say, many of the actions you can do with the “act” command seem really arbitrary (they can be things like “sing”, “flex”, “pose”, “play”, etc.) If you want to spare an enemy, it’s often not a matter of doing what would make sense in context, but figuring out the developers’ strange train of logic while deciding on what actions to perform.
The game really shines when it comes to bosses. They all have good reasons for fighting you, which gives you even more of an incentive to try and make peace with them. There is also something to keep in mind: as in most RPGs, killing enemies gives you Exp and allows you to level up, therefore becoming stronger. So if your goal is to spare most (or all) of the enemies, you won’t be able to level up. And since you won’t become stronger, the game will become increasingly harder. While this can make some of the boss fights pretty frustrating, it gives more weight to your situation: despite being a weak, lonely human, you’re still determined to do the right thing and let your honorable opponents live. Or, of course, you could do the opposite and just kill everyone. With the accumulated Exp from all your fights, you will slowly turn into a fearsome opponent who won’t let anything stand in their way.
Your actions can lead to drastically different endings if you choose to go one extreme or the other; that is, the pacifist route, in which you finish the game without killing anyone (this leads to what is usually considered the “true” ending), or the genocide route, in which you kill every single living creature in the game’s world. Do note however that the first time you play the game, you can only go for the neutral ending. So don’t worry too much if you intended to do a pacifist or a genocide run but you killed or spared a few enemies by mistake. You will have to play the game a second time anyway to get the ending you wanted.
A quick word about the soundtrack: it’s good, if a bit inconsistent. Some songs sound more retro than others. But as a whole, it fits. Here is a sample:
Overall, Undertale has very solid writing, an interesting theme, and tons of clever gameplay ideas. I can’t really say more without spoiling, but there are glimpses of pure genius in the game. However, I’m forced to admit I should probably have liked it way more than I actually did.
Now, this probably needs a disclaimer. As I said before, I still think Undertale is a great game. Regardless of the problems I have with it, I would still recommend it to anyone if only because of how unique and creative it is. But I have yet to find a game or indeed a story that doesn’t have issues. And I feel I would not be adding much to the discussion if this review only contained endless praise. So with that in mind, let’s point out the things that could be improved.
Well, the obvious one is that the graphics are mediocre at best. But I can live with that. The game goes for a retro style, and dumbing down the graphics is a small price to pay if it means the developers can focus on the gameplay and the story.
The combat system is basically like playing Touhou on an oscilloscope. I probably need to clarify: when you enter a fight, you only control a heart-shaped cursor (which represents your soul). During their turn, enemies will throw all sorts of projectiles at you that you have to avoid until it’s your turn again. So it’s a mix of traditional turn-based RPG and bullet hell shooter. It’s certainly an innovative idea, but since you can only move in a very limited area and since almost all the projectiles are white on a black background, I find this system pretty unappealing design-wise. Not to mention, it gets annoying how the game keeps changing the rules with every boss fight, and further limits your movements (for example by making your cursor affected by gravity or by forcing it to move only on specific axes). I understand the reason for that is to give the fights more variety, but I’d argue that’s a lost cause; bullet hell shooters are usually about mastering patterns through endless repetition, and sure enough, the bosses in Undertale always use the same attacks, and always in the same order. If you’re going for a pacifist run, your stats will be very low due to the inability to gain Exp, so you may have to retry boss fights multiple times. In that case, prepare for a fair share of frustration. Boss fights are long, and since their attack patterns are always the same, fighting a boss feels less like an epic battle and more like going through a checklist.
I wonder how much RPG fans and bullet hell fans overlap. RPGs are more about resource management, strategy, and story while bullet hells are more about speed, accuracy, and challenge. Because Undertale’s combat system tries to mix two different genres rather than focus on one, it tends to be mediocre in both aspects. It reminds me of Knights in the Nightmare, which was another strange bullet-hell-hybrid game; it too had an original but schizophrenic gameplay. Speaking of which, when it comes to bullet hell, I like it more when the game sticks to small and simple bullets. When it uses more elaborate shapes like in Undertale or Knights in the Nightmare, it makes the patterns less intuitive and less creative. Bullets that are naturally shaped like, for example, a flower, are less interesting than a multitude of small bullets whose pattern itself forms the shape of a flower. But that’s a matter of personal preference, so it’s not very important.
At first glance, many of my issues with Undertale were just minor frustrations that started piling up. Here is another example: there is no way to run. The game’s world has a few shortcuts but it’s still mostly linear, so it can get really obnoxious when you have to backtrack. Let me illustrate: all the shops in the game have a “sell” option. But whenever you select it, the shopkeeper says something like “what, does this look like a pawn shop?” Yes, I get it, they’re mocking the video game cliché where you can sell unlimited amount of junk to any shop despite how unrealistic that would be. Sure, very funny. But there is only one village in the entire game with a shop that will actually buy things from you. While it’s not very hard to find the village, it’s still not entirely obvious where it’s located, and you might miss it if you’re not paying attention. In addition, your inventory has limited space, which makes managing your possessions even more annoying. The worst part for me was when I couldn’t beat the final boss because I was out of healing items. It took forever to walk back to the nearest shop. But since I was also out of money, I had to backtrack all the way to the hidden village to sell everything I didn’t need. Then go back to the other shop to buy healing items. And then finally all the way back to the final boss. That was the point when not being able to run became a glaring issue.
I guess the developers didn’t want players to be able to travel too fast, or else they might notice that the world is actually pretty small. And honestly, kind of bland too. There are only about five locations in total and they are all named in the most unimaginative way possible.
But I could overlook all that. It’s fine for a game to have a problematic gameplay if the story is really good, and vice versa. Unfortunately, here is my biggest problem. I understand what Undertale is going for with its main idea. Killing is the cruel but easy option that leads to more immediate benefits (Exp to become stronger); sparing is the option that is sometimes difficult to pull off because of how vulnerable it leaves you, but leads to more satisfying results from a narrative perspective. But it can only truly work if I end up really liking all the characters. And while I did like them, it was mostly because I found them very amusing. It wasn’t enough to create a real emotional connection. In most cases I tried to spare the bosses, because like I said before, most of them had good reasons for why they wanted to kill me. But there is one particular boss later on that annoyed me greatly. The fight was stupidly difficult considering I had gained almost no Exp up to that point, and the boss herself was particularly sadistic. So I ended up killing her. And the game tried to make me feel bad about it, but it fell completely flat because that particular character had literally no redeeming qualities (that I was aware of, anyway) and almost no relevance to the plot.
I also tried to spare most of the generic non-boss enemies. But it’s pretty hard to really want to save them: they’re the ones who appear right out of nowhere to attack you while you’re just walking, minding your own business. Of course this is a problem inherent to random encounters, an archaic feature that was fine in RPGs from the 1990s, but which should really not exist anymore.
But even when it comes to the genuinely likable main characters, I feel the problem is the inconsistency of tone. It’s difficult to make us really emotionally invested in the characters when they’re mostly defined by their quirkiness. Despite how good Undertale’s writing is, I feel it didn’t really manage to find the right balance between silliness and seriousness. Somehow, Super Paper Mario worked much better in that respect.
Then again, Undertale has so many good story and gameplay ideas that pretty much everyone can find something to love in it. The thing I’ll remember the most is the ending of the neutral route. To explain without spoiling: it’s a really unique experience that plays with what we take for granted in video games, both narratively and mechanically, to create an amazing mix of mind screw and nightmare fuel. The closest comparison I could find is that one part in Metal Gear Solid 2 (if you’ve played MGS2 you know what part I’m talking about), but even then they each do very different things. In any case, the neutral ending was to me what elevated the game from “pretty good, but not as good as the hype made me believe it would be” to “actually quite brilliant”.
Now, there is one last thing I would like to talk about, and that’s the genocide route. A game where one of the courses of action you may take can only be described as “genocide” isn’t exactly helping break the old misconception that video games are all about violence. Which is ironic, because Undertale is actually a very clever game with arguably much more artistic value than most of the games that get made these days.
Here is the thing: I’ve seen many reviewers praise Undertale because it lets you spare everyone. I’ve seen someone write about how they felt bad for killing a specific character that they didn’t know they could have saved, and how they are happy to know they can now replay the game and fix that mistake. On the other hand, I don’t think anyone ever said “woah, I can kill everyone in this game! Amazing!” Because if someone wants to do that, there are plenty of other games that give the option (most of which have a better combat system too). It seems most of the people who went for the genocide ending only did so out of curiosity. From what I’ve seen, many regretted it. Many didn’t have the heart to go all the way. Many changed their mind before they even started, because the game actually does everything it can to dissuade you from trying the genocide route. As I said before, the best ending is the one you get at the end of the pacifist route. And from that point, it’s made very clear that replaying the game would simply ruin it. Remember how I pointed out that your current actions affect subsequent playthrough? That’s what happens here: by restarting the game from the beginning, you rob all the characters from their happy ending. Conversely, if you reach the genocide ending, the game will be irreversibly altered and the best ending will be locked permanently. It doesn’t matter if you try to reset the game; if you finished a genocide run even once, you can’t get the good ending ever again.
Which got me thinking: why would you want to do a genocide run?
Let’s compartmentalize (because I always wanted to use that word).
- Is it fun?
- A genocide run isn’t the same as a “no mercy” run in which you kill all the enemies on your path. Here, you have to specifically go out of your way to find every living creature in the game and kill them. But since most of the enemy fights depend on random encounters, you have to walk back and forth for an eternity until you’ve activated them all. Random encounters aren’t as frequent is this game as in most RPGs, which is why it can take so long. At this point we’ve moved from catharsis to busywork. It would probably go faster if you could run, but like I said, you can’t.
- Do we get any reward from it?
- Not really. You don’t unlock anything and you make it impossible to get the good ending. You do get the ending of the genocide route though, which is completely different. But… well, once again I won’t spoil it, but I probably won’t blow your mind by saying that a story in which you commit genocide doesn’t exactly end well.
- Is it an interesting challenge?
- For the most part, no. Since you’re killing all the monsters, you’re getting a lot of Exp, so unlike the pacifist route, you can and do get stronger. Much stronger in fact, to the point that almost nothing poses a threat anymore. However, the final boss of the genocide route is actually a big challenge. In fact, it’s the most difficult fight in the game. So there is that I suppose, but it seems quite a lot of effort only to reach a boss fight that will probably leave you frustrated anyway. (Also, the boss cheats. I’m not even kidding.)
- Wouldn’t you need to do it if you want to fully experience the game?
- If you want to see all the content, then yes. But that’s the thing, like I said, the game doesn’t want you to do it. You’re told to stop playing once you reach the pacifist ending, the characters you meet on the genocide path will understandably hate you (during the brief time before you kill them too), and not only do you not get any reward from the genocide ending, the game even punishes you for reaching it. Trying to see all the endings will ironically lock you out of the best one.
So if there is no good reason to go through the genocide route, I’m left with a question: why is it there?
It probably seemed like a good idea during the conceptual stage. After all, if you’re making a game where the player can either kill or spare the enemies, and if you create a story branch for when they don’t kill anyone, it makes perfect sense to create another story branch for when they do the opposite. And it’s only in the finished product that we realize the genocide route doesn’t seem to improve the game in any way. At least not how it’s currently implemented.
Or maybe that was the point. Maybe the creator of the game wanted the players to ask themselves those questions. Maybe the message is that killing shouldn’t feel rewarding. Or that completionism shouldn’t excuse one’s actions. When you think about it, Undertale is a game about choices. And one of the most important choices is never presented to you directly, it’s a decision you have to make on your own: the decision of whether to completely ignore a potential branch of the story. Is it more important for you to fully experience the game, or to secure a happy ending for the characters you may have grown attached to? Is your experience more important than theirs, just because you’re the only one who can decide how the story will unfold? Undertale’s story actually does play with the idea that, in a game, the player is inevitably the most powerful entity. So should that power give you freedom from consequences, or should it entail responsibility?
Maybe I’m overthinking this. In many ways, the genocide route feels more like playing a horror game. It’s a completely different experience, which I suppose may be a good enough reason to give it a try.
Now you probably understand what I meant in the first paragraph: there is so much that can be said about Undertale. I could keep on writing forever, but the bottom line is this: regardless of which path you choose, you should definitely play it.
– Number 5