Publisher: Toby Fox | Developer: Toby Fox | Platforms: PC
We haven’t reviewed Undertale here at OSP yet, which pretty much borders on criminal. The game came out in mid-September and, to be perfectly honest, it’s one of those indie titles that’s unfortunately easy to overlook. But thankfully, I gave it a play before OSP’s end of the year awards…because I have a feeling it’ll be getting more than a few.
Even given the wide-spread praise it’s received (it currently has overwhelmingly positive reviews on Steam with 98% of over 15,500 reviews being positive), every time I thought about playing it, I’m sad to say I looked at the retro, almost-dull visuals and thought of something else I had better to do (and to spend my $10 on). It’s been on my watchlist for some time, but…well, I’m sad to say I overlooked this one.
But what an absolute and disastrous mistake that was. I wholly plan on berating myself in an editorial for this in the coming months because no game should be judged solely by its visuals, particularly one that has received almost universal praise. It’s that attitude that is, in my opinion, ruining gaming, and I’m sad to say I succumbed to it. Bad Reid. Bad!
Undertale is, for lack of a better word, phenomenal. Beneath its almost-shoddy visuals (let’s be honest here, the screenshots make it look like something someone threw together on RPG Maker) lies a game with incredible narrative and even mechanical depth and like I said, I have a strong feeling I will be putting this game forward for just about every single “best of 2015” category I can as we near the end of the year, including Game of the Year.
I have avoided spoilers in this review, though it can be difficult to capture how brilliant this game is without them. However, if you want a more in-depth look at some of what makes the game so brilliant – as well as, unfortunately, one of its major flaws…it’s not perfect, but what is? – you can check out my companion article, which will be published in the next couple days. But be warned, while I avoided specific spoilers in that article as well, there are some vague ones and one potentially-major spoiler discussed, so read at your own risk.
Anyways, for those of you who aren’t in the know, Undertale is a quirky JRPG-type game in the vein of the old Final Fantasy or – to be more accurate to the game’s off-beat tone – Earthbound. But that’s just on the surface. Beneath the surface lies one of the most genuinely emotional, unsettling, and subversive experiences of the year, if not the decade. It subverts your expectations constantly. It subverts its own genre. Hell, it subverts video games in general.
I talked a lot about Renowned Explorers being “important” to gaming as a medium and I think Undertale easily deserves that adjective as well for many of the same reasons…and many, many more.
In Undertale, you’re a girl who fell from the human world into the monster world. The monsters were defeated in a war, you see, and forced underground where they were sealed away. So far, so ordinary. But that’s just on the surface. There’s much more to the story as it unravels through its maybe 10-hour (tops) playtime, but to explain it would be to spoil so much of the plot. So just let me say…not everything is as it seems.
Mechanically, Undertale seems, on the surface, to be a pretty standard, perhaps even uninspired JRPG. You can “FIGHT” monsters and defeat them, obviously, but you don’t have any magic or special skills so the combat is pretty basic and timing-based, only a step up from the old “point and click” combat of the oldest Final Fantasy games.
The most unique thing about the straight-up combat is the enemy attacks, which come in a package somewhat similar to a bullet-hell shooter, oddly enough. You try to navigate your “soul” (represented by a small, colored heart) around a little box to avoid the enemies’ various themed attacks, which come in varying levels between “literally can’t get hit if you tried” and “OH MY GOD HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO AVOID THIS.”
This is Undertale’s first of many, many truly genius innovations. This aspect of the game is played to such a ridiculous degree that it could easily be a game in and of itself. Enemies can affect your “soul” in a way that makes it move differently or gives you special ways to interact with the “bullet hell” space or even your foes. Some enemies can affect the space in which your soul resides, making it larger or smaller or otherwise distorting the play area.
And it’s all done in such a fourth-wall-breath manner with your foes seemingly fully aware that this space exists and that this is just how people (well, monsters) fight – at some point you even have enemies that refuse to act so that you won’t get your “turn.” You have to play it to believe it. It’s absolutely brilliant and it mixes up stagnant, turn-based combat extremely well.
The second thing Undertale does brilliantly is its “ACT” system. I mentioned that you don’t have any magic or special skills, but that’s not strictly true…you have the magic of friendship!
In battle, you have an “ACT” option, a menu that contains contextual interactions specific to each monster (boss and “regular enemy” alike) that affect the battle in some way. Some will weaken or strengthen the monster’s attacks, some will weaken or strengthen yourself, some will cause them to not attack or to attack faster…and some will allow you to “spare” the monsters. In fact, every monster in the game has a method in which you don’t actually need to KILL it to proceed. And this is, in my (completely uncontroversial) opinion, where Undertale shines.
While you don’t have the unbridled interactive “freedom” of, say, Renowned Explorers, to simply praise or insult or taunt or charm your enemies as you please, trying to find that magical combination of interactions that calms a monster enough to end the battle without throwing a punch has an immense amount of charm and nuance to it. And just figuring out how to end a fight without actually killing something is very rewarding. A friend of mine likened it to a sort of interactional puzzle of sorts rather than some kind of…combat rhetoric simulator like Renowned Explorers. And I think that’s an apt description.
The retro graphics and sound (which both emulate the somewhat blocky and beep-boopy 8 and 16-bit era at times) may be a bit of a turn-off to some at worst and simply make the game seem mundane and dull at best, but what it does within those graphical bounds (and the places that is absolutely shatters the expectations those graphical “limitations” set) is absolutely masterful.
And the soundtrack is pure nostalgia bait. If, like me, you still rock out to the old Nobuo Uematsu tunes from Final Fantasy games or any video game music from that era, you will love the music Undertale. Toby Fox, who produced the soundtrack (as well as the game), did a lot of work for Homestuck, a webcomic (for lack of a better term) that I’ve often praised as having better video game music than many video games. Seriously, my lips hurt from whistling the music non-stop for the past week.
And top top it all off, you have one of the most genuinely emotional and, at times, unsettling stories in all of gaming. Seriously, I haven’t felt like I’ve been gut-punched by a game like this for a long, long time. Undertale has multiple endings and they, generally, fall into “good,” “bad,” and “neutral” categories.
But in order to access these endings, you must play the game in vastly different ways…and the way you do so, the way you interact with the game, changes how you interact with the world and its encounters, how characters interact with you, and even how the game and its story is played out. Some of the things may be the same, but the vast majority of each of the three main storylines will feel very different.
And none of the ending or gameplay paths” are “wrong” or some kind of fail state like in some games. At no point during the “bad” playthrough did I feel like I’d made a mistake or that I’d failed in some way (well, ok, the whole “bad” path is a terrible, soul-crushing mistake, but for the best reasons possible); the “good” playthrough has just as many unsettling and genuinely disturbing moments as the “bad”; and the neutral ending – which I like to call the “true” ending even though it isn’t canonically, simply because it’s probably the ending most people will get without following some complex checklist – is varied in and of itself with multiple variations depending on how you played the game between “good” and “bad.”
For every ending, every time you play the game, each decision you make, each enemy you kill or do not kill, the game feels more unique, more varied, more different…this is a game that it is truly worth playing multiple times.
The long and the short of it is this: Undertale is great and anyone with even the vaguest interest in JRPGs or even just compelling narratives should play it immediately. We’ll be talking about this one for a long, long time.
Undertale was purchased by the reviewer. No press copy of the game was provided by the publisher.