There was a time when Undertale took the Internet by storm. And even today, we are still feeling the grand effect it had on Internet culture.
|Console||PC/Mac/Linux, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, Nintendo Switch|
|Genre||RPG, bullet hell|
|Release Year||2015 – 2018|
|Purchase (PC)||Purchase from Humble Store.|
|Purchase (PS4)||Purchase from PlayStation Store.|
Alright, let me simulate what your probable immediate reaction to this review is:
Goddamnit, not more Undertale! I’m so fucking sick of Undertale! Why is that Undertale has to exist! I HATE UNDERTALE NGAAAAAAHHHHHHHH!!!!
If that’s your reaction, well… you need help, my friend. Close this review and seek some help. Like, NOW.
But if you’re actually here to read an Undertale review, you’ve come to the right place. Sorry that I’m late to the party. I’ve actually been wanting to talk about this game for some time but could never quite find the right words to summarize it. Probably everything I’ll say here is already been said.
And what do you expect? Undertale is one of the most successful indie games of all time! It was a very successful Kickstarter project that exceeded expectations of most of its backers. After 2015, the Internet flooded with all sorts of Undertale content. For a while, it turned into a major phenomenon. It’s to the point where people got upset over the game winning the GameFAQS “Best. Game. Ever” 2015 contest.
Yeah, seriously. Chill out, people. By the end of the day, we’re getting mad over GAMES. Everyone is going to have different tastes. In fact, I’m in the minority that doesn’t like Final Fantasy VII. Arguing over which games are the best in existence is a very pointless endeavor that can be undone by, “Meh, not my cup of tea.”
With that said, I do like Undertale. I’m not one of those crazy, obsessed fans who brings it up in every conversation, but I am fond of it enough to go over why it works as a story and why it could have only worked for a medium like a video game. For those who haven’t played it yet, I do heavily recommend to give it a blind playthrough. Even if some Undertale fans can get under your skin, don’t be afraid to enjoy the game.
So let’s get started. This is my long overdue review of Undertale!
The Underground World
Undertale begins with a short backstory discussing a war between humans and monsters, where the humans emerged victorious. The humans then sealed the monsters underground at Mt. Ebott, where they shall remain for all eternity.
A human child (you) fell into the depths of Mt. Ebott, and you must find a way to get out. Unfortunately, the only exit is past the society of monsters. Some monsters hold a grudge against humanity and are willing to take your SOUL, so you must be careful. You must be cautious. You must be vigilant.
You must pet knife-wielding Doggos.
…Yeah, it’s one of THOSE weird games.
Beginning with a simple premise, Undertale is a real journey into the strange and mysterious world of the Underground. While there are monsters actively hunting down humans, most of them are… very neighborly. Almost like one giant tightly-knit family.
But of course, there are going to be PLENTY of interesting encounters. Some of which that will make you laugh your ass off.
Undertale’s battle system is quite unique. At first glance, it seems like a standard turn-based RPG where you can attack enemies using a timing-based attack adjuster. But the game encourages you to “kill them with kindness.” In other words, find other ways to defeat them without resorting to violence.
According to creator Toby Fox, the gameplay is inspired by a few game series. The original Shin Megami Tensei inspired the dialogue system, where you talk to monsters to avoid conflict—or die to a cheap shot. The defensive segment (enemy’s attack animations) was inspired by Mario & Luigi and Touhou Project.
So instead of killing the monsters, you can perform a specific action to allow them to spare you. For example, you can defeat a Vegetoid by using the “Dinner” command, then collect a green vegetable during the Vegetoid’s attack animation. Then you can select the “Spare” command.
However, the monsters will attack you each turn. This opens up a battle screen where you control a red heart to dodge bullets, a type of gameplay seen in bullet hell shoot ’em up games. If your HP reaches 0, game over.
There are times when the conditions for sparing become unintuitive. Obviously, flattery and humoring certain monsters will get you everywhere. But when you have battles that seem to continue endlessly and you have no idea why, that’s when the game can test your patience.
Because of this battle system, it’s possible to finish all of Undertale without killing a single monster. All you have to do is show them a bit of kindness to pacify them, then have them spare you. This yields a lot of interesting character interactions and reactions.
The monsters themselves are pretty goofy. The aesthetics and humor were based on EarthBound, Homestuck, and even Mr. Bean. And the humor tends to center on some well-timed visual gags, sarcasm and Internet culture. If you enjoy using social media and in-jokes about other games and anime, you’ll definitely love the humor. Of course, the game already assumes that you have some familiarity with RPGs. But if you’re not, some of the jokes will probably fly over your head.
But that doesn’t mean the story is pure nonsense. In fact, the story is probably the most recognized aspect of Undertale. For one, the worldbuilding and even premise are quite similar to that of Cave Story, even down to the adorable (but lethal) monsters. There are moments when the game does kinda sit down and tell a more serious story, after you settle in a calmer atmosphere. The game does a great job in feeding you exposition about the Underground, the monsters and even their relationship with humans without feeling too forced.
There’s even a hidden horror story inspired by creepypastas and Yume Nikki of all things, in the form of W.D. Gaster. If you carefully look for some Easter eggs, you may even discover a disturbing little backstory about a character who ceased to be…
My only real complaint about the exposition is that near the end of the game, a bunch of monsters give you a backstory based on a tragedy of a monster prince. They all appeared at the last minute to dump this on you, just as you were about to enter a major confrontation. That’s the one time where I felt the exposition got a little too heavy. It’s a minor thing but I always felt that part of the game was a bit clumsy and out-of-nowhere. Were all those monsters just waiting there the whole time to give all this new info to you?
Other than that, I enjoyed reading about the backstory of the war between humans and monsters. I enjoyed the progression of the whole journey, from the Ruins to New Home. I enjoyed meeting the eccentric, likable characters.
The Laughs, the Interactivity and the Horrors
None of us can deny that Undertale is oozing with character, even down to its most minor NPCs. Some like Papyrus, Undyne and Mettaton are undoubtedly over-the-top, yet lovable, while characters like Toriel, Sans and Alphys are more mellow and humble. There’s a certain warmth that all of these characters bring to the table. Deep down, you know they’re all good people, even when their intentions are misguided.
Even an easy-to-despise character like Flowey has his moments. Those who managed to play the game entirely know EXACTLY what I’m talking about. These are some seriously well written characters, and they’re the reason why Undertale is so enjoyable. The monsters of the Underground are so endearing that you don’t want to hurt them.
You can even identify with their situation. Even though they’re stuck in the Underground, the monsters are doing their best to live in a world without trees, sunlight, sky, fresh air and everything else on the surface world. They’re just like normal people trying to live through each day, remaining optimistic in a hopeless situation.
This is a trope called Videogame Caring Potential, where you end up identifying with the characters. Even though you know they’re fictional, they still got your sympathy.
There are a total of three kinds of playthroughs: Neutral, True Pacifist and Genocide. Neutral is the default route played, while True Pacifist is what you get when you explored everything without killing a single monster.
Now, as to why Undertale could only work as a video game… it’s self-aware. The game heavily relies on your input as a player in order to make progress. Every single choice you make, whether you spare or kill a monster, will count against you. Every subtle interactions you make can slightly change the outcome of another event.
Probably the most blatant example is the Genocide route, where you kill every single monster you come across. The narrative significantly changes here, where normal events no longer occur and the Underground feels noticeably hollow. And when you see it through to the end, the consequences will even haunt your future playthroughs….
And as heartbreaking (and frustrating) the Genocide route is, it presents some interesting commentary about the common RPG. In nearly every RPG in existence, we kill monsters without provocation. We just want all those levels, experience points, gold, item drops and whatever else we can get our hands on. It’s all part of the game. Otherwise, we can’t defeat the major bad guy at the end.
The character at the end of the Genocide route is literally the embodiment of this endless grind. It’s an unfeeling, emotionless being whose only desire is to gain more, more and even MORE.
It even leaves us with this chilling revelation, before literally breaking the game:
Together, we eradicated the enemy and became strong. HP. ATK. DEF. GOLD. EXP. LV. Every time a number increases, that feeling…
The Genocide route, appropriately, gives you everything you deserve. A much harder time to complete the game (“you’re going to have a bad time”). Dreadfully long, tedious and even boring at times. Everyone calling you out for your actions. Giving you a major downer ending that even affects your future playthroughs.
If it’s not obvious here, then I’ll say it. Undertale is a genre deconstruction of RPGs. Aside from breaking the fourth wall, it challenges the modern conventions of RPGs. And beyond that, there’s a bit of psychological horror underneath. In this game, killing monsters makes you feel bad, even when they’re attacking you. They usually want something else other than violence: acknowledgement, compliments, amusement and even just a little conversation.
There’s more to Undertale other than some silly hoo-hahs and interesting lore. It’s a unique experience with a compelling world and an endless number of Easter eggs that make every playthrough unique in some way. No, seriously. This game can change in the most subtle ways. It’s truly amazing to see how much thought and polish went into this relatively short game.
PlayStation and Nintendo Switch Ports
Well, time for a quick update. As you may have known, a port of Undertale came out for the PlayStation Vita and PlayStation 4 in 2017. While I personally haven’t played either port, I think I should bring up if there are any major differences to the game. The most notable change to the game is the addition of a small new area called the Dog Shrine.
Basically, this area is one big trolling effort from Toby Fox himself (and to add more trophies to get the game on the PlayStation Store). And if you want to collect all 30 PlayStation trophies, you have to donate to the Dog Shrine until completion. Because you actually get 15 of those trophies from this one place alone…
For the most part, the PlayStation ports are mostly identical to their PC counterpart, as noted in this version differences page.
Then another port came out for the Nintendo Switch in 2018, and I did get to play this version of Undertale. This one actually has a small bit of new content that involves using the Switch Joy-Cons. The Dog Shrine from the PlayStation versions makes a return here, but in an oddly ruined state (weird bit of continuity there, Toby). The one thing that stands out is that there is a red-and-blue set of double doors at the shrine. And I think the seal comes off when you complete the Hotland area.
Then… holy crap, it’s a new boss battle! And it’s an anime catgirl animatronic… huh…?
As you may have guessed, this boss fight is entirely optional. But for the sake of new content, I think this one is worth experiencing seeing as how wonderfully chaotic it can get. It’s like a variation of the Muffet boss fight, except you’re controlling two halves of your SOUL using the control sticks of your Joy-Cons. To REALLY get the most out of this fight, I recommend trying not to get hit once…
And if you’re wondering if there’s anything else to the Switch version, there is a small bit of new lore to it… kinda. I mean, what the hell can you say about this?
Well, that was freaky.
If you’ve met this NPC before (which is by completely random on a save file), she mentioned a neighbor’s daughter named Suzy and that you should get to know her. And if you played Undertale’s followup game called Deltarune, you would meet a character named Susie. Whether this is blatant foreshadowing and that Suzy and Susie are the same being has yet to be seen. At this point though, I feel like this is Toby Fox fucking with our heads again. He loves doing that.
And that’s all I have to say about Undertale. It is a very well-made indie game, constructed mostly by a single person. Toby Fox, I don’t how you managed it, but you’re a mad genius. You managed to construct a whole universe with some simple aesthetics and innovation. I hope your future projects will go well too, because you have seriously hit the jackpot with this underdog of a game!
- Deep lore and a highly enjoyable adventure.
- A unique battle system that encourages you to try different tactics aside from attacking.
- Very memorable characters.
- Unique humor based on visual gags, Internet culture and sarcasm.
- Some good commentary that deconstructs the RPG genre.
- Sparing conditions can be vague and unintuitive.