What it is:
An indie game made by Toby Fox after a successful kickstarter campaign, “Undertale” is a retro-style RPG following the tale of a human child who accidentally falls into an underground world of monsters beneath a mountain, and the child’s quest to return home. This story shares a basic premise with similar games, but the branching paths of the plot, characters, and even game mechanics, take twists and turns that upend many of the expectations and tropes that have become the bedrock of the genre.
The Short of It:
“Undertale” is an exceptional game. It is not long, even considering multiple playthroughs, but the game makes every second of your time worth it. The game mechanics are simple but brilliant. The basic art and bit music are used to excellent effect to create a colorful world that is a joy to explore and live in, and to provide an atmosphere of quirk, adventure and heart to the player’s journey.
The plot has multiple branching paths created by the player’s interactions with the charming characters, and yet these branches are marked more by the change of relationships of the player to the characters than by changes in the plot. Despite this, every little branch feels world-shakingly different.
“Undertale” is a funny, clever, and deceptively simple game with a big heart and impressive meta-knowledge of how people play RPG games that allows it to rise well beyond the typical genre fare.
The Long of It:
I remember being told before I started playing the game that I should go into it without playing it or seeing anything from it first – that it was best experienced with no prior knowledge of what you were getting into. I wholeheartedly agree with that sentiment, and it is unfortunate that I didn’t quite follow it. I knew what would happen through the first leg of the game, the tutorial area called “The Ruins,” and I wish I hadn’t. I wish I had gone in cold.
So take my word for it! This is an excellent game worth playing. Go play it! That being said, I know there are those of you who want something going in, so I will oblige while giving as little away as I can.
The basic plot is what it is. It is very simple. What makes everything complex, charming, and different is the characters and the players’ ability to interact with them outside of simple combat. As the tagline goes, this is a game where you don’t have to kill anybody.
The game mechanics are all built to reinforce this unique approach. You are presented with the classic options of “Fight” and “Items” that are found in all RPGs to one extent or another, but “Undertale” mixes this up by adding the “Act” and “Mercy” buttons. The “Act” button provides unique interactions with each opponent that allows you to deal with them on a different level. Perhaps instead of trying to kill the dog warrior creature, you could pet it and play with it? Once you have changed the relationship between you both, then you could spare it through the “Mercy” button, and end the fight without violence? These are legitimate responses to confrontations in “Undertale.”
Beyond this, the game offers a new way to keep fights interesting, even when playing as a complete pacifist. Instead of just accepting the attack of your opponent on their turn, you instead play a mini bullet-hell game where you play as your heart, your “Soul,” trying to avoid patterned attacks from your opponent. It provides an interesting way of keeping the game exciting and skillful when you’re on defense, and it keeps the pacifist run from feeling like a simple adventure game with menus and basic puzzles. The fighting mechanic is also more satisfying than just choosing a menu option, as it is a timing minigame, though it isn’t as engaging as the defense game.
That said, as long as you aren’t a monster, you won’t want to kill anybody. All of the characters have some degree of charm and innocence that makes them adorable. I found myself naturally wanting to make friends with everyone rather than killing them. Even the minor characters, the random encounter monsters, have a lot of charm and personality.
However you choose to do it, the game adjusts to you. There are three paths to take through the game: Neutral, True Pacifist, and Genocide. The Neutral path is the easiest path to take since you still gain levels and strength without trying to grind through everyone like you have to in the Genocide route. and playing as a Pacifist means never gaining levels or HP, meaning that every fight is incredibly difficult to survive.
Both of the other paths are more difficult to do. A “True Pacifist” run is completed by refusing to kill anyone throughout the whole game, which might require a complete re-play if you killed characters in the “Neutral Path.” However, if you choose to not kill anyone on your first go it is relatively easy to jump back into your old save and complete the “True Pacifist” playthrough.
The Genocide route is pure hell, as you have to grind through every monster fight in each of the main areas of the game and kill every character. I had to watch it on Youtube, I just couldn’t actually kill everyone I had grown to love, digital and fictional creations or not. Knowing what I know, I must warn you to not play through a Genocide run first. The game remembers what you have done, even if you completely restart the game. It will change every other playthrough you do afterwards.
Conclusion and Star Rating:
I knew I liked the game the second I finished my last playthrough, but over time I came to realize just how much I loved this game. The characters are fantastic and adorable, and the plot supports them well. The gameplay is engaging and fun. The art and music come together to create a fully realized world, despite the low-tech design. Ultimately, I give “Undertale” Five out of Five stars, or “Excellent.” I can’t think of someone who loves RPGs and character-driven stories whom I wouldn’t recommend this game to. Play it!
For those of you who stuck around after the rating, I’ve got a extra segment for you called Spoiler Talk. It’s a segment in which I discuss what I thought of certain elements of the story or themes that are too spoilerish or high-concept for the main review. What I say here doesn’t ever trump my review, instead it might give insight into what exactly made me give something the score I did. So let’s get started.
There are so many things I could talk about. I’m not sure I could cover it all without talking forever, and I have other things to write! Let’s just run down the game chronologically and I’ll give my brief take on the characters.
The opening with Flowey, all the way to the end of the battle with Toriel was spoiled for me, but I still loved it. The tutorial area is simple, but it really does provide a nice playground to learn the ins and outs of things. If I didn’t know before I played the game who Toriel was and that she was genuine I think I would have been a lot more suspicious of her.
Flowey is such a jerk for so much of the game, and that first interaction with him really sets it all up. He’s going to be a trickster thorn in your side, and he will be there at the end of it all. The revelation as to just who Flowey was surprised me, however, as did the revelation of the identity of the real villain of the whole game, Chara – the first fallen human. But of course all that comes much later.
Toriel, whose name I didn’t realize for the longest time was a play on “tutorial,” is so sweet. I love this butterscotch pie making goat mom. I slept in the bed in her house, and woke up the next morning to find the pie slice waiting for me. It felt that was such a touching moment. I think that if I was playing through with no foreknowledge, that might have just tipped me off that she was real in her love and care. On a side note, I don’t know that I like the fandom’s shipping of her and Sans. I feel like they are just great friends who have bonded over terrible jokes.
Speaking of Sans, he is the perfect blend of childish humor and hidden serious undertones. His introduction was just great. The fart joke takes a dangerous situation and makes it absolutely hilarious, and I loved going through the puzzles with his humorous take on the whole thing. Then, the meeting with him in the hotel/comedy club area was very interesting and revealing, and finally your last meeting with him in the judgement hall has an epic feel to it, even running through the Pacifist route. He really does feel like a best friend, and I love his relationship with his brother, Papyrus.
Papyrus is a doof. A loveable, nerdy doof. I think that he’s not the kind of friend you’d really want to hang out with, though – at least not in real life. I think that the universal love he is getting comes from the fact that he is just as goofy and silly as we all feel at times. He is like our inner child, and we love him for it.
Undyne is a character that grew on me. She had such excellent build up for a villain, and she felt truly imposing, but I only came to love her as a character during our hangout together, as well as seeing just how protective she could be for the other monsters. I never really bought her love for Alphys, but I guess that just shows my bias for the Undyne/Papyrus ship. Alphys just seems way too different for that relationship to last.
Speaking of Alphys, she is one strange cookie. Of all the characters, I think she’s my least favorite. Not because I don’t like her, mind you, but the things she has done are harder to deal with and overlook. I mean… she created those amalgam creatures. Even though it all turns out okay in the end, it doesn’t stop it from all being a bit gross and terrible, and that part of the good ending is unrealistic in a bad way. I suppose it isn’t entirely her fault. It was pretty much an accident, and she was following the orders of Asgore.
Before I skip on to Asgore, let me just say that I like Metaton a lot. His final battle is perhaps one of the most fun battles in the game, and he has killer style. Still, I had the least emotional connection either positively or negatively with his character and story.
Now Asgore… I like Asgore. I felt really bad for him in the final battle, and I really wanted to find a way to bring my conflict with him to an end peacefully (that Mercy button smashing, though!).
Despite this, I feel his likeability is hard to reconcile with the fact that he killed a bunch of other human kids. I mean, he seriously killed them. I know he felt like he had to, but I completely understand why Toriel left him. All that said, I’m glad I was able to redeem him in the very end.
The final battles with Flowey, and then Asriel, were terrific. At first I thought it was impossible, but then I found how to play it and it became magical – a real dance with death. You constantly feel like you are on the brink of losing horribly, being chewed up by a being with godlike powers, but ultimately the battle isn’t as hard as previous fights. I think it’s brilliant how it manages to feel like the most dangerous without actually being the most dangerous. It is built to let you succeed. Done wrong, that kind of fight can kill the tension of the plot, but done right it becomes amazing and gives the player a real emotional high.
And then the End… oh man, I’m glad I played true pacifist. The true ending is beautiful – much better than the flat ending given on the neutral path. I don’t know about you, but I stayed with Toriel. Goat Mom for life! I like to imagine that as ambassador I was able to enjoy a life in both the world of Monsters and Man, living alongside the family and friends I made on my adventure.
“Undertale” has a lot of interesting things to say about gaming and storytelling in games, and it questions the nature of violence in our narratives, even as it allows you to do terrible things if you are determined to do so. It also portrays homosexual relationships in an interesting and subtle way. They just happen. It isn’t ever played up or questioned. It just is. That will put some people off, I think, but whatever. It’s a worthwhile game to play either way. It is just another example of how it is deeper than it appears at first glance. “Undertale” is one of my new favorite games of all time. Period.
At least, that is my take. If you think differently, feel free to share in the comments below!