Undertale is the darling of indie games at the moment, one of those one-man projects which manages to achieve a far greater sense of depth and meaning than any number of Triple A titles. Funded on Kickstarter to the measly sum of $51,000, by all rights Undertale ought to be entirely unknown and unplayed. It uses pixel sprite graphics more reminiscent of Mario and Pokemon games from the 1990s than any games which are deliberately trying to be “retro” (like Shovel Knight) and looks, frankly, like the sort of game which ought to not hold anyone’s attention for longer than a few minutes. Despite its looks, the fact that practically its entire development is the work of one man (Toby Fox), the tiny budget and the general status of “absolutely insignificant” Undertale has gone on to sell over half a million copies (at the time of writing this) and won enough Game of the Year awards in the same year that the Witcher 3 was released that it might just be beyond comprehension how successful it is.
As so many other reviewers have, allow me to further preface my review of Undertale by saying that clarifying and explaining the game is really rather difficult to do without actually spoiling much of the premise and what makes it so popular. I shall, however, endeavour to talk about the game and the various aspects of it whilst attempting to keep spoilers to a minimum.
The game is set in an unknown and fictional world where you, the protagonist, fall down into a cave from the human world into the “monster” world. The brief sequence at the start of the game informs you that once humans and monsters shared the surface, but following a war the monsters were forced into hiding underground. From there on you play as the child who has fallen into the monster world, attempting to escape.
The game plays out in a top-down perspective, very much along the lines of Pokemon or Zelda, and shares much of the style of 8-bit music and basic colour-schemes as these older titles. During your adventure you meet various characters you interact with, again purely via a olde-timey text-based system, with the occasional moment of choice in terms of dialogue. There are occasionally floor “puzzles” and traps of various sorts, but for the most part there is absolutely nothing strenuous here. The other major aspect of gameplay, as you venture across the world, is that you will be dragged into battles with various monsters you encounter, again almost like Pokemon in that you are suddenly drawn into a separate screen where you are presented with various choices in “fighting” the monster. The combat is turn-based, with you relying on timing clicks to hit your foe, followed by a “bullet hell”-esque session of dodging the attacks of the monster, fired at the small heart which represents you.
The quotation marks over “fighting” are fairly important however, because it is entirely possible through trial-and-error experimentation to actually end the battle with absolutely every single monster encountered in a peaceful fashion. Therein lies one of the key components of Undertale, that it is possible to actually make it through the game with a “clean hands” playthrough of sorts, killing none of the monsters which accost you.
Beyond this simple description of the mechanics, it becomes very difficult to explain the popularity of Undertale, but as I said I shall do my best. It is worth saying right here and now though, numerous reviewers have said that the very best thing to do in terms of finding out about the game is to actually ignore as much as you can of what is said about it and simply go and play it yourself. As someone who entered into the game fairly overly-informed about its content I can COMPLETELY CONFIRM that in order to experience the game at its best, you should really go into it with no expectations and as little prior knowledge as possible. So, if you are (somehow) still in the dark about the game beyond the mechanics I have described and have decided it is the game for you, then you would probably be best off going to play it immediately without reading any further.
The first thing one has to take into account is that the game is designed to be replayed. Much of what is considered to be astounding about the game is things which are revealed upon playing through it more than once. Equally, it seems to be possible to keep discovering new bits and pieces of dialogue, monsters and secrets if you keep replaying it, and I cannot deny that the amount of depth it seems to have in terms of possibilities is not unimpressive.
This replayability is particularly important given the three major possible endings of the game, and the variations on each of those. Thanks to the spread of the game it is likely that you will already know about the various endings, but in case you don’t they are the “Neutral”, “Pacifist” (or in actuality the “True Pacifist”) and the “Genocide” routes. However, even this knowledge could be somewhat termed as a spoiler and I would absolutely urge you to, on your first playthrough to go for the Neutral option. Thus also operating under the assumption that you will play it again.
By playing the Neutral route first you are given the chance to explore the world and the various consequences of your actions without really all too many consequences. On the other hand, playing the Genocide route, for example, is definitely not recommended for first time players because of the lack of context you will have with your actions. This becomes the issue with knowing too much about the game going in, that one may start treating these “routes” like objectives and achievements to be earned, rather than specifically immersing oneself in the game, which is definitely a bad thing.
Despite all of the praise surrounding the game, I will admit that much of what I’ve said thus far has been objective description, sometimes paraphrased from other sources. I say this because I did not enjoy Undertale. Or more in truth, I hugely enjoyed some sporadic, very brief moments, but was then bored out of my mind for the rest of it.
The game is at its absolute best when main characters are involved and when it is, essentially, being Undertale. There were several moments during my playthrough (which ended up being a very run-of-the-mill Neutral playthrough) that absolutely stunned me to a standstill. I was completely unprepared for the emotions I experienced and the way the game handled and displayed its story. The writing was, and I do agree with the majority of critics on this score at least, absolutely fantastic. What makes it more impressive is given the design of the game and how it insists you replay it in order to experience everything, truly masterful work.
HOWEVER, I disliked a lot of the rest of it. Several of the reviews I’ve seen praised the “bullet-hell” style combat as challenging, innovative and fun. “Challenging” I will admit is true, but only in a un-fucking-believably frustrating sense because of the sheer number of attacks which genuinely seemed completely unavoidable. Coupled with the amount of fights one might end up getting into (especially with backtracking) and it just became repetitive and annoying. Innovative? No, at least I wouldn’t have said so. And I definitely was not having fun with it. Plus, when you had large stretches of the game where it was just fight after fight and it did become somewhat difficult to stay focused.
Of the characters you are introduced to, one’s interactions with them can be exceptionally hit and miss. When you first meet the famous skeleton brothers Sans and Papyrus, the dialogue is actually laugh-out-loud funny and occasionally thought-provoking. After a while though it devolves into boring, slightly cringe-worthy, and just frankly boring. Then you also have characters like Alphys who completely missed the mark for me, coming across as only irritating and not very much else.
There are also specific sequences involving various characters, of which I believe I only participated in one of the optional ones, and that too was just a whole lot of clicking through dialogue about as fast as I could go as I tried to figure out why exactly I was subjecting myself to this pointlessness. Even in hindsight, I still don’t have an answer to that question.
Now, the thing to note here is that I have only played the game once through, and that’s it. And that might be the source of many of my problems. Perhaps if I obeyed my own advice and went back to play it through again, perhaps deliberately attempting a True Pacifist playthrough, I would gain a new appreciation for the game and its characters. Perhaps what I am missing here is the context.
The problem is that I am not sure I have the patience to play through the whole thing again and I have not gained enough of an appreciation of the gameplay or its characters for me to think it would be worth playing through it just to gain some context. Plus, it’s an important point to make that many times in the past it has been argued that if you have to play a certain way or a certain amount or do a certain thing before you WILL finally have fun, then that’s not a fun game.
A last problem I have is less an issue with the game, but still needs to be mentioned. The fandom for Undertale is such cancer that it actually makes me hurt just thinking about it. Not only has the internet been completely flooded with Undertale content, but because of its prevalence, the Undertale-specific content has been making its way into the “mainstream” and thus actually poisoning new player’s experience because they are being exposed to information about the game prior to playing it. I realise that this is likely due to its massive surge in popularity from virtually unknown to half a million in sales, and people want to celebrate their new-found joy for it, but god I wish the Hivemind would have some restraint sometimes…
Also, it’s genuinely fucking disturbing just how much porn there exists of the game… And it’s not even ever clarified whether the protagonist is a male or female…
AND IT’S A CHILD!
That’s messed up yo…