Undertale

Undertale is so outlandish that it is sometimes a bit hard to explain what it does; and it is able to pack loveliness, dread, and oddity together so neatly that it is occasionally tough to understand how it makes it

Undertale came to be through the hands of a single person. And, when playing it, one comes to realize that such a characteristic is both perfectly conceivable and utterly impressive. From one side, it makes a whole lot of sense for it to be the work of a sole individual, not just because there is an inherent simplicity that runs through the entirety of the game’s course, but mostly due to how only someone with total control over their creative process could assemble a product that is so odd.

There is this feeling that had Toby Fox received some sort of extra input, his artistic wildness could have been tamed by an outsider that would either ask him to tone the madness down or plant a seed of doubt in his mind that would lead to the reconsideration of some wacky decisions. At the same time, from a different perspective, Undertale – despite showing quite blatantly that it was produced by an independent developer on a strict budget that caused huge technical limitations – is shockingly dense, because under the surface of its visuals of irregular quality and bare-bones role-playing elements lies an abundance of details, ideas, and content that can easily cause one to question whether they were indeed put together by a solitary brain.

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With that contradiction in mind, it could be said Undertale is what happens when the popular tools of collective funding gift an alert and hyperactive creator with the liberty to do whatever they see fit. Nevertheless, freedom and disregard for common sense were not the only pillars that supported the game’s construction; after all, since nothing is built in a hermetically sealed space, the nature of Undertale, as unique as it may be, is a result of strong influences, and the game is far from being coy when it comes to them. Numerous industry giants could be mentioned as inspirations for the quirky pieces that make up the protagonist’s quest through the caves of the Underground, but two Super Nintendo classics in particular stand out as lighthouses that guided Toby Fox through the foggy uncharted territory he chose to navigate: EarthBound and Chrono Trigger.

From the former, Undertale borrows its tone. EarthBound rallied against the idea that RPGs had to abide by certain thematic and structural standards, and it did so by embracing battles, writing, and gameplay scenarios that were – at heart – certainly true to the genre, but also heavily soaked in gallons of reckless insanity; and Undertale picks up that rebellious flag. From the latter, meanwhile, the game borrows the idea that different actions open the way to a myriad of distinct endings. These are concepts that, essentially, are not new; so much, in fact, that the second one, with its branching routes and decision-making, has become a staple of many modern games.

However, though undoubtedly carried by fewer resources than those titles, Undertale arguably finds a way to make those features its own, and it does so by augmenting them considerably. It is as if it plugged the craziness of Earthbound and the richness of alternatives of Chrono Trigger into giant amplifiers and turned their dials all the way to the maximum level, generating this loud, discomforting, yet alluring wave of chaos.

That cacophonous symphony of sound, visuals, fury, and madness takes place in a world divided between monsters and humans. The two species used to live peacefully alongside one another on the surface until a war broke out. Defeated, the monsters were banished to the Underground, which was sealed shut by powerful magicians. Longing for the day they would be able to break the spell of that barrier and escape, the monsters built a kingdom of their own in a system of caves; concomitantly, the creatures developed various feelings towards the beings above the ground, from fear, hatred, and resentment to respect and admiration.

Eventually, for unknown reasons, a human child chooses to climb Mount Ebott, which serves as the entrance to the Underground, and ends up falling down its crater and into its depths. Rescued by a friendly monster, the child is warned of the danger posed by the king of the Underground if he finds out about their presence. Nonetheless, the silent protagonist opts to continue forth so they can meet the ruler of the monsters and find a way back home.

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In the setup of its quest, Undertale is – then – pretty straightforward, delineating from the get go a clear path from the point of the child’s arrival in the Underground to the exit barrier that is watched over by the king. And, structurally, the game follows suit, as its world is a linear sequence of caves that, through various environments, connect these two dots. In spite of that, below that thin skin that seems to announce a tidy predictable route from beginning to end, Undertale engineers a narrative of astounding depth, featuring surprising developments and intricate details with which it plays around whenever gamers make an impactful choice, creating, therefore, a highly interactive plot that is perfectly built for the videogame medium.

Like EarthBound, Undertale has an unchained spirit with little to no regard to exterior perception, consequently producing humor that fearlessly alternates between the silly and the nonsensical. Still, amidst this unpredictability where the absurd is the only certainty, it is able to find a story with a very rare amount of heart and originality, one that frequently blurs the line that separates good from evil and that is often touching: sometimes weirdly so and occasionally in the rawest possible form.

Part of what Undertale does in terms of emotional weight and gameplay oddity stems from its astonishing cast of characters. The areas between the Underground’s entry point and the barrier to the surface are as defined by their scenarios as they are by the monsters the protagonist will come to meet. The progress through each of those locations is usually guided by one or more characters, and their personality will heavily influence the kinds of challenges the human child will have to face. In that sense, Undertale packs a little bit of everything: there is the warm safe embrace of motherly love; the threat of a mighty warrior that is out to kill; the goofiness of a pair of skeletons; and more.

All these creatures, via multiple encounters with the playable human and a heavy dose of dialogue that smoothly transits from the sweet to the awkward, receive amusing arches that give them remarkable and fully developed personalities; more importantly, their traits end up affecting gameplay itself – even if ever so slightly – because not only can their stories be changed by what players do, but the quirks of these monsters are an integral part of the unpredictable events that occur in each area, and it is very hard to be prepared to deal with the weird – borderline surrealistic – stuff that Undertale shows at the screen.

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These wild threads of words, plot, and happenings that carry the segments of Undertale to greatness reveal the first of the game’s three major highlights: its writing. It is bold; it is moving; and it its thrown towards the wall with no consideration whatsoever as to whether it will stick or not. But what is more stunning about it is how much of it there is, because all corners of Undertale’s world are overflowing with these little blurbs of insanity that are waiting to be found. These smart, funny, self-aware, and occasionally fourth-wall-breaking pieces of text come from everywhere: from the description of items, from objects lying around the scenarios, and from the dozens of sides-characters that inhabit the Underground.

Truthfully, Undertale is far from being the first game to do so; its biggest inspiration, EarthBound, is itself also famous for being a game that begs for every piece of its universe to be checked due to how entertaining nuggets of text are omnipresent. Arguably, however, no title has done it to the same extent that Undertale does. Various are the objects and characters that upon repeated interactions will produce different sentences; all enemies, if analyzed during battle, are described in entertaining ways; and numerous are the moments where choices, in terms of actions and dialogue, will lead to unique exchanges.

Perhaps the biggest example of how dedicated Undertale is to its writing is a cellphone that players acquire towards the beginning of their journey if they successfully befriend a character. The device can be used in any of the hundreds of rooms that make up the game’s caves, and for every single one of those there is an exclusive conversation. It is a bounty of riches that is almost endless, and it is doubtful many players have seen or will ever see all the game has to offer.

Combing the environments in search of text is such a major part of the experience of Undertale that out of the average of six hours players are bound to spend to get to the end of the adventure, a considerable portion of them will be devoted to that task, and it is absolutely worth it. Certainly, it is a feature that will alienate players who do not see much value in such an activity, but anyone with love for good writing will be utterly stunned by what Undertale achieves.

The second of Undertale’s highlights is found in its battle system, which is original in more ways than one can count. True to the game’s superficial simplicity, and once more drinking from the source of EarthBound, combats are shown on a screen that is purposely, yet charmingly, bland. Enemies appear as lightly animated sprites, while the protagonist and the moves they perform are not seen at all. Instead, the human child is represented by a red heart, and a menu with four options is displayed at the bottom. In addition to that setup and the turn-based nature of these encounters, Undertale indeed has a few other links to RPGs that preceded it.

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The effectiveness of attacks is increased by pressing buttons timely. Defeating foes leads to acquiring experience points, and these, in turn, are converted into levels that power up the protagonist’s stats. And some weapons and pieces of clothing found around the overworld can be equipped in order to improve the character’s defense and offense, cause interesting side-effects, and change the way attacks are performed. But Undertale is clearly not dedicated to any of those mundane features: stats cannot be customized; equipment is far from being varied; and the way of attacking does not really change that much between weapons.

Undertale knows its prowess and what sets it apart are elsewhere, and it is in those areas that it uses the full extent of its massive creative power. When defending, the game finds originality in locking the heart that represents the protagonist inside a tight box, and the attacks executed by enemies, coming in the form of projectiles, must be avoided by moving the icon around. What is truly flooring is how much Undertale is able to do with so little, because the game’s absurd surrealistic soul leaks into this mechanic, and monsters attack in a myriad of ways that are as fun as they are ridiculous.

There are depressed beings whose tears flow into the box, airplanes that do bombing runs, dogs that summon cuddly puppies that jump around the screen, bodybuilding monsters that attack with flexing biceps, skeletons that build daunting obstacle courses out of bones, a few bad guys that completely break the rules one comes to expect out of that defense mechanism, and much more. It is an approach that lends unforeseen levels of thrilling action to the usually monotonic patterns of turn-based combats, and similarly to what happens with Undertale’s writing, the wild nature of these attacks makes it impossible for one to get to a point where they grow accustomed to what the game does. There is a heavy eccentricity to them, and that allows battles to be surprising until the very end.

Meanwhile, when it is the protagonist’s turn to act, Undertale offers the usual options of attacking, using items, and fleeing. However, it also allows players to interact with their foes via an assortment of actions that vary according to the monster. And these are not there for the sake of being funny and quirky – even if that is certainly part of their charm; they actually play a major role in the other defining characteristic of Undertale’s combats: the fact monsters do not need to be killed at all. While battles rage on, and as yet another display of the quantity and quality of Undertale’s writing, monsters will just not attack, but also speak – via text bubbles – and perform harmless actions that will be described in the text box. There are creatures that tell jokes, try to sing, feel miserable, perform sexy dances, want to play, mock the protagonist, are delighted by the awesome hat they are wearing, among many others.

What these attitudes do, other than amuse considerably, is clue the player into which of the available actions must be taken in order to lead the monster to give up fighting, at which point their names will become yellow and sparing their lives will be possible. This implementation turns the battles of Undertale not only into a natural extension of the text-based madness of its world, but also into mini-puzzles to those who do not feel like hurting the monsters.

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Moreover, given all actions performed by the player cause the creatures to react in some way, with certain sequences of moves generating spectacular effects, there is a lot of fun to be had in endlessly interacting with enemies to see what will happen. As such, even when making a mistake and picking an action that is clearly not the one that will cause a foe to be spared, it is possible to be entertained and avoid frustration. The possibility to spare enemies has, however, one ramification that is sweeter than pure entertainment; it actually allows the game to be beaten in three distinct ways, and that is the third and final highlight of Undertale.

The neutral route has players mixing killing and sparing; the pacifist route requires that no enemies be defeated; and the genocide route demands that all monsters be exterminated. Naturally, as one would expect from such a configuration, the three paths lead to totally different endings, with the neutral route offering countless variations according to who exactly was left standing. Surprisingly, though, that is not the most impressive outcome of that feature, as the other big inspiration of Undertale – Chrono Trigger – had already dabbled into constructing more than a dozen endings that were unlocked according to what gamers did and forgot to do.

What is most stunning about these roads is how different they are in the feelings they conjure, in the occurrences they portray, and in their level of difficulty. With mostly the same assets, the same world, the same battles, and the same characters, Undertale makes three adventures that are totally unique by executing alterations in presentation, in dialogues, and in its stunning and moving retro soundtrack. The neutral route is relatively contradictory and easy; the pacifist path is sweet and challenging; and the genocide quest is one of the most disturbing arches in videogame history, has a few brutally difficult bosses, and is time-consuming.

Undertale is so outlandish that it is sometimes a bit hard to explain what it does; and it is able to pack loveliness, dread, and oddity together so neatly that it is occasionally tough to understand how it makes it. Nevertheless, if one were forced to point out what it is exactly that causes it to be so fantastic and original, it would be reasonable to single out its unrestrained wackiness and how it leaks into every area of the title; its incredible battle system, which doubles as a text-based puzzle and an action-packed mini-game of avoiding projectiles; the extent and quality of its script; and the way it takes advantages of players’ choices to build three adventures that are very distinct and that beg for multiple playthroughs.

Undertale is a one-man achievement, and although its visuals do show that it was built under restricted circumstances, nothing else about it indicates that was the case, especially the density of its textual content and the abundance of ideas it sports. However, the game’s status a sole endeavor ends up making a lot of sense, because it takes a special kind of liberty – one only found in lonely journeys – for a product to be so authorial, artistically free, and consistent in its beautiful absence of consistency.

Final Score: 9 – Phenomenal

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13 thoughts on “Undertale

  1. Yup. I rather like this one a lot… need to get it on my Switch as well as Steam, methinks. An excellent story involved, too, which I find rather rare in video games.

  2. Hey, looks like that Switch version came out after all! All things considered, it was highly appropriate. For obvious reasons, Undertale is considered the spiritual successor to Earthbound, and if I’m going to be honest, I feel this is a case where the student surpassed the master. The games of the Earthbound trilogy provided very forward-looking experiences for their time, but I feel Undertale manages to gel with the medium far more organically.

    In fact, it’s as though Toby Fox looked over the Earthbound trilogy in a way that acknowledged its strong points while also admitting that it had its share weaknesses. From there, he did a spectacular job addressing them. To be honest, I’m not sure if that’s exactly how it went, but it’s difficult to argue with the quality of the end product. Whereas Shigesato Itoi tried and ultimately failed to make the utterly contemptible Porky sympathetic (instead making him come across as a massive hypocrite), Mr. Fox successfully implemented a similar villain who hit most of the same notes, yet did indeed end up being legitimately sympathetic. I’m not really a big fan of that type of overly obnoxious villain, but Mr. Fox made it work. For that matter, when I was going into it, I was expecting it to be a banal critique on humanity based on its premise and the fact that Mother 3 was an inspiration. I was delightfully proven wrong when it turned out I wasn’t giving the game enough credit – there was actual nuance to the tropes it used. This is the kind of storytelling the medium needs more of. It utterly destroys 99% percent of anything the AAA comes up with – and that’s a conservative estimate. For that matter, there are talented filmmakers who have gone their entire careers without crafting such an affecting story.

    Anyway, this was an excellent review as usual.

    1. In terms of narrative it certainly topples Mother 2 and 3, I can’t say anything about the first one as I haven’t played it. It’s an incredibly touching story with a sympathetic villain.

      When it comes to gameplay, I feel Undertale expanded upon Earthbound’s idea of having enemies do random stuff during battles. In the latter, that happens occasionally, and in Undertale it is not only constant but also plays a role in helping players find a way to end battles peacefully. Additionally, the whole bullet-hell mechanic is surprisingly refreshing and is explored wonderfully throughout the game.

      Here’s hoping Undertale inspires other developers to take their narratives to new levels, but that is much easier said than done. It takes a special combination of inspiration and effort to get to that level.

      And thanks for the compliment!

    2. Not only did it come out on Switch, it also has an exclusive secret boss not found in the other versions!

      Best indie game ever. Unless Nintendo games count as AAA titles, I can’t think of any AAA titles that top it.

      1. It does, and it is a pretty awesome boss!

        When it comes to being the best indie game ever, I still give the edge to Hollow Knight, but it’s a pretty tight race. Celeste, Shovel Knight, and SteamWorld Dig 2 are also up there.

  3. Best indie game I’ve ever played, and it’s not even close. I’m pretty surprised you didn’t give it a 10. Obviously, it became one of my tens alongside the likes of Super Mario Odyssey, Dark Souls, Mario RPG, etc. Had you given it a 10 I think this would have been the first time you, me and Red Metal all agreed on a perfect score for a game. Maybe when Red Metal reviews DKC2 or Galaxy 2 they’ll achieve the feat. 😛

    1. Yeah, that would have been a pretty cool agreement, but I guess we’ll have to leave it for another opportunity. =P

      And thanks for reading and for the comment!

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