Spoiler Warning: It would be impossible for me to review Undertale accurately without discussing some of the main mechanics and plot points which may spoil the experience for new players. I’ll try to be vague regarding spoilers where possible, but if you wish to experience this game blind then I suggest not reading any further.
“It’s a comedian’s job to be funny – yet too many are more concerned with showing off how clever they are”. – Brendon Burns
Have you ever watched a standup comedian who has introduced a gimmick or a bit of drama into their act? It’s become a bit of a trend here in the UK. Comedians will do a show and at some point they will pull the rug up from under their audience’s feet to shock or portray some sort of message. Do you know what else is a bit of trend? These comedians tend to not be funny. Playing Undertale reminded me of an interview I once read by a comedian named Brendon Burns on this very subject.
‘In the US the highest compliment you can get is from other comics and it’s “Man you were hilarious.” In the UK it’s from critics and it’s “You’re very clever. I saw what you did.” Does no-one else see what’s wrong with this picture?’
The reason I bring this up is because ‘Undertale’ is a game that does some very clever things. I’m assuming this is the reason that it’s so popular amongst fans and critics alike. Unfortunately for me, the clever mechanics or meta references are not enough to carry what is otherwise a slow, boring, linear RPG that looks like in was drawn by children.
The prelude is very straight forward. Many years ago there was a war between the human race and monsters. Humans were the victors and banished all the remaining monsters into a world under the earth’s surface. The protagonist you play as has stumbled into this world and is trying to get back home. It’s safe to assume that the back story was probably written by the same children that did the graphics.
Undertale is played from a top down perspective. The world map essentially consists of a single path from beginning to end. There is the odd short tangent here and there, plus addition shortcuts to help you jump back and forth to particular points should you need to, but for the most part this game is very linear. Depending on how you are doing, you may wish to back track in order to find a particular shop, item or you may just wish to explore and level up. However, if you have a strong run it’s possible to get to the end without the need to back track.
The world is split into a few different areas, including ruins, a village, a waterfall, a laboratory, so there is some variety to the locations. The path is strung together by a sequence of puzzles that you need to solve to make progress. These range from finding a safe passage across a crumbling floor, sliding tiles, shooting targets, avoiding lasers. Nothing about these puzzles is too challenging and they’re the easiest part of the game in my opinion.
Along your journey you are going to meet a host of madcap characters. There’s is a bit of an ‘Alice in Wonderland’ vibe running through this game as the characters are all pretty strange and goofy, but at times can be threatening and sinister depending on the circumstances. There are about half a dozen characters that play an important role in the story, however what helps to build up the world of Undertale is the supporting cast of different creatures that are scattered around. Many are happy to talk with you about the game’s law should you want to go deeper into the back story.
OK, so this is where we get into spoiler territory. Combat is a tad more interesting than your average RPG. Rather than you and your opponent selecting an attack, and the effectiveness is then influenced by RNG, there is actually a bit of hands on game play involved. To attack you need to react quickly to a power meter, similar to those found in golf games. When you are being attacked you have to control a small heart symbol around a box avoiding random shapes and projectiles, which feels a bit like a primitive space shooter.
However, early in your adventure you’ll encounter characters who’ll teach you about showing mercy to your opponents. As well as attacking, you also have the option to act in a non-violent manner. It’s very heavily implied that it’s advantageous to deal with conflicts in a non-violent way wherever possible, and attempt to befriend creatures that attack you, rather than destroy them.
There are advantages to killing random encounters as they will offer you EXP which can extend your health meter. They also drop gold which can be used to buy helpful things such as stat bonus items and food to help you recover from battles. However, your choices do have consequences so the way you choose to approach a run is up to you.
The biggest factor that influences the ending you achieve is how you treat the major characters in the game. They are all likely to attack you at some point for one reason or another. On top of that, befriending them can be a little tricky when you do not know which technique works best for getting on their good side. Whether you fight back or attempt to reason with them may have repercussions later on down the road, so you have to be smart about who you attack and when.
For me, the combat was the trickiest part of Undertale. Well, maybe not tricky, more enduring. Boss fights can take up to 10 minutes and if you are attempting to befriend them then there is no way of knowing whether the approach you are choosing is actually working until the boss finally warms to you (or not as the case may be). At least when you attack you know how effective it is as their energy bar will decrease. The non-violent approaches have no such indication, so you’ll have to experiment with them blindly and hope that you’re doing the right thing.
Everything I’ve mentioned so far is the meat and potatoes of Undertale, and on the whole this was the portion of the game that bored me. A full walkthrough takes around 5 hours, maybe a little longer depending if you feel the need to back track. About the first two thirds of this game were pretty dull. The puzzles were pathetically easy, nothing particularly interesting happened and the paper thin story is repeatedly drummed into you from almost everything you interact with. Towards the end (maybe the last 90 minutes or so) the pace actually starts picking up and things get a lot more interesting. The puzzles are still easy, but at the very least they seem more engaging. The gameplay begins to vary pleasantly with set pieces like a jet pack race or a fun stage where you attempt to defuse a bomb. It actually begins to feel like the game that it should have been throughout.
Before I go into what I liked about Undertale, I just want to mention the graphics which linger somewhere between 8 bit and Atari 2600. Now I’ve proclaimed for years that good graphics are not majorly important, and although they can certainly help enrich an experience, for me they fall second to game play in my order of priorities. However, that doesn’t change the fact that Undertale is largely unappealing to look at. I understand that this game was all made by one developer who probably doesn’t fancy himself as a graphic artist. All the same, there were details in the environments that stuck out as either being rushed or unfinished such as corners in the path that needed smoothing over or the level of detail in the textures.
This being said, I did state that there were elements of this game that I enjoyed and thought were clever. The first is this game’s meta attitude towards itself and game play mechanics in general. Undertale is almost a parody game in how it takes well established concepts such as saving the game, leveling up, earning experience, dying, respawning, replaying, and puts in game explanations as to what these concepts are without breaking the forth wall.
My personal favorite mechanic is how Undertale handles replayability. If you restart a campaign in any other game then the only changes you expect to see would be reflected in the different choices you make. However in Undertale the choices you make in earlier playthroughs actually influence events in future ones. This is one of the best ways I’ve seen replay value handled, as it feels as if the game is actually playing along with you for the second or third time. There are also random factors that can change between runs, including some very rare encounters that you need to be extremely lucky to see. What’s great about these mechanics is how much it adds to the experience for fans of the game who would happily replay it multiple times anyway. Personally, I’d love to see these mechanics in games that I actually enjoy playing.
Although I complained about how flat the story is, this only applies for what is seen at face value. If you wish to delve deeper into Undertale’s law there are hints of a boarder context as to what is going on, especially with regards to some of the characters. None of these hints are obvious and a lot of digging has to be done to gain a sense of what might be going on, but that’s only for those who wish to look deeper. It’s not a necessity and will not hinder your progress in any way.
Undertale may not be the best looking game however it has been treated well when it comes to the audio. The music is particularly pleasant. In addition to some electronic chip tune pieces which match the game’s visual theme, there are also gorgeous piano tracks which sound luscious, vibrant and help create a beautiful sense of environment and wonder
I can see why Undertale is popular as it does contain some interesting mechanics and characters, but personally I think the overall package is highly overrated. If you are not into RPGs then it may be an idea to steer clear of this one. If you are curious to experience some of Undertale’s more original aspects for yourself then I’d personally suggest waiting for a sale. It may also be worth sticking a podcast on to help carry you through the first half of the game as it’s a tad dull.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Sony Playstation 4 code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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