Despite all the hype and good vibes going around about Undertale, it took me a few weeks to actually buy in and give it a shot. I had just finished Lisa: The Painful RPG a few weeks prior and then Ossuary a few weeks before that and the whole realm of dreary, pixelated bizzaro-worlds was getting a bit stale. I was pretty burned out on the random-encounters, the cutesy pixelated characters, and all that goddam dialogue. I really didn’t expect much from this game… The stills I had seen were a bit underwhelming and to be honest, I think the trailer could do with a makeover, too. But in this instance, I am really glad I didn’t just shrug it off and go with some flashy, fast-paced, triple-A fun-fest. Fifteen minutes into Undertale, and that feeling came over me. That amazing feeling you get when you are expecting nothing but get EXACTLY what you didn’t even know you were craving.
For me, this is one of those games that you can not appreciate from afar. You have to pull the curtains aside, throw the window wide-open, and really stick your head into it. The screenshots fail miserably at conveying the delightful atmosphere and the reviews (like this one) can do even less to exhibit what this game has to offer. The first thing that truly clicked with me was the humorous tone that persists even through the most serious moments of the game. In the beginning, you’re introduced to the mechanics through a typical hand-holder character, Toriel, who instantly had me smiling if not cracking up at all the heavy-handed guidance she has to offer. The jokes are completely self-aware, extremely clever, and so well-paced that at times it seems like the game was designed from Day One with the comedy set in stone. I could compare the humor in the game to the humor of Lisa, but unlike Lisa, Undertale’s humor comes in the form of gentle, subtle, happy jokes. In my mind, Lisa’s humor is far more abrasive – based on weird, demented characters in a violent, gruesome world. In Lisa, you had flammable orphans. In Undertale, you’ve got a sim-date with a skeleton.
Another welcome difference between Undertale and other run-of-the-mill random encounter-based RPGs is that Undetale doesn’t base it’s ‘combat’ on statistics involving ATK, DEF, M. ATK, and M. DEF. Instead, what you get each time you’re faced with a monster is a choice. You choose between fighting, which prompts a time based skill-check, or an action like ‘talk,’ ‘compliment,’ or ‘hug.’ If you choose to go the friendly route, your objective is to figure out which action to use in order to get the monster on your side. Once the monster is properly tamed, you can choose to ‘spare’ it, allowing you to win battles without killing a fly. The other difference is that each time a monster attacks, a short Wario Ware-esque/shoot-em-up experience begins. You use your soul (a little heart shaped icon) to dodge incoming attacks, as you might in bullet dodgers like Ikaruga or Geometry Wars. Bosses provide derivations on this, keeping the battles fresh, exciting and extremely challenging as you push on. Each encounter plays like a new and fulfilling experience, rather than the bland battle you have to win in order to grind on.
Like I said earlier, when I picked up Undertale I was very close to being totally burned out on the genre. And I am absolutely sure that if this game went in the same status-effecty, attacky/defendy, item usingy direction as LISA, Earthbound, Pokemon, and literally every Final Fantasy game I can think of, I would have quit after an hour and let it sit in my pile of unplayed Steam games. But one little on-point change to the whole system made me realize that there is so much more to be had in a game like this than I was previously getting. When your enemies attack you and you get those little bursts of shoot-em-up gameplay, you don’t feel like your playing the same old thing. You get the refreshing genre-crossing benefits that only come when a game developer is willing to take a few chances. I’d love to see this genre-sharing strategy utilized in games of the future.
While the shmup-style crossover gives the player a sense of newness in terms of mechanics, the ‘friendly’ route offers a sense of newness in terms of narrative. The simple ability to spare your opponents rather than annihilating them in classic gaming style grants you a new perspective, one from which you may look critically at the violence-happy whole of video games. Playing Undertale, you may notice this weird thing called ‘guilt’ creeping over you after simply dispatching an annoying dog or stupid frog. This is a weird and novel emotion, considering the fact that ripping off limbs, torturing middle-aged men, and murdering dozens of innocent civilians are all considered “objectives” in the majority of gaming. Each character has a little story behind it. Each has its own desires and urges. Each just wants the chance to live on and live happily ever after. The challenge is that sometimes an enemy is persistent in its attacks. Sometimes, it seems like the only way out is to kill.
But it is possible to finish the game without killing; though, and this is one of the few serious criticisms I have with the game, it really feels like Undertale is wayyy too hokey along the pacifist route. When I finished the game, I tried to do as little lasting damage as possible. In return, I got cutesy, funny, happy cut-scenes, with a bit of seriousness at the end in the form of an incredible, final battle and some back-story told by all the monsters I had spared. However, when I watched the “evil” play-through on Youtube, I realized just how amazingly serious the game could be. When you play the game in ‘genocide’ mode (killing everything you possibly can) you get some amazing, 4th-wall breaking exchanges that the game is completely devoid of on a more peaceful play-through. I have to admit… I felt a bit gypped.
All-in-all, Undertale is a beautifully novel experience. The mechanics offer a form of genre-bending that I have only ever seen a few other games take a chance on. The environment suits the tone of the game perfectly, and the amount of detail is astounding for a one-man dev team. The humor is consistently on-point and is guaranteed to have you smiling. The story is full of whimsy, wit, and wonder with intermittent moments of moral gravity and thoughtfulness. The one problem I had with the end of my peaceful playthrough was the “happily ever after” vibe I got instead of anything legitimately thought-provoking. It seems a shame that you actually HAVE to go through with the same acts of depravity you are trying to protest in order to see Undetale’s more serious side… But perhaps that’s the point.
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