Undertale is an indy developed RPG game that got its funding with Kickstarter; though it had a goal of only $5,000 – it reached ten times that amount by the time the campaign finished. Almost the entire game was made by Toby Fox (With artistic contributions credited Temmie Chang) It was in development for approximately 2.7 years and released for both Windows and OSX, available through Steam. (The game is about $10 at the time of this writing). Releasing September 15th 2015, Undertale has gone on to become an instant modern cult-classic, receiving both maximum or near-maximum scores across the board among top critics, and has a Metacritic score of 93/100.
I honestly knew very little of the game other than what fan-created artwork/remixes were popping up on my news feeds at an increasing rate; along with parodies that are then also parodied both amazingly and hilariously. I picked it up during the Steam winter sale – and I was regretful I hadn’t sooner, prior to talking about games of the year. Undertale was not only a surprise hit, it has become my personal favorite game for a multitude of reasons. This review is structured slightly different from how I normally would, but only because the game has a lot of parts that break the fourth wall regarding the game mechanics themselves; and I will do my best to avoid spoiling anything because I really want people to experience and enjoy the story and surprises for themselves just as they would for any other game. I will link to things that may be considered spoilers, but that’s your only warning, as you risk having a “Bad Time” : )
Now the first thing to mention is that Undertale has many story branches, allowing for different endings depending what you choose to do and not do during your play. However, unlike where most games with this feature, it isn’t a case where 90-95% of the game is the same and your choices culminate in different endings only in its climax. The experience Undertale offers can change the game almost entirely, based on choices you made as far back as the opening tutorial.
There are three primary categories in terms of entire runs, which have rules about how the game is played out. The most common one players will get is known as the “Neutral Route”; but even this has many, many variations based on branches of choices which change dialogue, or even entire scenes. The “True Pacifist Route” involves using the game’s mechanics to talk out your fights instead of using direct battle. This is pretty much flying in the face of almost every RPG game I ever played since the NES days, so it had my interest already. (This is the first route I took, because at the time, I just wanted the most story elements available to me without replaying. Most of this review will be based on this run, unless I specify otherwise.) The last primary run type is called the “Genocide Route“, which I’ll talk about after. There is a method for a “Hard Mode”; however it stops at the end of the Tutorial. It’s presumed that it will be added to the game later on.
Undertale begins with the exposition of how Humans and Monsters once lived in peace on the surface world together. However, the humans began to fear the monsters because they could wield magic, and began a war to try to eradicate them. Those that survived were driven underground and sealed there by a magic barrier. You as the player start off right after falling into a hole while exploring the mountain. The first portion of the game has you do a tutorial that quite literally holds your hand through the first part in a rather adorable way. I found it to be rather clever, as it combines the basics of good tutorial explanation (once you’re on your own) along with setting up the type of quirky humor you’ll be encountering the rest of your adventure.
This humor was inspired by amazing classics such as Earthbound and Mr. Bean, according to Tobyfox himself. Silly, random, and many times being unapologetically straight-up Meta. There are a lot of references that seem to make the game point to itself a little much; BUT, as someone who grew up with old-school RPG’s and decent knowledge of anime tropes, I understood where a lot of these were actually going with the jokes. Worry not if you don’t understand some though, as really deep ones don’t occur that often. At seemingly random times, you’ll encounter the “Annoying dog”, to which is actually an avatar stand-in cameo of the creator, Tobyfox. Sometimes there are hidden jokes as well that you can stumble upon accidentally, or you can look up how to trigger intentionally; such as the cute yet absurd encounter with Lesser Dog. (If you suffer by some terrible disorder that causes you to hate puns, I’m sorry. There is no hope for you.)
The main characters, bosses and random encounters alike, are amazingly well written and fleshed out with witty dialogue, jokes, personality, and emotion. Even the scenery itself has personality. You can check out all sorts of things which give flavor text, like kitchens, plants, even a wall at one point. The game starts off as being lighthearted, but as you progress, the dark undertones become more apparent. The humor balances this well, for a unique juxtaposition of silliness in a world that is rife with deep subtext of loss, suffering, willpower, and bonding. Not only is the dialogue fun, but each main character has a slightly different sound to its text being printed out; making it a little extra fun to add your own voices to said dialogue, which happens to be a very prominent things “let’s play”-ers feature while playing.
The gameplay gives a lot of choice to player. You can play Undertale the same as you would any regular RPG game; however with the Pacifist route, you will (almost) never touch the option to Fight. To keep battle encounters busy, you will rely on a ‘bullet hell’ type of system, where you move and dodge with your little heart icon (a representation of your soul within the game). The basics are simple at first, where you move around to avoid anything white things out at it; however as you progress, the rules start evolving. Monsters can start mixing up the colors of the attacks, which require you to stop or move through them while still avoiding the white attacks.
Bosses can turn your “soul” different colors, which in turn, correspond to different effects; such as adding gravity, limiting your movements, or having a unidirectional shield. Turning RPG combat into a set of minigames is pretty unconventional, especially when you “check” an enemy. The dialogue after the stats normally involve not just a joke, but also a hint about which Act option is most effective against the enemy in question. Once the enemy name turns yellow, you can then use the Mercy option to spare them and end the battle; though sometimes attempting to spare several times is the answer when Act commands don’t seem to go anywhere. You won’t receive any EXP this way, but at least you get gold for item shops. There are also some key items that can be used in ways that aren’t expressed to the player, but they are not necessary for game or story completion; more like Easter eggs to make some specific battles easier, in most cases.
Genocide mode is actually rather straight-forward, as it’s quite literal with the name. The random encounters slow down as you go which makes grinding take longer – however after a few areas I realized that even that had significance. You’re hunting monsters that are trying to hide. Most boss encounters won’t give you a sweat, however two of them in particular will absolutely test your patience as a gamer; as they are the hardest fights in the game. “You’re gonna have a bad time.” Still, the music for them is so good you won’t get sick of it; and finally beating them had filled me with the sense of accomplishment – narrowly avoiding feeling like a Pyrrhic victory.
Moving about the world is simple as well, and rarely did I ever feel like I didn’t know where to go. There is a semi-fast travel system that becomes available late into the game, but fortunately one of the basic mantras of the game Tobyfox implemented was that there would be minimal backtracking necessary – explaining why there’s no fetch quests. (A godsend, because nobody likes fetch quests.) While the backgrounds don’t have much going for it, I felt this helped play in its charm. When there are random items lying about, they often have flavor text to it, giving personality to what would otherwise just be bland objects.
The biggest complaint most have about Undertale is the graphics, and most points I’ve read were pretty subjective. I didn’t have much of an opinion on it prior to playing based on screenshots alone, however, I can say with certainty that it is a clear case of judging a book by its cover for a large majority of people who justify hating the game for that alone. Now that being said, yes, the backgrounds can be bland at times, and the combat mode has no background to speak of at all. Most characters are just black and white as well, especially in combat. I get how that can turn people off, especially in an age there’s a plague of ‘PC Master Race’ types who dismiss anything that isn’t the most detailed art. I’ll bring up Earthbound again for this. It actually faced a lot of the same criticisms, because the Super Nintendo was capable of better detail than what the game offered. Still, today, nearly every ‘top ten’ listing for that console has Earthbound somewhere in it. This is a similar case for Undertale, coupled with the fact that it was made nearly entirely by one person. I honestly felt little to no negativity to it, as I still play old games that look on par or even worse than this one. The art direction was well-chosen for what they had to work with, and I was charmed by its simplicity. I should mention however, this actually makes the endgame even better because of how unnerving and spectacular it gets during the last bosses.
Off of that same comparison to older RPG’s, the simplified art style added charm to the game, for me at least. There were a lot of little details all over the place that, despite what little they had to work with, added life to the characters and surroundings. The main character you play as has very ambiguous features, intentionally so, as it’s up to you to decide as the player, if it’s a boy or girl. The characters you encounter that show up on the main world have different sprite animations than what shows in the dialogue boxes, but they often both work in tandem to better convey what’s being said or done. This was particularly refreshing to me as someone who’s played a lot of JRPGs where the characters have little to no expression on the main screen, or the art direction has everyone look rather stoic. Add this to the exceptional writing; it becomes more apparent why this game sticks with the player long after experiencing it; but there’s another element that brings this all together: The music.
On Steam, the game can be purchased as a bundle with the Undertale Soundtrack for a little less than buying them both separately. Once downloaded, you can find the folder in the “DLC” option of the game. There are 101 MP3 tracks total, offering just about 2.1 hours of continuous playtime. A few of the tracks are a bit questionable, as I would have just assumed they were considered sound effects; as for the other 85+ Songs, absolutely phenomenal work.
Generally, music is another highly discussed topic, as a lot of people have different tastes, but I personally loved most of these tracks. They are all composed by Tobyfox himself in a 16-bit era style. A good handful of them I was able to feel out what franchises the style of the song was inspired from – ranging anywhere from Secret of Mana, Earthbound, Chrono Trigger, and Final Fantasy. What’s better yet though is that many of these songs are precisely fitted into their respective scenes. (Not all, but most of the track titles, I find, are brilliantly titled to avoid spoiling exactly when in the game you’ll hear it) They help provide the emotional tone for whatever situation you’re in; and never felt out-of-place. It is not possible to hear all the tracks in a single play-through, as some are specific to the Pacifist or Genocide routes. Speaking of that route in particular, the usual music for areas is slowed down noticeably, creating the uneasy feeling and eeriness caused by your choices. Some points have no music at all, which is damn brilliant use of silence to set a mood.
If you intend to play Undertale, I would suggest not listening to the album until after you complete the Pacifist and Genocide runs, if at all possible; but there’s no harm in familiarity either. I heard all the music before and after playing; and much of these tracks carried much more significance to me once I knew what context they had within the story. Three of the tracks stand out the most to me: “Hopes and Dreams” and “MEGALOVANIA” are damn amazing and will stick with you. The one song that got me the most, however, was the track named “His Theme”; which, at the point that it plays, the game had already been building up its climax. Something about the combination of the visuals, the dialogue, and this song going on at the same time just pushed me overboard emotionally; and for the first time, a video game straight-up got me to cry. (Manly, heroic tears of joy, mind you!) I still can’t fully explain why either, it’s just an intensely beautiful moment, and it ‘wrecks me with the feels’ every time.
With most games, you can get pretty much the entire story through a single run of it. Not so much with Undertale. Even with the Pacifist ending and a few Neutral endings, there are aspects of the story that aren’t apparent until you’ve played the Genocide route. While it does little to nothing to explain the Undertale world as you play it, it will fill in the gaps of story that the other two routes would omit – all the while exploring extremely dark themes and creating a role reversal that’s extremely uncommon among video games. If you pay close enough attention to the little details, you’ll also understand the events prior to the game better. There is however, a catch – there are bits of dialogue that change depending how your previous runs went. This ties the story in more with the fact it deals with the concept of alternate realities at some points, and a few select characters are somewhat aware of this to varying degree. Basically, at least two playthroughs are necessary, if not doing the neutral routes, to get the most story – and it would seem the Pacifist and Genocide story completes each other. This rabbit-hole goes deep enough when I did a pacifist route again; there were noticeable differences the first and last Pacifist runs, which are not only unsettling, but one of them made my skin crawl with how horrifying its implication was.
There are even parts of the story that are NOT in the playable game itself as well. While people like to data mine and craft theories based on what they find within the game’s code, they recently pieced together some interesting theories –the most prominent one was pretty much made canon with the recent patch. Even after I thought I was done playing Undertale, I was still learning its story and the series of events that took place prior to what was playable. The game broke the 4th wall so many times I suspect this may as well be planned ahead; and if so, then the level of forethought was both insane and incredible.
Almost every game has a story, and every story has the potential to mean something different to everyone. While there are a few trivial flaws here and there, Undertale is a beautifully crafted game that managed to touch my heart before I knew what hit me; like any masterpiece should. Even several weeks after my time with the game, I still thought a lot about the story and its meanings. I still listen to the music every day as it’s part of my playlist now. A good game is one that’s fun to play; however Undertale proves that a great game is one that stays with you well beyond your initial interaction. I cannot recommend this game enough for anyone to give it a try on their own, not just watching someone else play; if at least for the Pacifist run.
I have my doubts that a direct sequel to this story will ever be made; however I sincerely hope Tobyfox will continue working in the game industry, because that talent should not, and cannot be wasted.