Alternative title: UT, UnderTale
Developers: Toby Fox
Publishers: Toby Fox
Engine: GameMaker: Studio
Release: September 15, 2015
Ever since the 1980’s, video games evolved further and further into their own special form of art, offering unique and inventive ways to toy with the concept of storytelling.
I often tend to consider video game narratives as superior to films, books or even TV series due to their interactive and involving nature – which is why it is nigh hard to adapt any video game into another medium without derailing or shallowing the entire experience.
But, as good as video games can be, very few tend to toy with and explore the many tropes and ideas of the medium. Games like Earthbound, Metal Gear Solid and Max Payne and Spec Ops: The Line are but some of those rare games that give us some insight into the beloved medium.
And Undertale, the 2015 hit by Toby Fox, may be one of the best ones yet.
I am really ashamed it took me half a year after its original release to try it out.
Story & Setting
The basic backstory for Undertale is told in the very first moments of the game, and is rather simple and generic in its on-the-surface premise; long ago, humans and monsters lived on the land, until a war broke out and the humans managed to massacre and drive the monsters underground, sealing them beneath the surface.
Skip to modern times and a young human child falls through some hole into the monsters’ settlement, now dubbed the Underground. And from… Well, it’s for you to unravel the mysteries behind the monsters and their home.
This rather basic and dull premise might turn off potential gamers, but it cleverly disguises a narrative that runs far deeper than what one can expect.
Innocently enough, Undertale begins with the introduction of the playable character and two key characters: Flowey the Flower and Toriel. The former serves as an early hint that Undertale is going to be anything but generic, while Toriel exists as a first emotional link to the world. Toriel also teaches the player how to defend themselves against hostile monsters, including the art of “Mercy,” which we will talk about later.
Undertale has a level of writing and attention to detail that is worth admiring, with the player’s actions during encounters serving as the core to the game’s ultimate outcome. It also possesses of a unique balance between comedy, drama and tragedy, blending them together without jarring side effects.
Undertale’s jokes and humor seem rather lighthearted and childish at first and quickly go on to meta levels, in a constant show of characters that almost always had me smiling and laughing throughout the game. This ranges from hilarious encounters with Papyrus the skeleton, to murderous pursues by Undyne of the royal guard and Mettaton the Idol, to awkward conversations and remarks with the Underground’s citizens.
Even during some of its most eye-teary or horrifically scary moments, Undertale knows how to keep things engaging and fun, and funny, with bizarre conversations and weird encounters.
Obviously, there are stark differences and requirements for the game’s most positive and more negative outcomes, but the choices you do as you progress go much deeper than the usual “white and black” kind of things you see in games like inFamous and to a lesser extent, Bioshock.
Small, tiny details and actions can have much bigger effects on later story parts than one would expect them to have. One fateful battle resolution or narrative decision may very well change small segments and piece of dialogues that can bite the player in the arse later.
I won’t delve too much into this territory due to spoilers, but Undertale is an excellent example of choice in video games, playing, teasing and toying with player expectations by using complex and shocking revelations and progressions.
Much of this is achieved through what is Undertale’s greatest assets: its characters.
The cast of Undertale is initially portrayed as a silly and goofy gang of weird and zany monsters, with folks such as the skeleton brother Sans and Papyrus, the motherly Toriel, and the hot-blooded Undyne. But this mask of silliness and lighthearted quickly melts to reveal some of the most complex and troubled characters I have ever seen in a game.
All of them are good people trying their hardest to be actual monsters, the way humans see them.
They are deeply flawed, troubled and hurt, hiding behind smiles and recklessness, with their respective character arcs exploring such themes as loneliness, depression and cynicism. It is through the player’s actions, should they choose to, that they can grow out of their problems and overcome the many flaws to become better and more self-loving people.
And what really sells this to me is how no character, not even the most cruelest and vile one, is truly “evil,” in the sense of the word. They are all damaged, broken people that try their best to not fall into the trap of hatred and violence, determined to defy their odds.
This is without a shadow of doubt one of the greatest casts ever to grace a game, and it is astonishing how so many of them are affable and likable, even the hostile monsters players encounter – who many of them suffer from genuine conditions and troubles that cast such a sympathetic light on them.
Determination is the core of Undertale, both in its narrative and through the gameplay. It should be noted of how cleverly Undertale’s narrative is tied to the gameplay elements, from saves to combat to meta-humor – and this might be one of the finest examples of video game storytelling.
It uses multiple tropes and elements from the RPG genre only to subvert and deconstruct them later on, creating a genuinely addicting, genre-breaking story that keeps pursuing the player towards success.
The story genuinely attempts to make the player care about and love the Underground’s monsters, and it more than succeeds. Through many actions, dilemmas, crises and fights, Undertale encourages players to do what is right and good, and how important compassion is.
It surely does not detract players from choosing the more ruthless course of action, winking with easier gameplay and what at first may look like a brutally satisfying experience, but to me this feels more like a way to test the player’s morality and potential cruelty, in a manner that deeply criticizes gaming violence and murdering – and in a way: you.
I doubt many players will even manage to go through the first area of the Genocide route.
I am holding myself from telling or exploring too much of Undertale’s story in this review; I see it as something that needs to be experienced first-hand, but let me give you my word (for what it’s worth), that this is one story you won’t forget anytime soon.
Also, dating Papyrus.
Gameplay and Design
On the surface, Undertale possesses a turn-based combat system akin to its earlier JRPG brethren where the player and their enemy each has their own turn to land hit or choose a different act to proceed.
Where Undertale differs from its inspirations, however, is in the inclusion of real time elements and the ability to spare enemies.
While actually killing your foes is possible (and sometimes encouraged by advertising it as the “easy way”), Undertale’s key feature is the Mercy function.
Combat itself is pretty simple and requires a short QTE event with a scoring bar. Players can also choose to “act”, use a different array of items and finally, spare the opponent. Sparing itself often requires lowering the monster’s desire to fight, with almost each monster has their own requirements towards this goal.
One monster may soften after being complimented, while another monster will turn friendly if the player will not bully them. Should their names turn yellow, the player is allowed to spare them.
This is a genuinely clever way to subvert the usual grinding pattern of most RPGs and it does one thing that very few games ever managed to do: humanize and sympathize with even the lowest-ranked of enemies.
And before you may see it as a little too simple or boring, Undertale’s main meat in combat makes things much more challenging.
After the player chooses how to act in an encounter, the entire scene turns into a small segment of a bullet hell-like space where the player must navigate their heart-shaped avatar away from the various, often-original attacks of the monsters.
Each monster has their own pattern of attack and fighting style that the player must avoid until their segment ends. Attacks are often associated with their user’s personality and some of them can be pretty unique and original in their design and behavior.
This provides an unpredictable sense of tension and urgency especially when some of the attacks can be extremely tricky and require more than just avoiding them.
Throughout the game, the player will also encounter boss characters, all of them possessing a unique addition to the standard formula of the game that spices things up and give each boss battle its own flavor and more than a few memorable moments.
All this makes the combat an unexpected thrill that asks more than brute force or ruthless attacks. It asks the player to be patient, and be kind – and rewards for that in a similar manner.
Oh yes, brute force is indeed here, and the game initially makes it seems as if this is the easy and most rewarding way, only to resent the player later and make them feel disgusted with themselves.
Aside from a spin on the classic turn-based combat with the injection of bullet hell elements, the game also takes its time to deconstruct many other tropes and features found in video games in general, including saving systems, exploration and item management, all fueled with a quirky sense of humor.
What Undertale lacks in seemingly complexity and visual flair is more than made up to with just how fucking clever and elegant this game can be.
Honestly, if I have a criticism to be held against Undertale in terms of gameplay or design, it would be its puzzles, which are fun and somewhat silly at first but grow more annoying and overly simple by the end of the journey.
Maybe that was a deconstruction of the inclusion of puzzles in video games? Probably, but that is the one area Undertale does tend to stumble upon.
Visuals & Sound
Being an indie production – and almost a one man project at that – Undertale’s visuals are rather limited. Being a reminiscent of the SNES-era style, Undertale’s animations and effects are pretty mediocre and stale.
Likewise, Undertale’s environments are rather… bland, boring. Save for a very few locations, most of the Underground is rather forgettable in terms of art direction and design, featuring dull forests and cold caves, although to their credit, they help covering Undertale’s true colors.
Where Undertale does excel art-wise is with the character designs of the cast; both main and minor characters are each given a unique, unmistakable design that reflects well on their personality and manners. This is true for hostile encounters and background characters as well, sometimes with the intention of mocking popular concepts.
On the sound and audio department, Undertale packs a powerful soundtrack that pays much tribute to the 8-bit era. One of the most awesome facts about it, by the way, that it was entirely composed by Toby Fox himself. It truly shines during boss encounters where Toby gets crazy with the music, and it is spectacular how each piece compliments its character’s personality and motives.
The background music also deserves some praise for how it slowly changes its tone with each area explored. My particular favorite is the background music for the Waterfall area, which just has this mysterious sense of melancholy and hope.
Also, Papyrus’ theme is just, well, amazing. It deserves its own separated mention. So here it is.
If you haven’t figured already my thoughts on the game, then I will say it with three worlds: it is sublime.
Undertale is a gem of a game, a daring and intelligent storytelling piece that starts off as a wacky, seemingly innocent and comedic in nature, but by the end of it, turns into something much bigger and emotionally packed, something more heartfelt and genuinely lovely.
Its flaws are, in my eyes, very minor and more akin to nitpicks than actual criticisms – not that I am saying Undertale is either perfect, but it is damn good. Very good. Excellent.
Undertale is a game for the ages. It is beautifully written, it is unpredictably challenging, it sounds amazing, and it is unforgettable. If you haven’t played Undertale due to either not hearing about it or being turned off by its massive popularity, do yourself a favor, buy this game, and play it.
This is one adventure worth looking into. Just… Don’t get yourself spoiled by the internet.
- Clever story that manages to be both comedic and tragic without feeling jarring, while also deconstructing usual gaming tropes and concepts
- A huge and diverse cast of characters that are more than meet the eye, exploring multiple mature and sensitive themes in the process
- Unique mixture between the J-RPG turn-based combat system and bullet hell elements to provide a genuinely inventive combat system that manages to be both engaging and challenging
- Excellent soundtrack
- Puzzles get repetitive and annoying by the end of the game
- Bland visuals and environments
& The Ugly:
- This game will make you feel like a true monster sometimes…
- Also, Christ, the fanfics involving a certain goat mom and her child…