Undertale ReviewKurt Horsting
Undertale is a game seems to have come out of nowhere and has resonated with many gamers from all over the spectrum and it comes with the most annoying type of recommendation any form of media can get. Asking you to go and play it without knowing what it is while avoiding as many spoilers as possible. Even reading the marketing blerb is enough to ruin some of the surprises. If for some reason this is your first review your reading of this and you haven't played yet, stop now and go play it. It's $10, it's easily game of the year material and spoilers ruin the fun of the cleverness and surprise like no other. Go get it now.... I'm not even joking.
Well, this will be as much as I can describe without ruining all of it, but here goes nothing. To put it simply, this is one of the most interesting and fun games I have played in a long time that from the ground up subverts all expectations. Even though it looks like a retro RPG with its heaviest influence being earthbound, it plays closer to a bullet-hell crossed with a puzzle game. So instead of normal JRPG combat where you select different menu option and point them at your opponents till things resolve, you need to actively move your soul dodge projectiles that are produced by monsters. Even though there you get into random fights with monsters, the game encourages you to be non-violent and the monsters are generally shown to be harmless and goofy. The other surprising thing is this game has more fourth wall breaks then Metal Gear and Spec Ops and a story just as interesting as both.
The story of Undertale starts with a summation of the history of its world. A world where humans and monsters had just finished a war and monsters are banished to live under a mountain sealed with a magical barrier that prevents them from escaping. That is when your character, a small neutral gendered striped shirted child fall in a hole at the mountain and now is trapped in the underground. The setup isn't very unique and it feels like the premise must have existed somewhere before it, but its execution of the story is what makes so interesting. The main difference is that your actions are being constantly tracked in ways and tie into major story details. Without spoiling too much (since it's in the marketing blerb) this is the "friendly RPG where no one has to die." and knowing that before going into the game taints the experience a bit.
The game itself teaches you that you shouldn't play this like a normal RPG where you kill things for exp and to increase numbers for there own sake. It feels more rewarding in finding ways to let monsters live by confusing and befriending them and the general tone of the game is perfect for this. The solutions for pacifying enemies are weird puzzles that you need to do certain "actions" in order to get them to get in a state where they can be "spared." Some of the solutions are very bizarre and often don't make a lot of sense but are generally funny. And it isn't some arbitrary limit or extra challenge for its own sake. Having a run with violence is slightly easier than pacifism, but not by that much. It's more of a call to you as a player to go and do the right thing, even if it is slightly harder.
Toby Fox being someone who made rom-hacks for earthbound and mother games before this title and is the game's composer, it is quite obvious that much of the tone of earthbound is in this. Very off beat humor, bad puns, dad jokes, a group of silly voiced people, and the world being set through a filter of child-like innocence. But in a way that isn't made for children but as if it was made by a child. It's a bit saccharin and sappy, but the game is so upbeat and goes out of its way to bring you into the fun that it's hard not to feel happy. But the general happiness and upbeat nature makes its more heart-felt or even terrifying and disturbing moments hit harder. Its really hard to be able to do a balancing act of both being extremely absurd and deliberately goofy and stay sincere, but this game pulls it off amazingly.
One of the biggests strengths of the game is the main cast characters. They are generally bizarre and lovable goofs. From the Skeleton brothers whose names are based on their text fonts to the doddering motherly Goat monster that serves as your tutorial and guardian, they all have very charming personalities and are deeply written to be more then just weird for its own sake. Many of the main characters also serve as bosses and their fights not only are varied and unique, they also serve to develop the character's personality and story while keeping you active. If you go on a pacifist route, you can even engage in "dating" mini-games to further your friendships. For example, one of the early boss fights is one of the skeleton brothers named Papyrus. He wants to be apart of the royal guard and has been ordered to capture humans for the king. When you meet him he is so thrilled at his future promotion, you learn that he is truly seeking popularity and friendship because he is too naive and childish to try to fight you properly. His puzzles are harmless and when you fight him, he is unable to kill you cause he forgets to make his attacks lethal.
With all this talk about pacifism and friendship, it is interesting that they allow you the options to be basically a serial killer if you choose. In the Genocide run, it is the goal to kill every monster you see and it is one of the most depressing and grief filled guilt trips I've had since Spec ops. This run has the most fourth wall attacks at the player's depravity for simply wanting to see all the possibilities.
Even though this has gathered so much universal appeal, I still think your mileage may vary with this game. Even for a retro game look, the most of the pixel art is above functional, the game sort of hammers its message and themes at you a little too hard so it's somewhat predictable and the middle part of the game can get quite annoying with a few running gags. None of this are deal breakers, but if you're tired of being flooded with indie games that you "must play", try to make this an exception to the rule. But I can see one being tired of games "like" this, even if I think it's one of a kind.
I don't know what else to say aside from go into this game with an open mind and try not take everything too seriously.and let it work its charm. Try to make some interesting friends, enjoy some bad jokes, enjoy some amazing music, and try not to cry when this game starts to tug at the heart-strings. This friendly little RPG has won my heart and I never thought something like this could do so much.
Perfect. Beyond Brilliant in almost every area. Must own.
Disclosure: We are provided copies of games from the game companies for some games that we review.