Review: Undertale

Undertale may at first seem like a harmless little homage to the era of games like Earthbound, or the original Megami Tensei series, but deep down at its core, it is none of those things. It's honestly unlike any game I've played previously and I invite everybody to give it a try. Highly recommended. It won't change your life, but it's great value for money.

Review: Undertale
Date published: Mar 16, 2016
2 / 3 stars

Undertale is a retro-inspired role-playing game developed and published by Toby Fox.  Undertale is a rather odd beast. I entered this game expecting it to be filled with something along the lines of Adventure Time random nonsensical humor, but it has so far proved to be more than that. Granted, the fanbase may instantly put one off this game. I know for me, they way they can act sure did. It's precisely because of my polarity to the fanbase that I decided to give this one a go. Undertale may at first seem like a harmless little homage to the era of games like Earthbound, or the original Megami Tensei series, but deep down at its core, it is none of those things.

The story starts off in a very generic fashion. A great war occurred between humans and monsters many years ago. The monster race lost and were exiled into a subterranean labrynth called the "Underground". You the human, have fallen down a great hole and miraculously survived the immense drop into the oblivion of the underground before passing out. You are immediately greeted upon awakening by a very friendly little flower that calls itself Flowey.

While the story starts fairly generic,
it is quite compelling when it picks up pace

Flowey is one of the rather colourful denizens in the world of Undertale. Flowey proceeds to give you a tutorial of a sense. This is where you get the first hint that Undertale isn't your everyday run of the mill story and sets the tone for the rest of the entire game. Once this encounter is interrupted, the protagonist is then greeted by a very friendly anthropomorphised goat lady. Her name is Toriel (tutorial) and she shows you the ropes of the underground ruins. Once your situation is explained, she laments that she has errands to run in order to finish preparing for your arrival. She then bids you "adieu" and tells you to wait in that exact spot until she returns. That's when the fun begins.

This point onwards is when the game really picks up. You leave the ruins, and depending on what choice is made, the story can diverge quite greatly. I won't spoil what happens, suffice to say if one grinds hardcore like in a traditional roleplaying title, they'll be treated to a rather interesting fork in the road. Upon leaving the safety of the ruins, the game changes tone entirely. The ruins are colourful and welcoming, while the outside Underground is rather cold, eerily quiet and fairly foreboding. For about 30 seconds before meeting yet another random npc anyway.

This is more or less the flow of Undertale. You stumble from one random npc encounter to another constantly shifting, with small bits of plot hinted through gameplay elements or odd, out of the way exposition dumps that you may stumble upon. The humour of the game is at times very hit and miss. It references fairly common things in videogames as a whole, with the overall message being surprisingly simplistic for a game that goes out of its way to establish deep lore in a minimalist fashion. The npc encounters are fairly memorable and full of their own quirks (and at times bad jokes). The exposition is  told via text, with each character mumbling electronic gibberish, much like Banjo Kazooie had as "audible" speaking. Some characters can be completely throwaway despite being enjoyable, while others who are less enjoyable will hang around like a bad smell. Overall however, the plot is quite fun, well told and makes sense when viewed through videogame, and Saturday morning cartoon logic.

Gameplay mechanics, especially combat, are fairly unique

The gameplay of Undertale further supports the narrative of the game, incorporating little plot elements into some of the gameplay and further breaking the conventional idea of an RPG. At first glance, Undertale seems to be a fairly run of the mill surreal rpg with quirky random encounters, EXP and LOVE (Character Levels). Wandering around in certain areas will activate random turn based combat. Fights consists of the usual assortment of command buttons one would expect from any roleplaying title, but with some additional ones that mix things up.

You'll find you have access to several options: Fight, Act, Item and lastly Mercy. Fight attacks the opponent, dealing damage to them and eventually wiping out their hp, effectively killing them. The Act button feels like something straight of a Shin Megami Tensei title, allowing one to effectivley talk to, or interact with the opponent. It lets the you do all sorts of bizarre things in combat, from petting someone, to talking, taunting, insulting, or complimenting said combatant.

These actions can accomplish several things. Often the wrong move will make the fight quite a bit harder, while the correct move can make the fight even easier. Other actions will seem to placate the enemy, causing their title card to turn yellow. This can then be used in conjunction with the Mercy command to quickly end the fight without any further bloodshed by calming them down or running away. The downside to winning via Mercy is that no EXP, and only gold is acquired, but I think it's neat that it's effectively possible to go through the entire game by "talking" your way out of every fight should you wish to. The Item command is very straightforward, and nine times out of ten will only be used to heal you, with the occasional acquired item eliciting emotional responses in particular special encounters when used

This all sounds quite simple I'm sure, but this is nowhere near the extent of combat requirements for Undertale. When you choose the fight command, you are treated to a sliding bar that moves back and forward, and depending on when the attack the button is hit—landing in the middle or outer edge—can make all the difference between a critical, damaging attack, or one that just bounces off the enemy pointlessly. That's combat in a nutshell, but only during your turn.

Upon retaliation from the enemy, you must go out of your way to guide your little red Heart out of harms way, within the battle grid. The game then temporarily switches from a roleplaying game to a somewhat watered-down version of a bullet hell title, requiring memory of enemy patterns and learning pixel perfect safe areas in order to avoid any further damage from projectiles. While the level of skill required is nowhere near that of most bullet hell games (unless going for the final ending), Undertale can at times be a bit of a challenge. Time and effort put into learning a bosses patterns can help progress greatly. The difficulty curve isn't ever particularly insanely forgiving and most times, you'll die because you made mistakes. If something seems particularly unforgiving, you'll usually find it's that way deliberately to fit the plot.

The rest of the gameplay is fairly straightforward. You control an innocent looking child of nondescript gender on the overworld, solving intelligent, sometimes deliberately immersion breaking puzzles in order to progress. Different items and equipment are acquired throughout, allowing the upgrade of character stats with equipment and items that temporarily boost certain stats. The currency of the game Gold, is very easily acquired, regardless of how the game is played, and if one gets really stuck in combat, they can save up and pay for a particular npc's college fee to gain access to some powerful stuff.

Visually, the game isn't all that much to write home about. The sprites are cute and colourful, if not all that graphically impressive, and the art is well produced. The colour palletes range greatly from dark, unfriendly tones in the forest, to warm and inviting shades within the ruins. There are some clever aspects throughout the game done with perspective and the movement of characters. Game animations are quirky, and at times hilarious, but nothing feels too out of place, with lack of detailed sprites or images never hindering progression. Interestingly, the game can be played full screen, or in a small windowed version that seems designed to deliberately emulate the Gameboy Colour's screen. The pixel art does suit the lighthearted tone of Undertale to a tee though. That I can't deny.

The setpieces of the Underground follow suite, littered with all kind of colourful characters and backdrops. None of it is overly detailed, but it sets the scene just fine. The colours used througout are fairly uniform all the way up until the end, where it gets very surreal, even incorporating small photoshopped elements in some parts. The Ruins, Waterfall, the T Lab, Hotland, and the Forest are easily the most enjoyable setpieces within the game, but none of the lesser ones are particularly disappointing, and it's worth noting that this is in no small part due to them working so well with the music.

The soundtrack is one of Undertale's great strengths

Undoubtedly, the soundtrack for Undertale is certainly the highest point of quality and arguably the best thing about the game. It spans nearly every genre from rock, fusion, jazz, all the way to somber piano driven ballads, electronica, and music that would feel right at home in something like the classic Sonic The Hedgehog titles. Each track bar one or two, is extremely catchy and will inger in your head for days. The soundtrack is made up of several extremely well written pieces, mimicking music from the 16-32 bit era perfectly. An example of this would be the theme for the Ruins. This piece is lighthearted and very fun, with each chord "striking a pose JoJo style" in the eardrum and adding to the crazy quirkiness of Undertale's world. The quality is extremely crisp and clear through my amplified, powered speakers, further showing the quality and care that was put into each channel of its recording.

It's worth noting that I've never found much of an interest in the Homestuck interactive webcomic, and while I've heard that the same composer got his start there, and heard people praise his work, I had never once heard any of it until now. At first I wasn't sure what to make of the soundtrack, but by the time I got to the deliciously haunting melody of Waterfall which then juxtaposed against Undyne's rather hostile theme, I had fallen in love with it. Every chord is deliberately placed, and fits perfectly with each diverse set-piece, with nothing feeling really out of place. Even though I really dislike the track Death By Glamour, I can't deny that it perfectly fits the boss fight it's featured in.

The sound design likewise, is precise and calculated with sound effects mimicking their real life counterparts accurately enough through electronic sounds and instruments. Both the soundtrack and sound effects combine to take you back to a nostalgic time when games were all about making do with what you had, using minimalist tricks to make the world seem much denser than it actually was. Undertale does this magnificently, without coasting on nostalgia alone, and adds its own special twist to the style of that era. Not surprising at all, when you learn about the developers Earthbound rom hack.

While Undertale isn't a particularly long game, and you'll blast through the first two endings within a day, it's still a fun romp that is sure to find a place in the heart with its undeniable charm and surprising level of quality. While the game does reward specific types of playstyles, for a first time blind playthrough, the game was very enjoyable. Bottom line is don't believe the haters, or let the somewhat overzealous fandom turn you off what is quite a fun and rewarding experience, supported by an intelligent, albeit slightly preachy-at-times narrative. I would recommend this game to almost absolutely anyone. My main complaint is I wish it had called me out on save scumming more often.

The Final Word: Recommended - Undertale may at first seem like a harmless little homage to the era of games like <em>Earthbound</em>, or the original Megami Tensei series, but deep down at its core, it is none of those things. It's honestly unlike any game I've played previously and I invite everybody to give it a try. Highly recommended. It won't change your life, but it's great value for money.