Undertale is a game that is hard to ignore if you are a retro gamer. It strikes me as a bit of the hipster’s version of an SNES title because it seems to check all the boxes that get several communities pumped up as well as intrinsically embracing what is great about contemporary retro. Couple that with the fact that it was almost completely created by one person, Toby Fox (who had art help from Temmie Chang), and there’s no doubt Undertale is an achievement. None of this really matters for a review, though, which forces the critic to look a work right in the face and give his or her opinion. Is Undertale a one-man-band achievement that results in one of the most impressive indie titles that hearken back to the days of 16-bit? Sure, but that’s all left to award ceremonies and Fox’s peers to decide. Is it the “must play” retro game that garners all the glittering prizes and game of the year nominations from my peers? Perhaps not. While I can admit to being entertained by the title – especially the very notable fourth wall breaking aspects that you almost never see coming – Undertale is weakened by the zeitgeist and harmed by the fact that no one on the Internet can just let you play a game anymore. That game, while great, leaves more to be desired.
Undertale began to make waves with the Earthbound crowd and while it’s not quite as heady and definitely not even a fraction of the length of those titles, Undertale does grow from those roots. Personally I was never all that fond of the series (although I have not yet played Mother 3), but the humor was undeniably charming and Undertale embraces and builds upon that humor in spades. You play as a character named “the child” who is given a name of your choice and skates that line of androgyny just enough that your avatar can identify as whatever they want. An introduction explains that there are two worlds, the humans and the monsters, that have become separated from one another and whenever a human enters the world of the monsters they become corrupted and never escape. As your quest begins, you start to learn that the irony of this is that monsters aren’t all that bad and much like humans just have a wide spectrum of personalities and behaviors. The theme is hammered home when you discover that interactions with monsters are just that, interactions, and just because video games have taught you that fighting is the only way to go that you have a slew of other options. From this point on you journey into the world to behave as you wish and reap the consequences of quite literally all of your actions along the way.
There’s a lot going on behind the scenes of Undertale and I have to admit I am impressed with how many ways the game is keeping track of your every move. It’s not just binary things like did you battle or show mercy to this enemy, or even whether or not you accomplished little bonuses like snail racing, but rather true behavior metrics like how often you save/load the game or if you used save spamming to overcome a situation. Not only that, but on your successive playthroughs of the game your cumulative actions will be weighed in as well, so don’t think that just because you start a new game that Undertale gives you a clean slate. This takes the meager attention given to your actions in other games, especially larger games like Mass Effect who claim to cling to your every decision, and impresses time and time again as you receive callbacks in the game. As someone who completed the game twice and started a third round, I continue to note impressive ways the game reacts to what I do and the way it sneaks in those fourth wall breaking winks and nods. I have to throw a minor gripe at the very existence of this feature mostly because it will go almost completely unnoticed unless you complete the game more than once or consult any facet of the Internet for information on it (including Steam guides).
At its core, Undertale is lighthearted take on the traditional Japanese Role Playing Game (JRPG) but without all of the headaches that discourage most players like random battles and grinding. In fact, if you show mercy on a monster instead of killing it, you won’t earn experience points and essentially can complete the game as a level one character (I believe you level up after killing your first enemy). Still, if you would prefer to kill, level, and play the game like a more traditional title, you are completely free to do so as well. Of course, the more common way to get through the game will be a blend of the two, but play as you wish. One interesting change over traditional turn-based battle mechanics is the fact that your ability to avoid damage is tied to a little mini-game that mostly resembles dodge mechanics from a shoot-em-up. This little twist on the classic formula means that if you are skilled and quick with your actions, you don’t need to be smart with your decisions because you can avoid the consequences of damage that come with all wrong moves in traditional JRPGs. On the other hand, if you have never had to deal with this before – it is a blending of genres moreso than even traditional action RPGs like Legend of Zelda – then you will struggle with many of the fights in Undertale, and especially near the end with the frantic moves of various boss battles. This is where I begin to have issues with the overall experience of playing Undertale. Like many of these aforementioned classics, such as Earthbound, I get myself into a circumstance where I’m ill prepared for a battle that just dropped on me so I die and get forced back to a save location, which are randomly scattered about. Then, much like a Dark Souls game, I have to fight my way back and get to the boss again only to hopefully figure out how I’m supposed to defeat it and then hope for the best. It stifles your progress in a game that seems to ride solely on forwarding the plot and there’s no real good way to be prepared for it. Unlike traditional RPGs where you can consult guides on preparedness or strategies, most of Undertale‘s strategies are just reduced to a certain formula of actions accompanied by the skill to avoid damage. I know, that’s the way a lot of classic action games were, but then why does this stand a suitable argument when the game removes random battles and adds pacifism as options? It’s trivial to debate, but I think it comes down to the type of player who appreciates Earthbound and similar titles on a level that surpasses my own.
Moving back to the fourth wall breaking items, but an aspect I do not appreciate, is the way the main campaign proper messes with you as you near the end of the game. Sure, in spoiler-heavy conversations or as anecdotal side notes it all sounds impressive and fascinating, but when a game does some of the things that Undertale does in important or tense moments I can’t commend it. I’d really like to get into the details, but in an attempt to avoid spoilers as best I can, I simply cannot. Suffice to say many were amused and impressed with the way this handled and I was not. The same can be said for instances similar to this where the game cheats. No, really, like the computer cheats and cops to this. Again, amusing and funny in stories, not very pleasing in practice. As I write this I start to get the feeling that I can’t seem to loosen up with Undertale, but perhaps that’s because I don’t have a ton of free time and my time is precious, so when I’m getting jacked with at midnight on a Sunday when I have work and other things to get to I don’t really appreciate it. When it happened on my second playthrough, now with me more aware, I wasn’t as aggravated but it was still an annoyance that I wished to avoid. Also on that note is the fact that plenty of people said this is a short game, five hours tops, and it simply is not. Okay, the main campaign your first time through, may be in the window of five hours (mine was six) but that won’t allow you to experience what makes Undertale great and what it has to offer. It may seem like I’m being down on the game, but for the most part of the 12 hours I spent with it, I thoroughly enjoyed what it did and found myself constantly laughing at a majority of its lines. That said, this is not a short game and you will most likely want to play it through at least twice, if not more, to really get what you need out of it. Given the price that’s a ton of value, but then the game is rather rote for the first 30-40 percent so it all winds down to taking it with a grain of salt. In short, no, this is not the five hour game you crank out on a weekend that I thought it was going to be.
Gameplay mechanics aside, this game does hit all the right notes with making me feel like it existed in the days of the SNES. Graphically I love the basic design and proper use of colors, that even if it is faking the SNES, I couldn’t tell for a second. I also like the fact that you are basically using four directional buttons and a single action button, so a quick plug of a USB controller and controller input software had me playing with a gamepad in no time (not completely sure if this title has native support for gamepads). Not only is the scrolling, graphics, and backgrounds so astoundingly SNES-like, but the sound and music add just as much authenticity. Now I am aware that the soundtrack began life as a version of Fox’s 2009 Earthbound ROM hack (interview in the 10/2015 issue of Game Informer), but again I don’t know how authentically it sticks to the SNES. Either way, it’s fantastic and I love listening to it, regardless of how long it goes on. From an aesthetics standpoint, both visual and audio, this game impresses the hell out of me.
Undertale is a title that has been unfortunately oversold and spoiled by the Internet. If you have been lucky enough to avoid long-winded conversations about what to do or how to play the game, which I tried my best to avoid but definitely didn’t hold back from on the B-Team episode I discussed it on, go in blind. There’s nothing in this title that will have you stuck for too long and while I take issue with the way the difficulty is doled out, the game was beatable multiple times, by me, and I feel no reader here will struggle either. It’s a great work that appreciates the past, sticks to authenticity, and given that it’s almost solely from one guy makes it an accomplishment. Despite these facts, it falls short of being the evergreen must play that the press has made it out to be, but there’s plenty of merit and appreciation to be had provided you are willing to put the time in and excuse the weaker moments in the beginning. You shone bright Undertale, but not as bright as the loud gaming collective would like us all to believe.
Final Score: 3 out of 5 (review policy)
Undertale was purchased by the reviewer. It took approximately six hours to beat the first time with a total play time of approximately 12 hours. Undertale is available on Steam for Windows and Mac with an initial price of $9.99.