Undertale: A True Game-Changer

TL;DR Review

This game is amazing. Play it.

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Introduction

Undertale has been on my radar for a while now. I heard of it from friends who were following its development, then from friends who had played it, then from Logan after he played it, and finally decided to play it myself after watching PBS’s Idea Channel episode on the game and its interesting approach to violence (I’ve included it below, but be aware that there are some spoilers). I am so glad that I finally played it.

The Story

Centuries ago, humans and monsters both lived on the earth. After a devastating war, the humans sealed the remaining monsters underground with an impassable barrier, where they have lived ever since. One day, a child falls into the world of monsters and must make its way through the unfamiliar land in order to return home.

Seeing it written out like that makes me realize how simple the premise of Undertale really is. It’s kind of jarring, honestly, because over the past few days I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the game. It’s so much more than that basic write-up.

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Underneath the basic surface-plot, Undertale covers a lot of narrative ground. Lots of big themes like love and hatred, tenderness and violence, hope and dread, and the various daily struggles we all encounter are woven throughout the game, but none of them ever becomes so heavy-handed as to distract from the rest. As opposed to some games I’ve played recently *cough*Until Dawn*cough*, Undertale doesn’t beat you over the head with its ideas. They’re there and they’re obvious, yes, but they are also nuanced and interesting.

And the multiple endings of the game are all different enough to make replay valuable. My husband got a neutral ending, which was far, far different than my pascifist ending. Now, after talking about how they differed, both of us want to see what would happen in a genocide run. Most games I’ve played with multiple endings have endings that are fairly different, but either aren’t different enough to make me want to partake in multiple playthroughs, or have one interesting ending and all the others are crap. All of Undertale‘s endings are interesting (from what I’ve heard of the ones I have no experience with, anyway) and I want to experience them all first-hand.

After spending a few days digesting the play experience by thinking about it nearly nonstop, I’d say the story is fundamentally about the choices we have in our interactions with others. Every action we perform has an impact on ourselves, obviously, but those actions also frequently have an impact on those around us. And consequently on those around them. And so on and so forth until the end of days.

The Characters

What makes the story so good is the plethora of interesting monsters throughout the game. As a relationship exploration game, Undertale would never have worked without an excellent cast of characters. And it delivers. I talked to every monster I ran across just because I wanted to learn more about all of them.

Despite pretty much all of the monsters being excellent in their own right, there are some key players. These are characters that you interact with multiple times and can forge deeper connections to through your frequent connections with them.

 toriel

Toriel is a kindly, matronly monster that leads you through the beginning of the game. She makes sure you make it through the confusing underground safely and teaches you how to interact with the various puzzles scattered throughout the world on the way to her house, where she feeds and shelters you. It’s obvious that Toriel has been yearning for a child to care for and she is heart-broken when you tell her that you want to go home.

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Sans is a skeleton sentry whose job it is to be on the lookout for fallen humans. Despite his directives to capture any humans he comes across and take them to the king, Sans talks with you and urges you to play along with his brother’s puzzles. The more you do to cheer up Papyrus, the happier Sans is, since he’s been worried about his brother’s dark moods.

All of this seems innocent and sweet enough, but the longer you go through the game, the more interesting Sans becomes. He shows up at odd times and, in addition to the huge revelation moment at the end of the game, teaches you a lot about how the world works. He explains things the more confusing and muddled aspects of the world — the abstract workings of the society you’ve become involved in, rather than the concerns of navigation and the physical world that Toriel helps you with.

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Papyrus is Sans’s skeleton brother who desperately wants to become one of the Royal Guard. To prove his worth, he needs to capture a human, and he has spent a lot of time and energy developing a number of puzzles with which to do so. Unfortunately for him, he’s not particularly good at puzzle creation. He’s also far too nice to be a good guard member.

Papyrus is one of the most lovable characters of the entire game for a multitude of reasons. He’s funny; loves his brother; gives his all to every task; and approaches each fresh challenge with a positive attitude, despite his numerous past failures. Even though he messes up a lot, his heart is in the right place, and it really shows.

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Undyne is the terrifying leader of the Royal Guards. She never backs down from a challenge and the idea of giving up on a mission has probably never entered into her mind. Her ferocity and drive make her a formidable opponent, but she is also intensely loyal and dedicated to her cause, which make her an excellent friend. The monsters look up to her as a champion for her cause, and it’s easy to see why they admire her.

Side note: I want to cosplay as unarmored Undyne. She’s totally my favorite character.

alphys

Dr. Alphys, the Royal Scientist, is extremely shy. She has grown attached to you throughout your adventures and wants to help you continue your journey, but oftentimes has trouble saying what she means. Or saying anything at all. Her brilliance and computer skills make her an indispensible ally, despite her social shortcomings.

Dr. Alphys wasn’t all that interesting to me in the main storyline of the game, but when completing the extra bits necessary for a “true pascifist” run, I learned a lot more about her and grew to appreciate her character a lot more. She’s much more deeply involved in the story than it first appears, and for the extra information you learn about her alone, I would say the extra work of a true pascifist run is worth the trouble.

mettaton

Mettaton was built by Dr. Alphys and is a robot with a soul. Originally designed to be the ultimate entertainer, Alphys also added in some human-hunting programming to help out the king. Now he’s a blood-thirsty robot determined to make his mission to kill you into the most entertaining thing ever seen in the monster world.

Mettaton is hilarious. Also, Mettaton Ex is a bit uncomfortably attractive.

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Asgore, King of the Monsters, is fascinating. All the “boss” monsters you encounter warn you about him, insisting that he will ruthlessly kill you. But the more you learn about him through the grapevine of the various lesser monsters, the friendlier he seems. Everyone loves him and thinks of him as a nice guy. And everything you come across points to this being the case. So which is it?

Well, both. Asgore is a very kind, very warm monster who cares deeply for his kingdom and everyone in it. But, because of this, he is determined to annihilate you. Because the barrier can only be broken with your soul, which he can only retrieve through your death. So, despite how it pains him to harm you, he must weigh your life against the lives of all the citizens of his kingdom and makes a choice. And it’s the right choice. As much as I didn’t want to die, I also felt the desire to release my friends from their prison that I might have given up my soul, had the game allowed for it.

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Flowey is the first monster you encounter after your fall and is by far the most interesting. Despite his adorable (when he wants it to be) outward appearance, Flowey is the creepiest, most terrifying, psychopathic entity in any game I’ve ever played.

He is also the most dynamic character in the game, as your actions directly impact how he’ll interact with you at the end of the game. I don’t want to say much about the True Pascifist ending, since it would be super-massive spoilers, and I don’t know much about how he acts in the other endings, so there’s that.

The Gameplay

The combat system that Undertale uses allows the player to choose whether they want to fight or interact with monsters, which is unique in my gaming experience. In every other game that I’ve played in the RPG genre, the only way to spare enemies is to not fight them in the first place, which is oftentimes impossible, as the entire game relies on these enemy encounters for player progression.

As I mentioned earlier, I did a pascifist run, so I can’t offer many thoughts on the combat from an agressor’s standpoint. But defending was very interesting. A small heart, which represents your soul, appears in a box, and you must move the heart around to dodge the various enemy attack animations. If you get hit by the animation, you take damage. It’s a simple concept to grasp, but difficult to master. Especially if you don’t gain more health through gaining EXP. Or maybe that was just me. I had a lot of trouble with the combat system, not because it didn’t work well, but because I get panicky in dodge-type situations. Your mileage may vary.

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The game’s simple graphics and basic controls make for gameplay that doesn’t get in the way of the story. Everything works well, so it fades into the background. Which is how it should be.

Other Thoughts

I’ve talked about the great story and wonderful characters, as well as the “just-works” gameplay. But something else that bears mentioning is the soundtrack. Undertale’s music is great! When I saw the graphics, I expected the music to be the terrible, repetitive, tinny music of early systems, but was pleasantly surprised by how good it was. It’s so good, in fact, that I’ve been listening to the soundtrack on repeat at work. Each song is perfect for its situation and listening to it brings back great memories. But it’s also just plain enjoyable to listen to in its own right.

Conclusion

I’m sure there’s more I want to say about Undertale, but so much of how I feel about the experience doesn’t translate well into a blog post. The game moved me in a way that media rarely does and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it and its implications — which is a great marker of quality in my book. If you have the chance, pick up Undertale. It is worth so much more than the money and time you will spend on it.

 
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