Thanks to epilepsy, I missed out on 2015’s most talked about indie game. Undertale snagged more acclaim than the polio vaccine, and has easily been the most requested review I’ve ever had. It also had more people warning me that some of the game’s multiple endings could potentially give me a seizure. Thankfully, with proper medication and some very dark goggles that would be the envy of Riddick cosplayers world-wide, I decided the risk was minimal. Besides, RPGs don’t have a ton of moving parts. The goggles wouldn’t be practical for, say, Shovel Knight‘s stage that is set during a lightning storm, because they make the images so dark that proper playing is impractical. That wasn’t the case here, and so I was finally able to enjoy the most hyped game of my game critic existence. Was the hype real? For the most part, yea. I base my approval of indies on enjoying them more than not enjoying them. The bad doesn’t cancel out the good, and I do try to stick with that. Which can be hard. Sometimes more than others.
Spoilers coming. For the five indie fans left standing who haven’t played it, yes, Undertale is awesome and worth getting. Funny, genuine characters, some legitimate laugh-out-loud gags, and authentic heart. That and I really enjoyed the combat system. Perhaps the best for a retro-RPG ever. Undertale constantly plays with conventions and managed to surprise me in the best possible ways more than once. This is a very good game. The best indie ever? Not even close. One very annoying character that is given too much dialog and a whole lot of “you didn’t play it right” malarkey that forces multiple replays (something not everyone enjoys doing) frustrated me. But the bad certainly doesn’t outweigh the good. Undertale is a game you’ll never forget.
SPOILERS FROM HERE OUT
I was hoping it would start singing about the undead invading my garden.
So the idea is you’re a child who is thrown into an underworld populated by monsters. The first thing you encounter is a sunflower that seems like the cutesy introduction character. But no, it turns out to be one of the main antagonists. One that tells you that you better learn to kill or be killed in this land. I took that to heart and proceeded to butcher nearly every creature I came across. Some readers on Twitter noted that this is unusual. Apparently most players have heard that to get Undertale’s “true” ending you have to go the entire game without murdering anyone. I don’t know why anyone familiar with my work is surprised that I played Undertale the way I did. When I played the Walking Dead series, I spent every chapter carefully trying to figure out how to kill every character besides myself. And those were people! The monsters in Undertale might be ultimately harmless, but they do smack you around quite a bit, and that shit hurts!
Actually, I didn’t kill everything. There were one or two smaller enemies that I took pity on. Ones that didn’t hit me first. And, out of fairness to me, I always used the “Act” menu before I initiated any violence. So I can’t be accused of shooting first and asking questions later. But, I did kill all the bosses. The first one is the tutorial monster woman who seemed very kind, but also made it clear I was her prisoner. In the nicest way possible. So I killed her, and she was heart-broken when I finished her off. Legitimately. It showed her heart break into two, and I actually felt bad about it. I mean, she was all creepy and talking about me like I was her child when I clearly was not, and she did start to attack me when I said I wanted to leave and wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. But it was sad. Kinda.
We’re going to the running of the bulls?
I also killed a skeleton that most players spare. People told me “you killed Papyrus? He was harmless.” Well, maybe, but he did try to kill me a couple of times. That so wasn’t cool. I mean, yea, he failed again and again, but the intent was there. Again, in my defense, the game said kill or be killed at the very beginning. It wasn’t ambiguous about this, and I do my best to play along.
What is regrettable is you have to be all the way murderous or all the way merciful when fighting enemies. Any deviation from that path, even once, and the game throws you the “neutral” ending. That’s bullshit. That’s like saying Hitler accepted France’s surrender, which proves he wasn’t the monster history made him out to be. I spared one fucking enemy and that means the game couldn’t tell I was the worst thing to happen to the land of monsters since Howie Mandel’s biopic of them? It’s yet another game where snobs who can’t believe you’re not as in-love with the game as they are can say “you didn’t play it right!” and be accurate.
Regardless of my outcome, I really loved Undertale. Except one annoying character. Her name was Alphys, and her presence almost single-handedly ruined the game. I was happy to know that I wasn’t the only one who felt her introduction was the worst thing to happen to a good game since Peter Burkowski got a little too into Berzerk. Alphys gives you a cell phone and then proceeds to interrupt you every screen, sometimes more than once. It even happens during a “puzzle” where you’re supposed to push a few buttons within a set amount of time. Anyone could figure out that Alphys would call you during the last button and force you to start over. Sure enough, it happened. Busy work is NOT FUNNY! It was predictable and obnoxious. It doesn’t help that the South Park game had essentially the same joke with the interruptions on the social networking site, only it was wrapped up in a fraction of the time and had an actual payoff that was humorous. That didn’t happen in Undertale. I started to relish the thought of murdering Alphys in what was going to no doubt be an incredible, bloody, likely one-sided payoff to what had become my personal most hated video game character ever. But, no. In fact, people explained to me that it wasn’t supposed to be a joke at all. That it was supposed to represent a socially awkward person in a sympathetic light. Even though it becomes established that Alphys has actually been working against you so that she could swoop in and save you so that you would become BFFs or some such nonsense. I guess in other routes she’s given a little more depth, but I *hated* her in the “neutral” route that I only got because I spared a single plate of sentient jello one time.
I have an even better idea: let’s recreate a scene from Dexter. You be John Lithgow, and I’ll get a claw hammer..
It was an unfortunate misfire for a game that otherwise had slayed me with more charm than any title I’ve played at Bad Jojo thus far. For the most part, the writing is very sharp, the characters likable, the jokes work, and the emotions feel authentic. When I finally succeeded in killing Kenny in season two of Walking Dead, Telltale Games did everything they could to make me feel sorry for him with his dying words. My only sorrow was that I couldn’t make Clem take a shit on his face while he choked out his last breath. Telltale Games, an experienced storyteller, couldn’t get me to feel bad. Toby Fox made me feel like a monster more than once playing Undertale.
So good is the writing (mostly) in Undertale that the superb combat system is an afterthought. In a weaker story, the gameplay here is strong enough that I think the game would have been talked about anyway. When you’re on offense, attacks are action-based, similar to Nintendo’s Mario RPGs. Time the meter correctly to score more damage. Fairly common place these days. But, on defense, you’re a heart inside a box that has to dodge enemy fire, bullet-hell style. It’s clever and hugely satisfying. There’s also a variety of non-attacks in the “ACT” menu that change depending on the enemy you’re facing. RPGs live or die mostly on their story, but when combat never gets boring, it at least prevents things from becoming a slog.
“Okay, you see, we were talking about our mutual appreciation of the works of Shakespeare and it suddenly dawned on me that your brother would make a great Yorick. And then, well, things sort of got out of hand..”
I loved Undertale, but I’m not so much into replaying games. A lot of people are telling me that you can’t truly experience Undertale if you don’t beat it all three ways you possibly can. I almost never replay narrative-based games, and I’m not making an exception here. Even if the Alphys stuff hadn’t happened, I didn’t feel like I got a wrong ending. I was totally satisfied with how the game ended. “You didn’t get the TRUE ending” says fans of the game. “Says who?” says I. There was a conclusion. I saw credits. I turned off Undertale feeling my time with it was well spent. The last boss was a bit long in the tooth for me and sort of annoying too, so by the time it was over I was ready for the game to end. I checked out the alternate endings and story branches on YouTube. They were nice. I don’t feel any of them would have changed my opinion, which is this: Undertale was awesome. Given the recent fiasco with No Man’s Sky, it reminded me that while buying into hype of a game that isn’t even out is kind of silly, when a game is overwhelmingly hyped even a year after its release, maybe there’s something to it. Undertale is the best indie RPG I’ve ever played. And if it had let me kill Alphys, well, I’d probably have gone blind in the ensuing celebration. Cough.
Undertale was developed by Toby Fox
Point of Sale: Steam
$9.99 filled me with determination in the making of this review.
Undertale is Chick-Approved and ranked on the IGC Leaderboard.