Last year a game came out of the underground gaming scene. A game that scored a lot of points with critics, and spawned a vast fandom in a short amount of time. Like an up, and coming alternative band it quickly caught the attention of mainstream audiences. Undertale is a big hit with a lot of folks. So as we enter a new year, I start it out by seeing just what all of the fuss is all about.
PROS: A well crafted adventure with elements of many genres.
CONS: Some areas have an insane level of difficulty.
PRANKS: They will certainly be played on you.
Undertale tells the story of an unnamed protagonist. A small child falls down a chasm, and wakes up in a series of caverns. After you name the small child, and create a save file, you are off to go spelunking. Early on in the game you begin to meet characters, and interact with them beginning a theme of consequences. Undertale’s hook, is that it has a multiple number of endings depending on what you choose to do. Do you help someone, or do you decide to let someone else take care of them? Do you take those items, or do you decide that they don’t belong to you? Do you kill an attacker, or do you let them go free?
Throughout your journey the game will give you many, many choices, and most of them do impact the story as it goes along. You can pretty much make whatever decisions you want at your leisure, through the overwhelming majority of the game. At its heart, Undertale is an adventure game. But it has a lot of elements from RPGs, Shmups, and classic arcade games. This is especially true in its battles, where even here, choices are impactful on what you’ll do next. The game does spend the first act introducing you to not only some important characters, but the mechanics as well. Navigating the early corridors, you’re put into some situations that boil down to tutorials. The upside is that they don’t come off as tutorials, and they don’t come off as mundane. You’ll play a few puzzles, do some interaction, and even use the battle system.
Undertale’s battle system looks like an old NES JRPG. You’ll have options under an attack, action, item, and mercy tabs. Attacking pulls up a timing mini game that feels like a free throw mini game from an old 16-bit EA Basketball game. You have to line up your attack in the center of a bar. The closer you get, the more damage you’ll do. The action tab, will have a number of options for diplomacy, depending on the enemy. You can try your hand at these in order to open up some emotional walls in an opponent. If you play your cards right, you can use these to win fights without injuring or killing anyone. The item tab lets you go through weapons, health, and object items, while the final tab lets you either try to flee a fight, (sometimes you can’t.) or let the opponent go. In some cases you can’t let them go until you’ve succeeded in your diplomatic tasks.
During these turn-based sequences, when an enemy attacks you, you’re thrust into a mini-game. Some of them are shmups. Some of them are puzzles, but you’ll need to become proficient at either in order to survive. Some of the bosses do an insane amount of damage, so you’re also going to want to horde a lot of health items throughout the game.
The rest of the game is typical adventure, and RPG fare. You’ll explore towns, talk to characters, buy items from shops, and sleep in hotels. There are also some puzzles to solve in order to progress, along with some secrets if you’re willing to go exploring. These secrets can be a great benefit. Some of them will make certain boss fights a lot easier, or uncover some backstory for you.
Visually, the game goes for a combination of old art styles. Some will certainly see inspiration from the Nintendo Entertainment System. But the battles will evoke memories of early CRPGs being played on a CGA monitor. Other times I was reminded of systems like the Atari 2600, or the Commodore 64. Undertale doesn’t stick to a single retro inspiration, it tries to display a number of them. The writing isn’t half bad either. So often games try to tell jokes, or have a dramatic moment, and it feels like a plead to love the characters.
Undertale genuinely made me laugh a couple of times, and frequently introduced characters I felt like I could get behind. This isn’t to say that it is the best game at doing these things. But I can give it some credit for a job well done. There are also a number of moments where the game will outright try to mess with you. Some of these attempts are feeble. But there are others that are pretty great. A few of which took me back to playing Eternal Darkness on the Gamecube.
Be that as it may, I think a handful of fans might be a little bit blinded. Undertale is good. In fact, it’s very good. But it isn’t the first game to do what it does. Nor will it be the last. Many games have tried to show the importance of choices, and their consequences over the years. Ultima, System Shock, Bioshock, Epic Mickey are but a handful of them. Some of these games did it better. Others as well. Yes, some may have even done a far worse job.
However, when you take the choice system away, what you’re left with isn’t much. You have a pretty good story in this RPG adventure. But the world is smaller than some of those old 8-bit JRPGs, and CRPGs the game is inspired by. There are also long periods where you aren’t doing much of anything if you’re not exploring something or reading dialogue. I also ran into a technical problem where every so often my character would automatically veer left. I tried several controllers on the off chance I had broken my Xbox 360 controller, but the same thing continually happened. The game also isn’t configured to take screenshots in Steam. I had a difficult time trying to get some shots for this review, frequently juggling between applications.
Pointing these things out doesn’t mean I didn’t like the game, or that it wasn’t fun. The multiple choices, and endings do give players a lot of incentive to replay the game a few times. There are certainly enough likable characters, and moments that make it a story worth experiencing. Undertale definitely has the potential to become a pretty big franchise because of those things. But the game could also stand to let the player do more, through a bigger world to explore. It could use some more meaningful interactivity in that world. It doesn’t have to be Earth shattering stuff. But more than choosing to be good or bad in a random battle, or a sparse puzzle. There are hints of that very early on. It would have been nice to see some more of it explored in the middle areas of the game, and the final leg of the journey. Some players might be turned off by a very sharp difficulty spike near the end of the game as well.
These complaints aside, I did enjoy my time with Undertale. I can see why it has quickly become so beloved by so many. Hopefully if, and when a sequel arrives it addresses some of the technical issues, and adds just a tad bit more to do without feeling like padding. In the meantime go ahead, and pick up Undertale. It may not be the flawless game some insist it is, but it is a very, enjoyable one. One you will likely become very invested in.
Final Score: 8 out of 10