Playtime: 4 hours
Undertale is an 8-bit style puzzle role playing game (RPG) for the PC. Players control a child that has been cast into an imaginative world filled with monsters. The game has a heavy focus on narrative and dialogue, with a plethora of objects, adorable characters, and environment to interact with very often employing humor. It features a catchy, very well-built soundtrack that makes progressing through the game pleasant and fun.
Undertale’s graphics evoke the NES era of pixelation, employing a beautiful color palette, cinematic exposition, and creative character design. Having grown up on the SNES and Gameboy Advanced, I see direct application of the cinematic techniques employed in Undertale from that period of gaming. Additionally, the rich and vibrant colors and design of each house, town, and cavern are whimsical and immersing, making the trek through the game at least a pleasant visual experience.
The gameplay of Undertale is most closely related to the RPG, but with a more involved attack mechanic and puzzles outside of battle. Encounters seem to occur randomly, though I’ve found many examples where the path I’m on will always have a certain encounter with a spread of enemies. Enemies may be part of the narrative and triggered by the player or may show on their own, in pairs, or triples. If multiple enemies appear, they often play off of each other in their attacks and dialogue.
The player has the options to Attack, Act, use an item, or perform a Mercy maneuver. Once the player performs a move, the enemy may attack. Enemy attacks are unique to each enemy and usually consist of some flavor of bulletstorm or flash-animation style dodging of shapes. A box appears and the player controls a heart that must dodge sprites or risk losing health points for an undetermined amount of time. While each attack animation is unique to that enemy, they are often the same idea merely with a different set of sprites. The Act options are also unique to each enemy and allow the player a far more creative and usually adorable and hilarious alternative to killing an enemy. Mercy options include the ability to Spare and Flee. Performing the certain sets of Actions will allow the player to Spare an enemy, while Fleeing may or may not always allow the player to immediately run away from battle.
Undertale’s characters are imaginative, adorable, witty, and perhaps one of the game’s strongest attributes. Environment and objects gain character, as well, since I could interact with nearly everything I wanted to and never felt like the creators placed a stone without considering that the player would want to interact with it. The writing is quality and not merely there as filler, but to immerse the character and reward them for their curiosity. It’s how I would expect game creators to build a game world without compromises.
The Undertale soundtrack is an impressive set of compositions by Toby Fox with comprehensive themes and melodies and an ethereal instrumentation. The chiptune era of video-games forced game composers to create enjoyable, usually memorable melodies for each setting and character. It is here that Fox draws from, because by focusing on the composition of the melody and the tune devoid of any particular sound, he built a wealth of leitmotifs that he reuses throughout, changing the instrumentation to match the desired emotion.
My favorite song is Waterfall, which I encountered in the caverns of a mountain along my trek during a particularly stressful part of the game. Echoing bells plink and resonate as rock crystals glitter in the wall, illuminated by the glowing pink and blue luminescent microbes in the water dripping and puddled throughout the caves. A vague, distant, and unsettling drone pierces underneath, adding tension and discord. Tempering that is a single piano that seems to come from everywhere, playing fully and thoughtfully. The key striking the keybed bounces off the cavern walls and the dark drone morphs into the metallic vibration of the piano’s low notes. Confident and determined, the timpani, cymbals, and strings join in, encouraging the player to remain steadfast through the difficult and uneasy caves.
While Undertale does a great many things, I have issues with the narrative progression, the attack system, and the text reading mechanic. The game so far, 3-4 hours in, has shown me little advancement in the vague, but possibly predictable story. Is it a metaphor for something? Or is it just some other story that fulfills the purpose of following through with the game mechanics and explore the cute jokes the developers made? It feels like a game filled with easter eggs, but, if you’ll allow the analogy, the easter eggs are all over the lawn, filled with chocolates and candies, and you're constantly stepping over and finding them, but the easter brunch is merely a single deviled egg that your aunt served you on a little plate. Much of the narrative exposition occurs through signs on walls lining the passageways. Some of the narrative is paper thin, when, for example, layered between faintly mawkish desires expressed by monsters through memory flowers, the history tablets laid on the wall introduce the concept of a “boss battle” into the narrative it is trying to tell. Undertale has some decent humor throughout, but this feels like a lazy way to hang the lampshade.
The attack system is also mind-numbingly uninteresting for many of the characters, especially the narrative ones, subjecting the player to seemingly (and sometime actually) endless streams of what amount to nothing more than variations on flash games. One battle that felt endless was there simply for the player to endure, while another endless battle was actually endless and the character is supposed to Flee. Once I read this on the (obsessively thorough) wiki I rage quit and here I am.
Probably the next most infuriating for me is the text speed and how it plays out in the narrative. Whenever a character wants to wax at length about some arbitrary thing, usually unrelated to the story or merely a tiny slice of it, the whole game has to stop and I have to start mashing the Z and X buttons to be able to reasonably read it. One button advances to the next panel and the other skips the typing of the text, but only after about a quarter second while the text box opens, which I prefer to do because I can read the whole text box faster than the game can meanderingly type it. At this point, I’m sick of timing it because there’s so much damn text and I can’t have it just instantly display, so I just constantly mash the buttons. For a narrative focused game, it does an annoying job of (not really) telling the narrative.
As a video-game, Undertale is an incredible feat with few cut corners. The characters are imaginative, witty, and fun, the visuals are gorgeous, and the music is well-written, which all come together to build an immersive and enjoyable world. On the other hand, the narrative feels hollow, nonexistent, and drawn out, withholding a lot without really delivering throughout. Figuring out how to Spare the monsters can be a fun task, but the discovery process combined with the Attack system often becomes very tedious and I find myself trying to move on to advance the story.