Undertale Review: A Journey Into the Spectacular
Video games are incredibly capable of delivering heartfelt, emotional stories. Undertale has the storytelling sensibilities of the early days of gaming, imparting emotional moments through great text, memorable characters, and morally complex choices. On the surface the systems look simple enough, but an incredible level of depth, engaging battles and a fully realized world help catapult Undertale to the top.
The story is simple enough. You take control of a human who has fallen into the Underground. You must make your way through the world and break through the barrier in order to return to the human world. This monster-infested world is full of vicious, hungry beasts. Or at least that’s what you are meant to believe. In reality the Underground is a lively, lonely place, filled with zany characters, memorable enemies, and plenty of emotional moments that still bounce around in my head.
The game is an RPG at its core. You wander through the world, meeting characters, revealing the story and brawling with monsters. Combat is entirely different from anything I’ve seen before. It’s a mix of time-based systems and shoot ‘em ups. When a battle starts you are presented with four options: Fight, Act, Item and Mercy. Fight is fairly straightforward. A bar appears and you must time a button press to land the attack bar in the middle of the gauge. This system means that you are always in control of how much damage your attacks do. When your opponent attacks, the encounter takes place inside a small white box. The player is represented with a red heart that they must maneuver around the arena to dodge enemy’s projectiles. They range from small pellets, to tears, to columns of fire. Each attack is unique to the enemy that unleashes it. The Act option truly explores the enemies. Each enemy has a set of commands that are personalized to him. If you meet a creature that glares at you with one, large eye and pleads, “Please don’t make fun of me,” then you can either choose to make fun of it or not to insult it. Showing mercy and kindness will endear the enemy to you and will allow you to use the Mercy option. This peculiar addition means that you can befriend almost every character in the game and let every single one of them live. Even choices as small as which enemies to fight can have significant consequences and add to Undertale’s replay value.
Even if you choose to compliment your attackers, you’ll still need to dodge their barrage of attacks. I found that battles were never unfair because of how nimble the player’s heart is. For the most part, if I took damage, it was my fault. Battle puts control entirely in the hands of the players. Do you want to be a merciless warrior or a kind soul? The free movement of the cursor also means that the combat system can introduce fun diversions; such as a literal shoot ‘em up level, and a dating simulator battle. The handful of boss battles further highlight the inventive combat and offer up a true challenge.
While Combat is fun and engaging, the main thing that caught my attention was how it still put the world’s inhabitants on full display. Fighting isn’t just a way to earn experience and kill some monsters; it’s a way to delve deep into the psyches of the Undergrounds monstrous citizens. Between each turn, as you decide which action to take, the enemies will rattle off a line of dialogue, either exploiting a weakness or just taunting the player.
Because Undertale is positioned as an RPG, you may think that the enticing combat is the reason to delve into this adventure. You would be wrong. The story and the world are the true stars here. While the graphics are a simple style of pixel art, the writing fleshes out the Underground in a way that is surprisingly deep. Each area - no matter how much time is spent in it - is clearly defined and fun to explore. They are all filled with challenging puzzles that can occasionally be frustrating, but they serve as a bit of filler between areas.
It’s fun to roam around the games colorful world, but it’s fairly linear. Paths branch off, leading to small extra areas. But for the most part it’s a fairly straight run. While this is usually a bad thing in RPGS, Undertale’s straightforward nature helps push the story forward at a breakneck pace. The story is definitely the main draw. The characters are all incredibly well realized, beautifully written, and a joy to talk to, and I found myself going out of my way to talk to every character I could, just to see what yarns they would spin. Even the smallest character could say one of the game’s most memorable lines. Meeting a rabbit that is just trying to make a living selling ice cream, or a skateboarding blob that doesn’t mind the trap riddled ruins because it means that school is canceled doesn’t make the game great on their own, but they flesh out the ridiculous world.
Because the story is delivered not only through character interactions, but also through flavor text in battles and even in weapon and item descriptions, Undertale is the kind of game that is experienced for the story and characters. If you don’t like doing too much reading in your games, maybe stay away from this one. There are sections where words fly across the screen every five steps, constantly delivering funny quips and social commentaries. The writing in Undertale can go from comedic to heartbreakingly sad in an instant, but it doesn’t feel out of place. This goes back to the world and how it also has a somber joy to it.
The soundtrack also deserves a special mention. the music is always fitting and never grows old. there are dozens of tracks and some are even so good that I've listened to them outside of the game. It's just another layer that smooths out the entire experience.
Undertale is exceptionally good, but it isn’t flawless. Near the end of my play through I found myself checking my playtime, hoping that the end would come, but the finale more than made up for this slump. As I have already noted, combat isn’t a big focus, but because I couldn’t hone my abilities against relentless hoards of enemies, the boss battles were often walls that I repeatedly beat my head against. Finally defeating them feels like a true triumph, but it sometimes felt like I just got lucky when dodging a particular attack. That said, the bosses are some of the game’s best characters and are fleshed out enough to make it more than just another battle. These are just small criticisms in an otherwise wonderful game.
Undertale is a great RPG. It’s short enough that it’s very easy to replay, and the action-oriented combat takes time to master. Despite everything else, the characters, world and writing cannot be championed enough. I thoroughly enjoyed my time with it and cannot wait to delve back into the Underground.