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So, I played… Undertale

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My last April Fools’ left some people quite disappointed, so how about we do this for reals this time? Get determined because this is my Undertale experience.

Undertale is an indie RPG (kind of?) by Toby Fox where you play as a human who has fallen down into a hole and finds themselves in the kingdom of monsters. You have two ways of approaching your goal of getting back into the outside world: befriend the monsters or deal with any obstacles in a… more violent manner. Choice is yours.

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Now, I understand that I am quite late with an Undertale review. The hype train came and went ages ago but it just happens that I only played Undertale recently and even that was an event that was sort of out of my control. For some time now my weekly livestreams have included a sort of a project along with the various random games I end up playing. When I managed to beat Project Brutality, someone in the audience came up with the idea of making me play through Undertale next, and I couldn’t with good conscience refuse since that person was kind enough to send me said game on Steam. So, I embarked on a journey I didn’t expect and frankly wasn’t too excited about either, at least not at first.

You see, I’m a bit of a hipster and when something slightly odd ends up being hyped all the way to heaven and back, I get really skeptical, generally for no good reason whatsoever. Long story short, I didn’t expect much and I had even spoiled some parts of the game earlier which to me indicated I’d have a mediocre gaming experience at best.

Before we touch the writing and how my experience changed along the way, let’s talk a bit about the actual mechanics of Undertale. You know, the stuff that makes a game a game. The central gameplay mechanic of Undertale is the unique fighting system which is loosely based on a traditional turn-based JRPG system that allows you to generally take two kinds of actions: you can either FIGHT or ACT. Fighting is maybe a bit more straightforward and traditional, you attempt to time your attack so that you maximize the amount of damage you do, which is also affected by the weapon you currently have equipped and of course your current LV. Once you’ve done enough damage, the monster you are fighting will die and you get some EXP for your next LV-up. The alternative way to deal with nasty encounters is to ACT, which usually means applying little bit of psychology and making a couple of lucky guesses. Essentially, the ACT menu gives you a couple of options depending on the monster you’re fighting, for example you can hug the monster, reassure it, tell a joke, that kind of stuff. If you play your cards right, the monster won’t want to fight you anymore and you can spare the monster. No EXP for monsters you don’t kill, however.

That’s one half of the combat mechanics, the second half is the bullet hell dodging part. Whenever the monster gets a turn, they will unleash a hail of various projectiles, laser beams and even 2D platforming obstacles that you need to avoid in real-time. And it does get hard. I’m not someone that likes bullet hell games, I just don’t have the brain power and reflexes to deal with a torrent of nasty pixels whizzing all around me and that meant a lot of frustration when I tried to survive the monster encounters. Needless to say, many deaths were met.

All in all, the combat wasn’t something I’d call enjoyable. I imagine some people absolutely adore it but for me it was mostly just an annoying chore. Another thing that really annoyed me was how random the ACT stuff sometimes felt. I played the game as a pacifist, because that was suggested to me by the stream chat, so naturally I always went with ACT and mostly ignored FIGHT. But ACTing means you need to do more thinking and sometimes blatant trial and error to figure out how to “take out” a monster. Some of the solutions were simple, sometimes I ended up just getting stuck. With some monsters you just need to survive long enough. It was inconsistent and sometimes there was little to no indication of progress made or what you should do next. Combine that with constant bullet hell dodging and you had all the ingredients to make me rage. And rage I did, I don’t think I’ve ever been so angry with a video game as much as I was with Undertale. Here’s a thing to keep an eye out if you ever watch me play video games: if I keep cursing things are still alright but if I go dead silent I am absolutely BOILING, about to EXPLODE any minute. During one session of Undertale, the last 30 minutes of the stream were complete silence and the only thing that kept me going was the fact that my reputation as a rage quitter is bad enough. Determination is one of the central themes of Undertale and I will tell you, you really need lots of that to get through it all.

Now that I’ve bashed one of Undertale’s supposed strengths, let’s move onto another one: the writing. Undertale has received a lot of praise for its writing and I do have to say I understand why. The writing goes from fairly unfunny puns to complete and total 4th wall breaking and quite creepy levels of self-awareness. Humour plays a big role and all the seriousness is contrasted by unexpected absurdity. Some of the humour was a bit “random LOL” and the numerous puns in the early game were tiresome, probably by design, but the game did give me a chuckle here and there. Apparently Mr. Bean was an inspiration for the game, so perhaps that gives you an idea what kind of humour you can expect.

It’s not all fun and games though with the writing either. Initially the game seemed to be making just a joke after another but it gets progressively more serious towards the end. The story and the characters start out seeming fairly simple but the further you get, the more layers you are shown. When I reached the True Pacifist ending things got unusually emotional and I have to admit, the game moved me to the point where I shed tears over it. Games have managed to shock me and surprise me in the past but I can’t remember many of them making me cry. I think the only other game that has managed to get me like that was Transistor and even that was just a passing moment of sadness that was over just moments after the game ended. With Undertale it has taken over a week and I’m still processing the emotions this game managed to elicit. Hell, the reason I decided to write this rambling mess of a review despite my initial decision not to critique the game was to get my emotions and thoughts organized.

Like I mentioned, I played as a pacifist and got the True Pacifist ending. There are a couple of other endings as well, most notably Genocide and Neutral. Technically I went through the Neutral ending to get to the True Pacifist ending but the way the game is designed, True Pacifist marked the actual end of my game experience. Due to these various endings you can get, the game really encourages you to play it multiple times and differences between a Genocide and a Pacifist run are massive. However, I have to say I’m not interested in going through the game killing everything, instead I felt content just seeing the differences by watching a couple of YouTube videos. That’s partially due to me not really enjoying the combat mechanics, partially because I don’t think I could pull of a Genocide run, skill-wise or emotionally. So, as far as I’m concerned, the 11 hours I spent on the Pacifist run are quite enough of Undertale for me.

As a more emotionally neutral topic, let’s quickly talk the technical side of things. Undertale has no performance issues, the game is capped at 30 FPS which is fine for what it is, and no apparent bugs. Or if it did, it hid them extremely well. The game does intentionally crash during the story but like I mentioned, that’s intentional. So, if the game suddenly closes it’s probably for a reason rather than due to some bit being in the wrong position. The controls for the game were a bit weird though, particularly when you play it on a keyboard like I did. The game does have controller support but when I played the game I either didn’t have my controller configured or it wasn’t picked up for whatever reason, so I stuck to the keyboard. While the game explains the buttons and their functions, due to the fairly weird choices it took me a while to actually learn them and sometimes I got a bit lost during combat with them. Basic movement is handled with arrow keys as you might expect, but things like accessing your inventory and moving back in the menus was sometimes quite wonky. If you end up picking the game up, just play it on a controller. It’s not impossible on a keyboard but it probably makes a bit more sense on a gamepad.

Correction: Controller support apparently doesn't work in the Linux version. Explains why I never got it working.

Also, I would be doing the world a disservice if I didn’t talk about the music. Undertale’s soundtrack is phenomenal. Even before I started liking Undertale I was already listening to the soundtrack and after having played the game the soundtrack feels even more amazing. Whatever your opinion on the game might be, I recommend you just set the soundtrack to play on the background one day and enjoy yourself.

So, ultimately, do I recommend the game? That’s actually somewhat hard to say. To me a large portion of the game was frustration and I didn’t start really enjoying the game until I was almost at the end. That means multiple hours of gameplay that was fairly mediocre. Some of that came from the fact that I had spoiled some parts of the game for myself, so if you are completely new to the game and you miraculously haven’t spoiled the experience for yourself you’ll probably have a bit more fun in the earlier parts of the game. However, for me it was more of an exercise in frustration. Every semi-random non-boss monster encounter felt like a waste of my time and when I “fought” the bosses I only really felt joy when I eventually managed to beat them. But during the last couple of hours before the end things changed. As more of the hidden layers of Undertale were revealed to me I got properly absorbed into the story and the ending was unlike anything I’ve seen or felt in a video game before. I think it says something that the last stream where I played Undertale lasted nearly 6 hours, 4 of which were spent playing Undertale.

So my answer is a definite maybe. If you like bullet hell games and/or want to go on an emotional roller coaster ride, I think you should consider picking the game up. And even if you don’t think Undertale is your cup of tea, I recommend you experience it in other ways. Play it with a friend or watch a total stranger play it on YouTube or Twitch. Oh, and if you do end up playing it yourself, friendly piece of advice: stay determined and don’t do Genocide as your first run. True Pacifist first and then, if you feel like you’re able, go nuts and kill everything. Just trust me, there’s a good reason.

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The comments on this article are closed.
apocalyptech 15 April 2017 at 5:41 pm UTC
Yeah, I really hated the actual "combat" stuff in there, and just couldn't get past it to finish the game. I grew to dread every one of those damned random encounters because it meant that I'd have to do yet more of those bullet hell minigames. Clearly I'm just not really in the target market for the game. I'm certainly glad it found its rather vocal niche, though - it's quite a unique game, whatever I felt about it.
Alm888 15 April 2017 at 8:05 pm UTC
All in all, I understand Toby wanted to tell a tale and that's what he did... But it is not an excuse for absolutely broken and unsatisfactory game aspects.

Linear, unimaginative "dungeons", the whole game is just "gastrointestinal tract" -- twisted, yet one-way only. Simple "puzzles" you have to solve time and time again if you chose to re-play the game.

Non-functional RPG mechanics. I understand Toby Fox wanted to deconstruct the whole "grind" thing. It was not necessary to break the gameplay to tell the simple idea of pacifism. I mean, look at "Iji", the game tells the same story while remaining fun to play (in case of pacifist run -- dodge all those projectiles). And why Toby kept the one most annoying part: "Random Encounters"? Why punish players so much? Fun fact: the more protagonist kills, the less (s)he encounters monsters. So it is profitable to slaughter some monsters just for the sake of convenience!

Storytelling is meh... Most of the characters are bad: Papyrus? Annoying. Sans? Annoying x2. Also, thinks of himself too much. Undyne? Let me slaughter that bitch! Mettaton? See "Undyne". IMHO, most of the characters are outright repulsive.

And the game looks really cheap. Most NPCs are not animated. They are cardboard dummies staying in one place.

Owerall, for me it is hugely overrated "game" (if one can call it that). Not even close to something like "Cave Story" or "Iji".

But the music is awesome!
stan 15 April 2017 at 8:23 pm UTC
I tried the demo under Wine (because no Linux demo) and found it badly made and uninteresting. Not sure if there was music…
Teal 15 April 2017 at 10:08 pm UTC
To me it will forever remain one of the most important stories in my life.

I feel sorry for the people who can't enjoy it.

Everyone has a different taste and it's fine to dislike what others enjoy, but I have the feeling that if you don't enjoy this one, you have to be missing something.

Last edited by Teal at 15 April 2017 at 10:10 pm UTC
rkfg 15 April 2017 at 10:34 pm UTC
I can mostly relate to the Liam's experience. The story is kinda good though I haven't shed a single tear, it felt too cheesy and even a bit childish to me. It's hard for me to draw a line between this story and some school romantic comedy dramas from anime (which I'm addicted to), both can be naive and emotional at the same time but in different ways. Undertale's one just didn't click for me. Maybe because it's lacking detailed graphics (pixel art may be pretty detailed, this one isn't) or weird NES-like "speech" sounds instead of some voice acting. That's OK for a retro-looking game be retro in all aspects, however it's also fine to mix pixel art with modern voice acting and music. Also, very this:
QuoteYou see, I’m a bit of a hipster and when something slightly odd ends up being hyped all the way to heaven and back, I get really skeptical, generally for no good reason whatsoever.
When I see a hype around a mediocre-looking game I become suspicious and if that hype doesn't stop I may even start hating the subject. Because it's everywhere and I'm tired of it. So yeah, hype deals some damage for quite a lot of people, please don't hype things you deeply care about, dear reader, and thank you.

As for the actual "game" part, it's really lacking any fun, that's true. It's only there to create an artificial difficulty (i.e. so you have at least something to do aside from reading the story) so you'll have your 11 hours instead of 2 at most. Combat is also used to tell stories but it looks irritating for me when a monster tells you how it loves you (according to the story) and then tries to kill you with multiple vicious attacks. Even yanderes aren't that crazy! It doesn't make sense and feels stupid, not funny.

So "definite maybe" is sure the only right recommendation I can give it as well. Still, I completed it. That means that it wasn't totally boring and somehow can hook one up for a couple of evenings. Thanks for the review.
Hamish 16 April 2017 at 12:05 am UTC
rkfgI can mostly relate to the Liam's experience.
Except this not Liam's review, but Samsai's.

Credit where credit is due, and all that.
rkfg 16 April 2017 at 7:49 am UTC
rkfgI can mostly relate to the Liam's experience.
Except this not Liam's review, but Samsai's.

Credit where credit is due, and all that.
Hah, that's true, my apologies. Didn't even check the author.
HadBabits 17 April 2017 at 12:27 am UTC
It's been a while, but I still adore Undertale. It certainly isn't perfect, but I can forgive a lot of it due to this being a single person's project. That doesn't invalidate the criticism, but it personally helps me tolerate the flawed parts more. Several things could have used more of Toby Fox's attention, but I think he prioritized the core experience he wanted to make, and the game has all the more character for it. That said, I would love to see a collab game between Toby and Yacht Club Games (of Shovel Knight fame)
buenaventura 18 April 2017 at 6:18 am UTC
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I liked Undertale alot, it was really funny and moving, and surprising! I just wanted to contribute that you can use qjoypad (available in ubuntu repos, and probably elsewhere) to map the keyboard buttons to your gamepad (works with my SNES-like one). Useful software!
tuubi 18 April 2017 at 8:25 am UTC
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Thanks for this very comprehensive review Samsai.

buenaventuraI liked Undertale alot, it was really funny and moving, and surprising! I just wanted to contribute that you can use qjoypad (available in ubuntu repos, and probably elsewhere) to map the keyboard buttons to your gamepad (works with my SNES-like one). Useful software!
Antimicro is another popular choice for this task and the one I prefer.
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