Life is an unforgiving mess. It’s often cruel, difficult, and unfriendly. This is something we accept, but few of us like. We just have to adapt over time, becoming more cynical and unfriendly ourselves. We plan for the worst-case scenario on everything, from people’s intentions to choosing what brand of salt to use for tonight’s chicken dinner. It’s a world of doubt, and the only truth we can be sure of is the one we make in our own minds. Life is, in a word, terrible. But on days where we stare into our terribly overly salted chicken dinner, wondering how much worse life can get, Undertale comes up, takes a seat next to you and says “Hey… it’s all gonna be okay”. And when Undertale says it, you actually believe it.
I don’t mean to make it sound like Undertale can cure blindness and turn water to wine, but it’s so unbelievably refreshing that I challenge you not to fall in love. Unless your novelty magic eight ball is broken, you probably can guess I’ll recommend Undertale by the end of this. But if you haven’t played it yet, I recommend reading the rest of this review after you do. The game is at its best when you go in blind. Even if you don’t think you’ll like it, I say give it a shot. It’s like one of those classic movies you have to see regardless of expectations, because it’s such a cultural milestone to gaming that you can play through it just so you’re caught up with the rest of the community. With that out of the way, let’s jump into the why’s and how’s.
In Undertale, you play as an androgynous child who finds themselves trapped in the Underground, a massive cave system where monsters were sealed by humans a really long time ago. You must find your way home by traversing the Underground, meeting a colorful cast of characters, and getting all of the Skeletons memes your friends have been sharing since 2015. I’m not overly salting anyone’s chicken dinner by saying this story is brilliant. Every joke gets a chuckle, and every heartstring was tugged. Everyone is likable or relatable to some degree. Even characters that get one line in, and even characters you hate at the beginning. It’s such a rarity for a story, video game or otherwise, to be this tightly focused. None of your time is wasted through the story, and you remember each and every bit of the whole experience.
While the plot is certainly emotional enough to make a comforting, warm bath made from your tears, I want to state first I am a gameplay first critic. Story should never be a crutch for weak gameplay. My guess is the first thing you’ve heard about this game is how great the story is, which leaves the unintended assumption that this excellent story covers up a dull RPG. But that’s farther from the truth than I am from overly salty chicken. Undertale is a dismantling of the JRPG model that compliments its narrative just as much as the narrative compliments it. In this game, you are given a moral choice in every battle. In most moral choice systems, it’s about solving a problem the normal way (give them something) or the easy way (kill them), then getting a different ending depending on which one you did the most. Undertale makes every enemy unique in exactly how you be nice, having you pull off a complicated series of menu-based choices that is just as satisfying to complete as doing it the standard RPG way of “Battle to the death”. For example, you can choose to talk to the enemy about their feelings, prompting them to stop fighting you. You have to study what the character says, looks like, and how it acts. Every fight in Undertale can be a tense battle of wits, one I can safely say you’ve never experienced in a game before.
Even when you’re not attacking, the battles do not get dull. The enemy attacks are portrayed as a bullet hell shooter, where you control a little heart that you have to weave through enemy attacks. This constant shifting between menu-based detective work and frantic flee-for-your-life dodging makes for an exceptional battle system that doesn’t get boring or repetitive. It’s like grocery shopping for salt, but you have to dodge angry people with knives after every decision you make.
However, this only really applies if you are going for the pacifist route. Undertale has three main routes: Neutral, where you kill some people and spare some; Pacifist, where you kill no one; and Genocide, where you kill everyone. Each one results in practically a different experience. It’s not just the ending that changes, but how you play the entire game. The neutral run is pretty decent, but leaves you wanting more in the end. Which I like because it incentives you to play the other two, more difficult routes. The pacifist run requires you’re A+ game in figuring out the best way to not kill, and leads to a new area with a spectacular ending. I admittedly wouldn’t know about the Genocide ending, because I’m not a monster. This is kind of where Undertale lets the story take over a little too much. Killing is so discouraged that it’s particularly not fun to do. Yes, that’s the point, making a statement about killing things in games and all that, but an intentionally bad gameplay mechanic is still a bad gameplay mechanic. You have to kill every single enemy in a genocide playthrough, which means a lot of walking around waiting for an enemy to show up. This is all so the game can dump a canister of salt on your chicken for even doing it, which isn’t what I call a reward for playing the game how I want. Also, once you do a Genocide run, you can never do a normal pacifist run ever again on the same file. I never really wanted to do the route for that reason alone. But hey, the game clearly doesn’t want me to do it either, and I got my moneys worth out of being Mr. Happy The Salt-less Dinner Savior.
But please, for the love of Morgan Freeman, do not even consider that a point against this gem. I sat here for about 10 minutes trying to pull up that weak bit of shade to throw at the game. It didn’t even have to put on its sunglasses. So many times, you have to choose to like or dislike something in spite of its flaws. I like Sonic Adventure 2 despite the fact that it’s camera acts like it makes minimum wage. I’m lukewarm on Twilight Princess despite that it’s objectively one of the best games on the Gamecube. The truth is, Undertale is too good for this negative, cynical world of picking apart games. It’s the one kid in school that nobody had a beef with; The one who had to fit time going to the amusement park with you in between all of the birthday parties they were invited to. The world over has fallen in love with this game for all of the right reasons, and not just because people can make ironic memes out of it. I’m glad I tried it, and so will you. By all means, pick this game up. You’ll have a good time.
Have you played Undertale? Tell us what you think in the comments and in the forums!
HautDeForme is a collector, a self proclaimed historian, and most of all, a player of video games. When he’s not writing about that, you can find him writing music for no particular reason and advocating for the localization of Mother 3, whether people listen or not.