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A couple weeks back I posted about a poll on GameFAQs that made the Legend of Zelda fandom very angry because apparently the internet thinks Undertale is a better game than Ocarina of Time. You can read that post here. Naturally, when I heard about this game that was supposedly better than one of my favorite games ever, I wanted to look into it and see what it was all about. When I realized it was an indie game that I could scoop up pretty easily on Steam, I knew I had to try it.
Now, I’ve played Undertale. I have beaten the game. And I am ready to comment intelligently on it (or at least semi-intelligently). So today we’re going to look at the graphics, audio, story, gameplay, and spirit of Undertale to decide if it is a game truly worthy of being called great.
Okay, so what exactly is Undertale? I’ve already mentioned that this is an indie game. It was created by Toby Fox, and the way everyone on the internet says “Toby Fox” made me think this meant something. But Undertale is his first original project, and his previous work is focused on hacks of Earthbound. So don’t be impressed just because his name is so prominently displayed in all the credits and whatnot!
Anyway, the influence of Earthbound on Undertale is incredibly obvious. From the graphical style to the quirky sense of humor, this game is Earthbound for the modern generation. That’s not to say that Undertale has nothing original about it, because there are many aspects of Undertale that feel incredibly fresh (more on that later).
The game tells the story of a young child in a world where humans live aboveground and the monsters they once battled have been sealed underground. The child falls underground and must navigate the world of monsters in order to return home. On the way, he or she must choose to interact with monsters in a peaceful way, or to slay them as humans tend to do.
Graphically, Undertale does its job. This is an indie game, and ole Toby could only do so much with the software and budget available to him. This game does not look like Skyrim, or Until Dawn. If that’s a turn off to you, then I humbly invite you to expand your horizons a little. Graphics don’t make a game, and sometimes to experience a great story and gameplay you have to experience graphics that aren’t photorealistic.
That being said, Undertale’s graphics are good. The monsters look cool, the settings are pretty, and there’s no point where the graphics of the game interfere with the ability to understand what is happening. There are even points towards the end where the graphical approach actually works well for the game, allowing very creepy and disturbing monsters to reveal themselves.
Undertale looks good and the visuals get the job done.
Sadly, this is the part of the review where I will not have the opportunity to ccomment very intelligently. Due to unfortunate circumstances, I ended up playing much of Undertale in a hospital. No headphones, no volume, just silence as I navigated the monstrous underground. Because of this, there were many parts of the game where I did not get to experience the music and sound effects.
What I did get to experience had its highs and lows. The songs sound good, and I conveniently got to play with sound during a sound-based puzzle and that worked very well. The music appropriately reflects the scenario – there were moments of silence during more intense scenes that really set the mood of the game.
However, Undertale has a problem that many, many RPGs have – the text noise. When people talk, they have a distinctive “talking sound” that plays while the text is spreading out and during dialogue-heavy sequences, this noise can get painfully repetitive. It is different for different characters, but no matter what character is speaking the sound becomes irritating after only a few minutes of dialogue. When I was playing with audio, I’d often turn it off during long conversations because the text noise was a serious pain. And trust me, in Undertale long conversations are quite common.
Overall, what I got to experience of Undertale’s sound was a positive experience – as long as no one was talking. I apologize that I’m not able to speak in more detail, but the circumstances of real life cannot be avoided.
Adventurers, the story is where Undertale truly shines.
As I said, you start the game as a child that has fallen into the monster world and wants to go home. Straightforward. But the further you go on, the less straightforward this story becomes. There are a lot of things to see, and talking to side characters can reveal backstory and small details that expand the world and make it a lot more interesting. This is a game with multiple endings and you definitely want to push through to experience more than one – there are many significant story details unavailable to you until you’ve beaten the game one time.
The writing in Undertale is brilliant. I’m going to speak more towards that in a later section, but just know that much of this game’s charm and fun comes from the colorful characters and deep story. This game made me laugh out loud multiple times but also had moments that tugged the heartstrings. The game pulls its style from Earthbound, so if you’re lucky enough to have played one of those you’ll find a lot of familiar elements. However, if you’ve played a Paper Mario game (NOT the travesty known as Sticker Star) you’ll recognize a similar quirkiness and sense of fun.
If you love a good story, play Undertale. ‘Nuff said.
While story is the main draw of Undertale, this title is no slouch when it comes to gameplay either. As I mentioned earlier, there are two main approaches. The first is the classic approach – kill everything. When attacking, you have a long colored design that a white bar runs across. You try to stop the bar as close to the center of the design as possible. The better you do, the more damage you deal. When defending, your body is represented by a small red heart that you can move around a field of black. The enemy attacks manifest as white designs that fly, shoot, sit, or dance around the battlefield. If you get hit, you take damage.
The second approach is to peacefully overcome every monster. This requires a little more thought, as each monster has different actions that can be performed when facing them. With some, it is as simple as finding the one action that makes them not want to fight any more, while others may require a complex string of actions. Once a monster is no longer interested in fighting, you spare it.
The two approaches lead to an interesting gameplay dynamic. Actually killing monsters nets you EXP so you can gain LV and increase your stats, but then nobody is going to like you and you lock yourself out of the true ending of the game. However, the pacifistic approach never gets you any EXP, locking you at LV 1 and keeping your stats low. This means you’ll have to defend yourself even more skillfully, because monsters will not back down while you’re telling them jokes or complimenting them on their muscles. Of course, this difficult gameplay scenario is rewarded with much friendlier characters and a great ending.
The combat system has plenty of things to keep it fresh, though. Boss characters have abilities that change the color of your “soul” (the little red heart that represents you on the battlefield) and these colors cause you to move around in different ways. Some battles will have you platforming, others moving along a series of tracks, some have you flying and shooting bullets a la Galaga. It’s a great way to make boss battles stand out and it keeps the game fresh throughout the story.
In the overworld, there are a number of puzzles to solve. The puzzles are simple but fun – there was only one point where I was racking my brain to find an answer, but it ended up being a situation where I was overthinking things. While the puzzles are never particularly challenging, they are still fun to solve and are a pleasant break from dodging “friendliness pellets” and listening to monsters ramble on about capturing you.
Overall, the gameplay of Undertale is a lot of fun with plenty of variety to keep you entertained and engaged.
Undertale is a game with a very distinct feel to it. The sense of humor is prevalent throughout the entire game, a very quirky and tongue-in-cheek feel that is counterbalanced by some very serious moments. The spirit of Undertale is hard to quantify, but it really gives the game a unique flavor. It feels modern in a way that a lot of RPGs do not. The story includes a lesbian romance, something that’s pretty culturally-relevant considering that Nintendo is under a lot of criticism for their in-game treatment of homosexuality. Indie games have a little more leeway to push boundaries, and though I don’t believe the content in Undertale really pushes anything, the lack of this kind of stuff in mainstream games causes it to feel a lot more with-the-times.
Undertale does a great job of making you care about the monsters in the game. Their quirky personalities and the way their opinions of your character change over time makes it easy to get attached to them. I cared enough about these goofy monsters that by the time I got the true ending, I had no desire to play through the violent path. The idea of killing the characters I’d fostered a friendship with just felt wrong.
I guess if I had to choose a single word for the spirit of Undertale, it’d be “fun.” The game made me laugh. I enjoyed all the characters. The puzzles kept me engaged. There were few moments of playing Undertale that didn’t leave me smiling. Even after times where the game had been serious and dark, I still found myself grinning again. It’s been a long time since I played something that just made me happy.
The spirit of Undertale is charming and fun, and it really drives you to play the entire game. If you need an experience that’s going to make you smile, this is the game to play.
Undertale is a charming game that may not bring much to the table technically, but has a lot to offer in story and gameplay. Do I think it’s better than Ocarina of Time? I honestly don’t think it’s fair to compare. Undertale is a game about fun, something to make you laugh and smile (unless of course you play the “murder everything” path). So comparing it to a Zelda game is rather odd. Personally, I’m okay with living in a world where games like Ocarina of Time and games like Undertale exist side by side. There’s a place for fun and smiles, and there’s a place for epic adventure. When it comes to the former, Undertale is one of the best games I have played in a long time.
Final Score: 99/97
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