One of the biggest debates concerning video games now-a-days is where to draw the line between traditional gameplay and cinematic experience. Undertale only further adds to this debate.
Undertale, in its entirety, is roughly 60-80% dialogue and story, depending on how much you choose to explore and pay attention to environmental cues. There isn’t a whole lot of “gameplay” to be had in Undertale. At its core, the gameplay within Undertale is limited to running around and dodging things in a battle system. That is the extent of “game” you will play when picking up Undertale.
But is this necessarily a problem? Maybe, maybe not. I think in Undertale‘s case, it’s enough of a traditional game to warrant it some credit, especially with the gameplay that it chooses to abide by. Undertale does a great job of making the battle system simple and accessible to everyone, but also unique enough to attract praise from veterans. However, I’m aware that a lot of people will be turned off from this game simply because it is story-driven and carried through primarily by characters and their personalities.
Let me make it clear: Undertale is story-driven. Its characters, story, dialogue, etc., are what make the game so charming, so appealing. There is not enough gameplay to warrant praise for that alone. The praise and near-cult following this game has received is due to the impact these characters have on the viewer, along with a variety of other things. In essence, Undertale is similar to that of a visual novel, though I wouldn’t categorize it as such. Just know that for those curious to play this game, expecting revolutionary gameplay is misguided. It’s story-driven.
I’ll be honest, as I feel obligated to be in a review: I didn’t expect much from this game. In fact, I expected to outright hate it. I’d heard too much flak and not enough praise for this game as a whole (and not its characters, as fan art exists of them everywhere). I went into Undertale with a bias. However, to my surprise, I left it with a positive feeling.
There are games that come and go that garner worldwide appeal, that garner a fanbase that’s insufferable enough to ruin the appeal of the game. Minecraft, Call of Duty, Five Nights at Freddy’s, etc. All of these games have notoriously bad fanbases full of children and sour grapes. All of these games are so popular and I just don’t get it. What makes these games so outlandishly great that it would garner so much attention from all of these people? All of these kids? I didn’t get it. I still don’t get it. Along comes Undertale and I still don’t get it. What’s so great about Undertale? I don’t get it.
After playing the game, I completely get it.
All of those characters you see fan art of. Those characters, the story they’re placed in, and the music that plays behind them. They have things you don’t see a lot of in video games now-a-days. Effort. Love. Care. Undertale doesn’t feel like just another game. It feels like someone’s heart and soul was poured into the game to make it as bright, as vivid, as great and as epic a spectacle as it possibly could. Every frame, every area, every line and the way its presented. Every character, every enemy, and all of the stupid jokes. Everything feels vital to the system of Undertale. And that is its one true strength. The amount of effort, love, and care put into this game makes it all the more appreciable. In fact, it almost feels like it tries too hard.
From a more objective scope, the game benefits greatly from its cast of characters. While I can’t say I liked all of them as developed and relatable characters, I can say that I didn’t hate any of them. I feel this is also a great strength of the game, as the characters are filled with charm and wit, an almost innocent-like grace that can be lovable to even the most cynical. It allows the game to get away with some of both the leaps of faith in logic and lack of overall gameplay. The characters are what drive the game forward and allow the player to continue. They are definitely a great strength to both the story and even valuable to the uniqueness of the gameplay.
Another great factor to this game is the soundtrack. Perhaps the greatest strength to the game, though highly debatable, as it allows the emotion of the game to phase through the screen and into the mind of the player. Each area has a great atmosphere to it, and it shines through with the music. Undertale does a wonderful job with its range, as well. Undertale can be serious or silly, and each piece of music reflects it brilliantly. I would go as far as to argue that Undertale has the most sobering soundtrack I’ve heard in a long time. The fun tracks are fun, but tracks played especially near the end of the game make the importance and emotional impact of the story all the more powerful. Like with the characters, there is no one track I don’t like.
Then, there is an aspect of uniqueness to the game that makes it more appealing. The game has a tendency to break your expectations. It portrays characters who are dumb on the surface, but actually harbor great secrets and give off more than they appear. One of the more notable aspects of this is the player’s ability to “spare” everything. You do not need to kill any one person, thing, plant, dog, whatever, in Undertale. The entire game can be considered both a parody and a rule-breaker. It takes cliches and either embellishes them or turns them on their heads. It doesn’t have any one direction, rather multiple directions and takes every detour possible. It has a lot of creative spark behind it.
All of these things and more are what make Undertale such an impactful and important game for a lot of people. The emotional impact and the likability of the characters and their motivations are hard on the heart. The entirety of the game feels like a breath of fresh air, despite the predictability of the underlying message. It feels new, inspired, and cared for. It feels like a game from the heart. In essence, it almost feels like a game version of Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann; it has that ability to pump you up, to get you hyped, to make you cry and cheer and jump up and down through sheer passion alone. However, that’s all it really has going for it, as the stability of its story and the things that happen are hard to swallow. That’s what Undertale does. And that’s why people love it. They love it for the impact it has and the emotional hole it leaves by the end. Like the end of a long journey. I get it. I really do. Undertale is a great and worthwhile experience.
. . . . . . . . . .
But we’re not done here. Did you really think I wouldn’t say anything against this game? You know me better than that.
Undertale has a lot of good qualities. However, one very important one is not replayability. Let me be honest again: I beat the game, got the neutral ending, then promptly applied for a refund after I looked up the true ending on Youtube. Somewhat of a heel turn, sure, but I felt it was an advantage I’d rather take. So why did I do this? Simple, the game simply isn’t motivating enough to play a second time. When I was dealt with the concept of playing through the entire game a second time, only with the goal of not killing anyone, my first initial feeling was that of annoyance. I would have to sit through the dialogue, the character quirks, the corny humor, all over again. I didn’t care for that. A lot of the charm to Undertale is seeing what’s in store with the next area, the next line of dialogue, the next major character. Half the fun of the game is sating your curiosity. Once you know everything that’s going to happen and all the secrets seen within the little nooks and crannies of the game, the game no longer hold that same charm as it did the first time around. Taking away all the uniqueness and adding predictability to a game like Undertale, it becomes mediocre, and not worth spending four to five more hours going through 90% of the same dialogue and events all over again. And the gameplay isn’t worthwhile or fun enough to warrant much replayability, either.
This is more of a personal nitpick than objective criticism, but I feel the game has an agenda set, and wants you to follow it. Spare everything. The game rewards you for being nice and chastises you for being mean. The game is considerably easier if you spare everything and harder if you kill everything. To have a clear bias within the game doesn’t sit right with me, even if it’s a morally good bias. Of course I wouldn’t think to kill anyone in person, rather than to spare them, but this is fantasy. This is a game. Give me the choice to either spare or kill, rather than guilt me into doing what the game wants me to do. One could say this makes the game more realistic, sure, it definitely does, but it doesn’t help when the game paints the monsters in a more positive light than the humans. To some regard, the humans could even be seen as the antagonists of the game. One of my first criticisms of this game, before I even played the game, was that it felt too much like propaganda.
I spent a lot of time praising the characters, the music, and the uniqueness of the game. But do you recall me ever saying anything truly good about the story? There’s a reason for that, as the story is pretty cliche. Not everything is what it seems, and characters have secrets hidden within them, even if they don’t know it. A kingdom is ravaged by something that happened in the past and now they need a specific number of souls (take a guess at how many, RPG lovers) in order to escape their devastating situation.
Here’re the issues with that. Not once, at any point, did I feel the denizens of the “underground” were suffering. They talk and talk all the time of wanting to return to the surface, but I never really understood why. The citizens felt fine where they were. In fact, they seemed happy. If you speak to some of the shopkeepers, they’ll talk about how “the situation” in the underground has negatively impacted their life, but they don’t show it. Nothing in this game led me to believe that being underground was a bad thing. The whole plot of the game felt more like a placeholder for a bigger goal, a hollow attempt at making the player care about the situation of Undertale as a whole. Of all the effort put into the game, the story seems to have had less work attached in comparison.
I won’t spoil anything, but I felt the ending sequence to the game, in either the true or neutral ending, felt way too cliché. It felt straight out of a shounen manga, trying to appeal to those of the lowest common denominator. In a sense, it could be a result of the accumulation of the emotional impact of the game and how it creates a more dynamic and powerful main character… but this has been done so many times that it just left a sour taste in my mouth. Of all the uniqueness this game has to offer, when the going gets tough, just let the clichés take over. It kinda hampered the ending experience for me.
The last major criticism I have for this game is that it simply isn’t funny. It’s charming, yes, but it is not funny. No joke got more than a wry smirk out of me. And boy, did this game try. Almost every other line was a joke, and this game has a huge platter of ongoing and running jokes. Remember what I said above about this game “trying too hard”? This is the biggest example: trying far too hard to be funny. This, in turn, could turn off those looking for a more serious sense of adventure.
Oh, I lied. There’s one more major criticism of the game: world-building. Somewhat backtracking to the criticism of the underground never appearing to have any drawbacks, the environments aren’t entirely expansive. The underground, in its entirety, doesn’t feel very big. It almost felt like the characters had to take up as much time as they did, or else the player would beat the game in less than two hours, seeing as this game isn’t too difficult. There isn’t much to see either, and the “variety” of landscapes present in the underground can be summed up with “ruins,” “snow level,” “fire level,” water level,” “techno level,” and “final castle.” There simply isn’t much to see or to explore. The music does a good job of setting the atmosphere of each area, but the areas themselves are basically just a background to walk on.
It’s a worthwhile experience… but not a worthwhile game. Undertale is a great cinematic experience, and would probably do better on the big screen as opposed to with a controller in-hand. As a game, it’s fairly lackluster once all the charm of the characters and uniqueness of the game wears off. At least for me, the gameplay isn’t nearly fun enough to go through the entire game two or three times just for slightly different endings that I could just look up. I will say, though, that the price is a good value. It is a lot like paying to watch an interactive movie. And it has the emotional impact to last a long, long time. It’s a game of love, though not necessarily a game of unlimited innovation. It benefits greatly from likable characters and well-placed musical tracks, but those would hardly matter in terms of what makes a “game” fun. Undertale, in general, is a bullet-hell game, dodge everything that comes your way, and it basically expands on that and that alone. It isn’t much more of a “game” than that. Even so, it’s definitely worth playing. And hey, if you end up loving the game, there’s a community of what seems like 143,000,000 die-hard fanatics to discuss it with.
Final Score: 7/10
(All screenshots taken from a playthrough by BlazingVictini22.)