If Undertale had been left to fly under the radar as a kind of hidden gem to be discovered, recommending it would absolutely be a safe bet. It is, after all, thoroughly enjoyable and easily one of the best games of 2015 (though there haven’t been very many amazing games released compared to 2014’s releases, admittedly). However, fans of the game have done it a huge disservice by rambling on about how it’s the best game ever released in the history of gaming, and about how it could totally beat up Earthbound’s dad and cure every known gaming ill like some kind of coked-up panacea. There’s such a thing as overselling, and the fanatical praise for this game definitely qualifies, turning an enjoyable—though occasionally inconsistent—game into a polarizing thing for no reason. It deserves better, honestly.
To kill or not to kill
Billed as a game where you don’t have to kill anyone, you can conceivably play through Undertale however you want, using as much violence as you want as you make your way to the end. There are three endings you can get depending on how you play: the normal ending (which comes with a number of variations based on who’s alive and dead), the genocide ending that you get by grinding enemies until no random encounters are left in each new area, and the pacifist “true” ending that you get by avoiding killing anything or anyone. However, the pacifist ending also nets you the normal ending before allowing you to resume play to get the true ending, so most will probably want to play through the pacifist route to avoid having to play through the whole game again in order to get the extra story content of the true ending. The genocide ending is even more interesting because it’s not just the ending that changes, but the entire game. This route is best saved for a second playthrough to fully appreciate its changes (though killing all your in-game friends after obtaining the true ending requires a certain degree of heartlessness some players simply won’t be able to muster), which include abandoned towns, changes to the boss fights, changed dialogue, an absence of puzzles, and slower-paced music that makes the more cheerful area themes sound haunting. Undertale even has a way of remembering your actions, with the endings and some dialogue changing in minor ways based on your decisions.
The story is back-heavy
First off, it’s worth noting that this is a game that captures the charm of Super Nintendo-era jRPGs, with the characters possessing that same brand of uniqueness and the writing largely eschewing lengthy exposition and character development in favor of less wordy and more subtle ways of fleshing out characters’ personalities and back stories. Three-quarters of the way in, a joke in a diary early in the game suddenly takes on a greater meaning than just being a lame joke. This kind of stuff is unnecessary to understanding the plot, mind you, but for those who want to explore and piece together little bits of information, things come together in beautifully unexpected ways a lot of the time, which manages to feel like an unusually organic way of learning about the world and characters.
And had that been that, I’d have no complaints about the story whatsoever. Unfortunately, the true ending gets a bit messy and starts to rely on info dumps that get to be a bit much for a first-time player, especially given two similar-sounding names that I found embarrassingly easy to confuse, and a series of videos you find (which play out as text on a black screen thanks to a convenient lens cap) that should exist as a huge twist, but that manage to communicate that twist poorly enough that they—and a great deal of the later content in the true ending where characters suddenly start calling you by a specific name instead of “human” or “young one” or any of the other equally vague names they called you previously—are instead just incoherent and confusing. Because of this, I didn’t really have a handle on the things that happened at the tail end of the true ending until I had looked around the game’s Wiki and had it spelled out for me, and this really comes down to the game not making enough of an effort to flesh out some of the most important characters early on. Even then, a great deal of confusion could have been avoided if a few lines of dialogue were automatic rather than requiring that you backtrack all the way to the very first room in the game after getting past the final boss, then making you talk to the character inside several times. This is counter-intuitive, and while I can’t really get into detail beyond that without veering into spoiler territory, suffice it to say that I found myself wishing that the big twist had been hinted at or revealed a bit more clearly.
Like puzzles? Have some puzzles!
I don’t think it’s any secret that I enjoy a good puzzle here and there, from Lufia 2 to Zengrams and everything between, but Undertale’s focus on puzzles was unexpected given the absence of similar puzzles in Earthbound and many of the other games that it’s drawn inspiration from. Beyond that, the game’s store page doesn’t make much reference of its puzzles, so imagine my surprise when several turned out to be necessary to continue. Fortunately for you soulless puzzle haters out there, they’re definitely on the easy side (barring one that was deliberately designed to be almost impossible, but that there’s no penalty for failing) and accessible to just about everyone rather than forcing you to stop and think. Puzzles mostly appear toward the beginning of the game, giving you some switch puzzles and a few where you have to find a path so that you can step over Xes to turn them into Os without backtracking over the same spot twice. They do return something like halfway through the game, however, in the form of little block puzzle minigames that are far easier to complete than any attempt to explain them would make it sound.
No killing doesn’t mean no fighting
Spoiled as I am by cRPGs where no violence means avoiding conflict entirely, I was caught off-guard that my pacifist playthrough still required getting through random battles and boss fights rather than finding a way to circumvent fighting altogether. As it turns out, playing as a pacifist is reminiscent of combat in older jRPGs, with the only real differences being the method/s of defending against damage, and attacking instead being replaced by compliments and such until an enemy allows you to spare them. Of course, running away is also a totally viable option and for my many attempts to run away, I only failed once. You don’t gain any money by running away from fights while sparing enemies nets you money that you can then use to buy important healing items for the stranger boss fights you’ll encounter, though.
So you’re more than likely going to want to go through enemy encounters in such a way that you can spare them, with each enemy type coming with a specific set of possible actions and requiring using certain ones to convince enemies to run away or allow you to spare them. At first, this is entertaining and allows for some truly memorable battle text thanks to the uniqueness of the enemies—Tsunderplane is a personal favorite, being a literal plane with a tsundere personality—but once you’ve learned the sequence required to spare an enemy, going through the same actions again and again becomes a bit of a chore. Fortunately, there are ways of gaining money without needing to fight enemies, but the only method I’m aware of requires finding the hidden Temmie Village and solving the game’s optional piano puzzle (which is a vague sound-memory affair that many have found impenetrable), making it an impractical way of obtaining money for a fair portion of the early game.
That’s a minor criticism, but far worse is the inconsistency in how things work. As I played through as a pacifist, not once was I ever required to touch the “fight” option in combat and actually physically damage my opponent. Not a single time. That is, until I got to what appeared to be the final boss (it wasn’t, but it seemed that way at the time) and he removed my ability to show mercy by literally attacking the “mercy” button and removing it from the screen. I tried talking, but died. I backtracked and looked for an item that I could use in combat to resolve things peacefully, but nothing worked and I continued to die. Each time, my character would bring up the number of times he was killed and the boss would acknowledge it, so I figured dying enough times would eventually guilt him into trying to resolve things peacefully. At a certain point, my character stopped claiming a specific number of deaths, instead mentioning that he had killed me “too many times to count,” and no further deaths seemed to change that. As it turns out, this is a point in the game where you have to attack him and beat him almost to death before being able to spare him. This is terrible design; creating a game to not require something, then suddenly making it mandatory to progress will never be a solid design decision. The whole thing reminds me of Broken Age and suddenly having to use information from one character to solve puzzles as the other toward the end of that game. Put simply, it’s sloppy and leaves players intent on playing by the rules set by the game spinning their wheels before realizing that the rules have suddenly changed. Other boss fights can be a bit chaotic and require strange things to complete peacefully (such as running away from one boss in the middle of the fight and leading her to a hot area where she overheats in her armor), but even those kinds of bizarre solutions make perfect sense inside of the game and never require resorting to violence. Violence. In a pacifist run. Sigh.
Bullet hell stuff can be a pain to deal with
Enemies’ attacks don’t automatically hit you like in most jRPGs. Instead, you’re given a little box and a heart symbol, and you have to move the heart around the box to avoid enemy attacks. In the beginning, this is simple enough, but late-game bosses turn into a serious bullet hell mess. If you’re terrible at bullet hell games, know that I managed to beat the game as a pacifist despite also being terrible at such types of games. However, the genocide run I did immediately after was another matter entirely. While most of the genocide run revolves around grinding enemies until they’re all dead and many of the bosses are killed in a single hit because of the levels you gain by killing everything, there are two huge exceptions. The first is difficult, but manageable with practice. The second acts as the final boss of a genocide run and is something I had to cheat past using Cheat Engine. There are Youtube videos of people making it through that fight without getting hit. Those people scare me.
There’s even more end-game stuff that irritated me
I loved this game for 95% of the time I played through it and wrote glowing notes about how much fun I was having, even going out of my way to point out that I had literally laughed out loud at several points where most “funny” games rarely manage to elicit a reluctant smirk. It’s just the final 5% before the normal ending and the info dump of the true ending content after that which annoyed me, so keep in mind that much of this complaining—which I nonetheless stand by—is only really reflective of a small portion of the game that I’ve come to despise. I enjoyed the rest of the game so much that I’d put it up there with amazing games like Vampire: the Masquerade – Bloodlines that I’ve come to love despite their flaws, but that doesn’t mean that Undertale’s flaws should be overlooked.
And that leads us to my last annoyance, the point where my notes switched from nearly unconditional praise to uppercase profanity: intentional crashes and false wins. Things get really weird after you get past the boss who you have to beat mostly to death and then spare, with the art style changing drastically and you getting into another boss fight, this one absolutely nightmarish in difficulty and appearance. I can’t really get into further detail without spoilers, but if you peruse my dedicated screenshots (which are obviously slightly spoileristic), you’ll notice one that’s not like the others. It’s not just the barrage of attacks you have to withstand for a certain amount of time that are annoying, either, but the penalty for failing to last long enough for the game to continue, that being a game crash. Not because of bad coding, or anything unintentional like that, but because the game tries to troll you by closing the game when you die, and it’s annoying as hell to have to put up with.
Then you finally make it past all the stupid intentional crashes and win. Except you didn’t, really—this is just more trolling on the game’s part. It does this multiple times, and saying that it got old fast would be a serious understatement. Profanities were creatively conjugated and yelled at both the game and my computer, all manner of terrible words and phrases that no doubt summoned old gods who are currently en route to rain destruction down on humanity, and really, it all comes down to the game outlasting its welcome. These constant extensions were a hassle and didn’t benefit the game’s pacing at all, instead padding it out with unnecessary and annoying elements that seemed more targeted at idiot internet Youtube personalities who get off on such things than making an enjoyable endgame for the rest of us. Had the game ended sooner rather than stringing things out and trolling the player (yet again, in ways that hadn’t been used before, adding to the inconsistency), it would have been perfectly paced. Instead, there’s this annoying last 5% or so ensuring that I’ll leave the game as a fond memory rather than ever playing through it again.
Amazing music and pixel graphics
These are the parts of the game I can’t criticize at all. The graphics are spot-on, giving characters personality while lacking just enough detail to allow your imagination to fill in the rest like older games did. It manages to be beautiful, full of memorable areas and personality, and best of all (for me), truly in that older style so that .png files are incredibly small and load quickly for you all. A lot of games with pixels add in fuzzy, “realistic” lighting that balloons file sizes and forces me to use .jpgs, but this game, like Freedom Planet before it, is incredibly .png-friendly, which allowed me to make over 5,000 screenshots while still keeping my screenshot folder under 200 MB.
As much as I like the graphics, the music blows it out of the water. Developer Toby Fox apparently started with music, and it really shows in the quality of the soundtrack, which borrows more than just inspiration from older games, sometimes snatching the actual instruments used in older games and making them relevant again. I’ll admit, I’m hardly impartial when it comes to this, as I’ve ripped .wav files out of game ROMs before and turned them into soundfonts, so seeing someone else use instruments from these older games is a beautiful, beautiful thing. The most notable instance of this is an amazing reference to the opera scene in Final Fantasy 6 that uses the same instruments (and a killer robot—Undertale is unafraid to be weird), and it manages to work without seeming forced. It’s even smart enough to avoid overusing the older instruments, with many tracks on the soundtrack being “normal,” but nonetheless amazing. The music in the Waterfall area in particular is a favorite of mine, and as if the music couldn’t get any better, it also uses simultaneous audio at one point (demonstrated in the video above) to play one of two versions of the same song depending on whether the lights are on or off. This year may have seen games with amazing soundtracks like The Witcher 3, but I’d take Undertale’s eclectic soundtrack over it any day.