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RPG Codex Review: Undertale
Review - posted by Crooked Bee on Fri 1 January 2016, 20:27:50Tags: UnderTale
[Review by felipepepe]
This year, away from the watchful eyes of the RPG Codex, a new game took the place of the Highest Rated PC Game of All Time on Metacritic. It scored 97, one point above icons of fanboyism like BioShock, Half-Life 2 and GTA V.
It has since dropped down to 93 (this is a serious industry, after all, with big budget AAA rehashes at its apex), but that remains an impressive feat. The game that achieved it? Undertale, an indie RPG.
Yes, reader - an RPG! But how come it has eluded thousands of RPG Codex grognards? Let's check out the trailer to see if we can learn more:
Yeah... uh... quite easy to see why few here cared.
But here's my honest assessment: if you find that trailer in any way appealing, if you enjoy games like Earthbound and/or if you have a weak spot for unique games that offer something fresh, then heed my advice - stop reading this review and go play Undertale. Or at least try the demo.
TL;DR: Undertale is a brilliant game, and the less you know about it before going in, the better.
Very well, you've been warned. Let's get on with the full review, then.
The Cliche Indie RPG
Since those reading this have either already played Undertale or don't care about spoilers, I'll show you the entire first scene of the game:
There you're greeted by Flowey the Flower, accompanied by the most nauseating and cliche "happy & quirky indie 8-bit tune," who starts to explain that in the underground you're represented by a little heart, that LV stands for LOVE and that you win by collecting little balls of love from other creatures in a simple "falling objects" mini-game.
At this point, 2 minutes in, I'm mentally reviewing how much I hate video game journalists and how glad I am for the Steam refund policy.
Then something happens. I catch the "little ball of love" and my HP drops to 1. The happy tune stops. Flowey the Flower grins. The font in his dialog box changes to a sick, trembling font:
This is certainly not what I expected from "the pacifist RPG where no one has to die". Watching the trailer again, who is that appearing right after that quote? Why, it's Flowey the Flower, winking at the camera. Damn.
The Earthbound-like RPG
The brainchild of Toby Fox, a composer known for his work on the Homestuck webcomic (or whatever the hell you may call that), Undertale was funded by a 2013 Kickstarter, which raised $51,124 compared to the initial goal of $5,000. As we'll see, the Earthbound / Mother games are a clear influence here, so it comes as no surprise that Toby used to be a ROM hacker, creating an award winning Earthbound hack called "Radiation's Halloween Hack".
It would be easy to describe Undertale as an "Earthbound clone", but that would mean underselling it. Yes, it's a quirky JRPG lite, with 16-bit styled graphics, a surreal atmosphere, colorful characters, meta jokes, and clever trope subversion. Yes, you traverse mostly linear dungeons and areas, fight monsters, collect weapons and armor, occasionally battle a boss, re-supply at a vendor, and talk to weird characters.
But unlike such recent games as LISA or Citizens of Earth, Undertale manages to be much more than a spiritual successor or tribute to Earthbound, setting itself as the new standard for this kind of game to be measured against.
And that's because, despite the Earthbound-ish elements, it stands on its own as something entirely unique. Not only due to its design choices, but also to the amazing quality of the game as a whole. From the artwork to the soundtrack, from character design to battle systems, Undertale is easily one - if not THE - most coherent and consistent game I've ever played, where everything exists for a reason and I couldn't imagine it any other way.
In particular, some of the characters it introduces are among the most memorable in the last decade - in design, personality, and presentation. The meta-play is fantastic, too, as it fully explores the simple fact of playing a video game. Overall, the whole experience is a breath of fresh air of a sort that I haven't experience in quite a while...
Unfortunately, talking in detail about any of that would spoil most of the game's fun, as it is something that has to be witnessed first-hand, not read about. Which is why, for this review, I'll focus on a mechanical analysis and leave the feels and emotions as a surprise to the player. Suffice it to say, those do work very well.
Onward then, to the defining feature of Undertale: its combat.
The Bullet Hell RPG
In Undertale, random battles trigger as you walk around, pitting you against 1-3 monsters. You can attack them each turn by selecting "Fight", followed by a brief mini-game that has you time your key presses to deal more damage (the pattern depending on the weapon you have equipped). All standard fare so far, except the part that follows, in which the monsters retaliate in a bullet-hell/SHMUP section and you have to dodge their attacks with your character in the shape of a little heart.
Not only does this combat system break the mold of JRPG battles and offer something unique, it's also expertly used for characterization and storytelling.
Instead of dodging pellets of energy blasts, each monster has a unique attack related to its personality. A lazy dog will simply lay on its back and bark at you, a sad ghost will cry over you, skeletons will attack you with their bones, etc. This helps keep each battle interesting - and given that up to three enemies can appear at once, having to dodge their combined attacks can pose quite a challenge.
It's not all the same quirky stuff either. Boss battles take the concept further, featuring a different gameplay logic unique to each boss. Papyrus the skeleton transforms the game from a bullet hell game into a side-scroller that has you jump over bones. Muffet, a spider girl, ties you to her web and forces you to dodge her spider minions by performing well-timed jumps.
Moreover, combat frequently tells a story of its own, with some characters spending the entire encounter talking to you, evolving their attack patterns, and reacting to your actions. One enemy, for example, fights by throwing spears at you, which you must block. If you intentionally get hit by all spears in her first turn, she'll think you are making fun of her and unleash a vicious barrage of attacks. The final battle, too, is a constantly changing, 4th wall-breaking treat that employs tricks like crashing your game and corrupting your save file. But I have already said too much - it's a joy that deserves to remain unspoiled.
All that is a welcome change from the stale JRPG battles one has come to expect from games like this, and - furthermore - a brilliant use of gameplay as an interactive storytelling tool. But dodging bullets to kill enemies isn't what makes Undertale so damn famous...
The Pacifist RPG
The most commented aspect of Undertale is how it's "the friendly RPG where nobody has to die". This is because you don't need to kill the monsters you face.
The most straightforward solution is to either flee from every battle or beat everyone to an inch of their life and then "Mercy" them away. It's basically the same as battling enemies, and not very interesting. If that was all that Undertale had to offer as a "pacifist RPG", it would be a rather underwhelming one.
The real highlight comes from interacting with and helping monsters - even becoming their friends! - instead of just attacking them. This is done via the "Act" menu, which features different options for different monsters in the game. That requires you to understand the monster you're facing, his issues and desires, and how you can help him - which can range from petting a dog to taking a shower or just laughing at the monster's jokes.
An iconic monster, fitting for the Codex's audience, is the tsunderplane - an airplane that behaves like a stereotypical anime girl. She likes you, B-BUT DON'T GET ANY IDEAS B-BAKA!!
How does this translate to a pacifist SHMUP battle? She initially interacts with you by sending various planes across the screen without a care in the world. Touch one and you take damage. If you "Flirt", she'll get embarrassed but continue to send planes. If you choose the "Approach", she'll send the planes again, but this time with a green aura around, signaling you to get close to the planes without touching them (or are you a pervert?!).
Such an incredible display of restrained romantic interest will satisfy her, allowing you to "Mercy" her and end the battle.
Not only is this a more civil manner of resolving your encounters with monsters, but it also changes the way some battles proceed - especially against key characters. What began as a deadly pursuit may turn into the start of a beautiful friendship.... or maybe even something more!
That can also lead to changing the story or unlocking new paths and areas. This isn't quite the revolution gaming journalists have proclaimed it to be, given that the Shin Megami Tensei and Way of the Samurai series have been doing this for decades, but it is extremely well-executed and a vital part of what makes the game work. Plus, these scenarios are all fun to watch.
But if this friendship talk nauseates you, there is another way...
The Genocide RPG
It's rather amusing how Undertale - the game sold as "the friendly RPG where nobody has to die" - manages to deliver one of the most impressive "evil routes" ever.
You enter this path by killing enemies instead of helping, fleeing or sparing them. This pertains not just to a few random encounters, either - you have to kill every single character in the game. The random encounters are actually limited, representing the population of the area you're in. Kill all of them and the soundtrack changes to an eerie, desolate tune. Random encounters still happen, but instead of a monster all you see is a grim message - "no one came". They are all dead.
There are deep changes in the story, too. At first they're small, easily missed - like a character removing all the knives in the kitchen when you arrive at her house. But as you advance in your campaign of destruction, the whole game transforms. Villages are evacuated, their lively tunes replaced with a haunting howl. Shops are abandoned, allowing you to steal all the items - and even money from the cashier - which becomes meaningless as there's nowhere to spend them. Even puzzles are disabled, since all monsters controlling them have taken shelter.
Battles also change. Forget about the challenging-but-fun combat full of gimmicks against a colorful cast of characters - your growing power now allows you to defeat them in a single hit. Being evil in Undertale isn't about acting like an asshole while protecting the galaxy or asking for a fat reward after saving a town. It's a cold, merciless massacre - without a care for NPCs' silly personalities, puzzles, over-the-top battles, or anything else.
Aside from the uncompromising slaughter, what makes this route shine so much is the way it contrasts with the "normal" game, replacing the liveliness of the world and characters with a grim march to the end. The things you may know from your previous, regular playthrough - how colorful and silly the game is, how nonsensical the puzzles, how wacky some segments such as taking part in a cooking TV show - are all gone. The land is bare and stripped of life, and it's impossible not to feel a bit empty inside.
That doesn't mean the game becomes a cakewalk, though. While you do gain power fast and one-shot most of the enemies, the game introduces a number of new nightmare-level battles, way more difficult than anything else in the game.
That also brings me to Undertale's "intentional design flaw": as you kill monsters, random encounters become ever more sparser. That's supposed to represent the world turning barren, but it makes killing the last monsters in each area a pain, as you walk for minutes waiting for the next encounter to trigger. It's boring, yes. But it's thematically tied to the entire theme of the game. You're not just attacking some monsters, you're going out of your way to kill'em all.
You sick freak.
The Secret RPG
Another important aspect of Undertale are its secrets and replayability. There are hidden items, optional bosses, a secret town, a massive underground lab, etc., as well as multiple paths depending on your behavior. The "help everyone/kill everyone" routes aside, there are a myriad of in-betweens, depending on the characters you kill, the ones you spare or befriend, your kill count, and so on.
This is an impressive aspect of Undertale, since even minor actions can alter the outcome of future events, and some of your choices have consequences even after you reset the game and start a new playthrough. I even discovered some cool new stuff while writing this review. If you quit the game during Flowey's encounter at the beginning of the game and start again, Flowey will say that this encounter already happened.
That isn't just mere fan service or Easter eggs, but something that helps explain Undertale's world. For another interesting scene, try dodging all of Flowey's "love bullets" when starting a new game, or reloading the same save game multiple times to prove to a certain character that you can manipulate time and space. The "true pacifist route", in particular, ends with a touching moment where a character asks you to leave the game alone: you've finally reached the happy ending, but it will all be lost if you restart the game. And then there's also the secret Hard Mode, unlocked by inputting a specific name at the start of the game.
All that is still only the tip of the iceberg, as some secrets require you to alter the game files, leading you to uncover bits about a scientist that managed to break through space and time and exit the game itself. There are even various communities created solely to explore these secrets - and the more they dig, the more they find.
Undertale's secrets are a treat to dedicated players (hunting secrets, how joyfully 90's) and a testament to Toby's attention to detail and consistent world-building.
The Cellphone RPG
But nothing is perfect. While Undertale is a very short game that can be beat in around 4-5 hours (in your first playthrough), it has some pacing issues.
Most of those have to do with a condescending character guiding you through a series of simple puzzles and constantly interrupting your progress, either by speaking to you or calling you on your cellphone every few steps.
One area in particular, where an otaku guides you through a series of simple puzzles, is way longer than it should be. Sure, it's played out ironically - "look how awkward the otaku is, look how nonsensical these JRPG puzzles are!" But it's still a gimmick stretched too long, lasting about 1/4 of the entire game (at least in the first playthrough). It could have easily been cut in half and the game would have been better for it.
Things like that are particularly tiresome since the game begs you to (and you should at least) go for a second and even third playthrough. It comes as no surprise that re-playing an area based entirely on puzzles and a weak, gimmicky character isn't fun at all.
Surprisingly, though, that's the biggest criticism I have of Undertale.
Yes, Codex, before you ask, the game is indeed super-inclusive, full of sexually diverse characters and even refers to your character as "their" to remain gender-neutral. But it's all presented quite naturally. You never feel like the game is preaching or shoving its ideals down your throat. It's all just there, in a kind of presentation SJWs could learn a lot from.
Other common nitpicks, such as asking for multiple save slots, calling the RPG system shallow or complaining about the extremely uneven difficulty in the Genocide route, are just silly. Those things are an important part of the game's overall concept, and I'm glad that no compromises were made on that front.
The Musical RPG
One final element I would like to talk about is Toby Fox's background as a composer. Undertale not only has great music, but it's also a masterclass on the value and power of sound in game design.
The game, while very short, features an extensive soundtrack (over 100 tracks!), expertly using it to tell stories and complement the characters, areas and concepts. Some encounters feature different songs that are swapped as the battle progresses or the mood changes, with different remixes of the same theme or entirely unique tracks created just for that moment. A single joke about dating simulators is accompanied by three exclusive tracks.
There are also small, carefully added details, like how some characters use sound bits that are exclusive to them. When Sans the skeleton speaks, the text is paired with a "HUHU" laugh-like sound that defines the character in a simple and effective way. You really get the sense that the character and sound design describe the same person, since they complement each other perfectly.
And in a rather rare sign of confidence, Undertale isn't afraid to contrast those lovely tunes and sounds with long periods of silence.
The 12/10 - Best Citizen Kane of Gaming Ever RPG
Of course, despite excelling at its goals and concepts, Undertale isn't the best PC game of all time. That's Fallout.
If anything, such claim is just another example of how ridiculous review scores are. Still, I can't help but feel somewhat pleased with its #1 status, as temporary and arbitrary as it was.
Many of the top scoring, "unanimously praised" games are cinematic experiences, the likes of Bioshock: Infinite, The Last of Us, Uncharted or Mass Effect. They are the "Citizen Kane of Gaming" - which only makes sense in a disappointing way and not because of their quality. As Roger Ebert explains:
Most of those AAA games use a language stolen entirely from movies. They rely heavily on cutscenes, stale exposition dialog, realistic graphics, professional voice-acting and "dynamic" QTE events. No wonder they all fail in comparison, since even the best "cinematic game" is still just a half-assed movie with the lowest denominator of gameplay on top. Ludo-narrative dissonance, blah blah.
Undertale, on the other hand, is - proudly - a video game.
From the sound bits and fonts used in dialog boxes to meta-play like crashing the game and corrupting your save, it speaks in video-game language. It uses bullet-hell battles to tell stories. It spreads its lore over multiple playthroughs. It plays around with gaming tropes and player expectations.
It's something that no other media could replicate, let alone surpass.
It's a mixture of all the lessons from the 8- and 16-bit era of gaming, plus some extremely original master strokes by Toby Fox. All packaged in a heartwarming story about friendship - or vicious slaughter.
TRUE TL;DR: You should play this game.