I don’t understand how there isn’t yet a thread on the boards for Undertale. Dispersed as we may be, we are still the Squadron of Shame, and if there was ever a game that the Squad was uniquely qualified to evaluate and critique, it’s this potential GOTY candidate.
LTTP I know, but Lynette and I just finished 1.5 playthroughs of this astounding JRPG last night.
As you’re probably heard, Undertale is a small game produced pretty much as a one-man show by some guy named Toby Fox. Who is Toby Fox? No idea. Some unknown dude apparently famous for releasing Earthbound mods up until this point in time.
Undertale caught my eye when it first started blowing up in t3h H4rdc0r3z circles online as basically the second coming of the JRPG. As far as I can tell, the game’s true genesis originated over on Kickstarter where it was pitched as an RPG where “nobody had to die” -- ultimately being produced for the miniscule contribution of $50k earthbucks in kickfunds.
Next time I caught wind of the title was in the context of things like the Game Awards, where Undertale was referenced constantly as a contender for the curiously-named “games for impact” award – a category which I personally read as “games with strong artistic aspirations” since its contemporaries in the field are things like Cybele, Her Story etc. You’ll see references to it pop up again and again in places like “best effort by an indie” and no doubt on many GOTY lists in a few weeks hence. Polygon (predictably) was vocally sour and stamped its feet about Undertale’s omission from the straight-up Game of the Year bracket over on the official Game Awards page, but I think we as fans all know how the game is played at this point in time. In a year that includes both Bloodborne and the Witcher 3, a 10 hour JRPG that shows like it was created in MS Paint is only going to be repped and championed by a chosen, brave few. That’s us by the way. Chosen few with the sight beyond sight.
Anyway, Undertale has its fanbase and share of praise to be sure, probably being rightly classified as a bona fide cult hit if not a Steam bestseller. Scratch the surface and you’ll see a lot of 10/10s and five star reviews from chaps like Jim Sterling and the Giant Bomb crew, and I believe that its Metacritic score is around 95 or something ridiculous like that… so yes, numbers in that range ought to make the sleepy sit up and take notice eventually. Want to see a bunch of squalling motherfuckers? Just head on over to NeoGAF, and you’ll see outrage of the like you haven’t seen since the mainstream world passed over Valkyria Chronicles with a shrug.
Anyway, Undertale is a JRPG which is quite clearly aesthetically inspired by Toby’s work with the Earthbound series. It’s notable right up front for many reasons, the foremost being its incredibly novel and interesting combat mechanics as well as the fact that – as advertised – nobody has to die.
As primary composer
, enemy designer, enemy art guy, programmer and a bunch of other things, Toby must be quite the auteur. One thing I’ll say for this game is that it ends with a hell of a bang but it starts out pretty feebly. You have to give the game about 2 hours before it starts getting under your skin.. but once it has its hooks in you it’ll drag you along on a great ride.
Much has been written on the subject of Undertale’s intelligence and humor, so I won’t write lots here. Only to say that games which are both genuinely funny and clever are pretty thin on the ground -- doubly so after you start eliminating games who rely primarily on memes or snark / self-referential contemporary meta-humor for their cheap laughs. Undertale reminded me quite a bit of Stein’s Gate throughout the course of play… it is is a meticulously plotted experience full of rich and multimensional characters that starts out goofy but goes to some very dark places near the end of things, after they’ve sufficiently sucked you deep into the world that they have buy-in. Also like Stein’s Gate, it takes place in a world which acknowledges but doesn’t lean solely on understood cultural / nerd clichés – anime tropes, brick jokes, etc. for its worldbuilding. Basically, it’s got heart and soul out the wazoo.
I suppose I should speak on the subject of Undertale’s weird JRPG battle mechanics… all I’ll say is that they seem to be cut from a wholly unique cloth that plays like 30% Warioware, 30% Paper Mario and 40% Shin Megami Tensei. In every encounter with a foe you can choose to fight with weapons drawn (in a timing-based minigame) or negotiate / act via a menu of nonviolent options which change their form depending on who you’re dealing with. I loved that certain battles included options to do things like, say, resolve a fight by telling jokes.
The stark white and blackness of the Wizardry!-esque MS-paint enemy sprites are actually incredibly evocative once you get used to them… as is the entire game really, if we’re speaking holistically. Undertale’s Earthbound-esque sensibilities have lots of effort and elan in the margins – dialogue, secrets… little contextual animations and surprises aplenty. During the course of play you will see a fascinating and surprising breadth of possibilities emerge from Toby’s bounding-box playpen – here is a game that isn’t afraid to go Hideo Kojima on you all over the place, changing up the rules of engagement and breaking the 4th wall at whim, surprising you with new material right up until the very end.
Lynette, kind soul that she is, definitely appreciated that nonviolent resolution of the entire game was always on the table as a viable possibility, though naturally the player must go to great lengths at times to pursue 100% nonviolent ends. There is a payoff for both violence and pacifism however, with the biggest swings in the game being both the “true pacifist” and “true genocide” endings in which you kill absolutely everybody or nobody respectively.
Undertale is a strange beast which the player is incentivized to replay in various ways. We played it one-and-a-half times through, which was enough to get the so-called “Golden” ending, at least for one of the routes. It’s a bit disingenuous to imply that there are discrete pathways through this game however – Undertale branches into differentiation at every turn and has a notable habit of remembering and referencing choices made in prior plays, even after the re-selection of “New Game”. A lot of very impressive thought went into the how and why of this persistence, naturally it’s tied to the big picture of what the game is fundamentally about.
If I haven’t said much about the story it’s largely because the entire game is something best experienced with as much beginner’s mind as possible. Undertale is frequently laugh-out-loud funny, charming, surprisingly emotional in places… basically the real deal, everything you could ask for in a JRPG. This is a game that comes at you with the twin guns of characterization and nuance blazing -- I’ve played 80 hour character-driven RPGs that don’t even come close to equalling what Undertale manages to pull off in less than a dozen hours. Like kool-aid powder, this condensation and distillation into only the most flavorful experience works in the game’s favor, in the same way as Portal’s movie-length playtime. Here is a game that comes to do a thing and doesn’t overstay its welcome…. And yet… if you want to dive into the world of Wikis and secrets and minutae hunting then yes, this is a hole that you can fall down (so to speak) for ages.
Bottom line: If you love gaming at all, you owe it to yourself to play Undertale. This little indie title has so much offer to all audiences, but it has the most to give to a very select few that (which includes us, the proud, the few) that possess a lot of gaming knowledge and experience and have memories of sitting on the couch playing titles like Earthbound back in the 16 bit era. Undertale is what happens when the style and mechanics of the RPGs of our youth are reborn with the intelligence and experience of our older selves -- a mirror looking back on both gaming and ourselves. It’d be a hell of an accomplishment even if it WASN’T basically a one man show and does more than any game since Persona 4 (Trails in the Sky excepted) to rehabilitate and showcase the JRPG as a contemporary and relevant media form in 2016.
Hopefully this has filled you with DETERMINATION. Go play it.