Here we investigate the overlooked, the underappreciated, the Shameworthy titles of the world. Jump in to an existing mission thread and give your thoughts, or start your own to kick off a discussion.
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This Undertale mission fills you with DETERMINATION

by Beige » Tue Nov 24, 2015 4:08 pm

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Re: This Undertale mission fills you with DETERMINATION

by RedSwirl » Sat Dec 26, 2015 2:16 am

Two hours in (just got past Papyrus) and to me it seems to be legit as well written as The Witcher 3.

Y'know, ever since all these RPG Maker games washed on the shores of Steam and indies began dreaming of making RPGs, I always wondered who would take the classic JRPG format and write a thoroughly modern story within it. A lot of people seem to not be able to resist the temptation to basically re-write the games they grew up with, possibly with a small twist here and there. I however have always wondered about the potential to merge the Dragon Quest/Final Fantasy IV framework with an utterly 2015 storyline that isn't chained to anime dragons and fantasy tropes. Undertale is probably that game.

Actually, I think 2015 overall has been one of the best years in recent memory for video game writing. We've got the two aforementioned major achievements in RPG writing, but also truly provocative adventure games like SOMA and Her Story.
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Re: This Undertale mission fills you with DETERMINATION

by Beige » Mon Jan 04, 2016 6:23 pm

Now that 2015 is done, Undertale seems even more and more a game that's meant to provoke arguments and kick dust everywhere.

I was surprised-slash-not-surprised to catch up on some Penny Arcade this morning and discover that Jerry and Mike are now in the cohort that doesn't get Undertale. Too Cool for School.

I loved this game... but it's hard not to feel like right now it has now got a Braid-like katamari of public opinion in front of it that can lead to some hurt feelings. The way that culture works at the moment is that things which are genuinely good get picked up and turned into this giant ball of expectations which just rolls and rolls and rolls until it hits some kind of peter principle where the hype and fandom surrounding it exceed its objective greatness +1.

I'm just a game hipster I guess. I genuinely like Undertale -- It feels pleasing and correct to see praise heaped upon it from all sides. Definitely put it in the top 5 experiences I enjoyed in 2015...

...but...

... at the point where it starts becoming a cultural phenomenon I start getting weirded out. This, by the way, is the the same experience I'e had watching the Star Wars katamari roll on and on over the last few months, picking up steam and mass. Vague unease.

There's something going on here that I'm not 100% onside with... something in the DNA of fan culture nowadays where enthusiasm turns VERY quickly into RABID ENTHUSIASM so deafening that the intent and thrust of the original is lost in and amidst the shouting and the salivating. As Penny Arcade said, "is this how my parents felt when they heard Nirvana for the first time?"

Perhaps it has always been thus -- screaming fans crowded around Richard Wagner, craving the new shit. The kids will surprise you is I guess what I'm saying.

For the record though I also agree with Red on the state of game writing this year. For all the pablum dross out there, 2015 also (still!) brought tons of material that felt sharp and fresh and worthy of my time as a person who appreciates both the highbrow and the lowbrow. From Bloodborne to Geralt, Until Dawn to Her Story and Undertale, this was a year of people who'd obviously grown up to be smart adults while playing games sitting down as grownups to MAKE the kinds of games they've always wanted to see in the world. Big small, lots of good. Keeps me coming back to the feed trough.
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Re: This Undertale mission fills you with DETERMINATION

by RedSwirl » Mon Jan 04, 2016 10:49 pm

I feel like the fandom around Undertale has covered it in a bit more mystery than might be warranted. Once you play it, it's not THAT hard to get. I don't even understand the thought that it's "not a game." Her Story? Okay I get the argument around that not being a conventional game. Gone Home? Okay. But Undertale has enemies, it has a Game Over screen, it has all the standard video game structure. Really, it just looks unconventional, but isn't all that unconventional in practice. Maybe all the hype around it doesn't mention the actual combat mechanics at all. Maybe people are mystified because it takes the JRPG formula and turns it towards something that basically ignores every JRPG presentation trope in existence.

When you get down to it, Undertale is just an exceptionally well-written and well-designed RPG. I'm starting to think it'd have gotten more attention if it didn't look like MS Paint.
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Re: This Undertale mission fills you with DETERMINATION

by Beige » Tue Jan 05, 2016 2:20 pm

Who's saying Undertale isn't a game? Not heard that one before -- don't even understand the argument.

It's quite clearly just an exceptionally good, very small scale RPG that shares a lot of DNA with Earthbound and other weirdo prompt-based RPGs like Paper Mario.

Even though it looks like MS Paint, that fact hardly disqualifies it from anything. The MS Paintness is among the most charming you'll ever see in this industry, with exceptionally well done sprites and lots of character.

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