So, even though I finished Undertale back in February, I had originally decided that I wouldn’t do an actual review. I mean, what else could I say about this game that the internet hadn’t already? But with Undertale preparing to release on Playstation 4, as well as physical copies for PC, it occurred to me that there may actually be people who haven’t played it yet. I mean, it’s been out for two years, & I only just recently played it. Maybe there are people who only have consoles, & are now left wondering if the game is worth all the hype.
I had a bit of a laugh at the Wikipedia page for Undertale claiming it was a cult video game. This designation usually refers to games that receive universal praise by those who play it, but aren’t commercial successes. Think titles like Psychonauts or Okami. But I find it hard to believe Undertale was not a commercial success. It has its own merchandise & is getting a physical release on a major console even two years later, for godsake! The creator, Toby Fox, even commented if he never made another game again he’d be happy. But, I don’t know. The games press ate it up, but that doesn’t always translate into what gamers want. And I could see some people overlooking it due to its presentation. Not to mention there always tends to be backlash when something becomes unexpectedly popular. Some people just can’t let others enjoy things (strangely, none of the “backlash” to Undertale says it’s not a good game).
Because of this, I decided to take it upon myself to pose the question that others might be asking after the hullabaloo surrounding the pre-order announcement: Is Undertale worth the hype?
To answer the question briefly: Yes.
Talking about Undertale in any capacity is difficult because discussing what truly makes it good might involve spoiling it, & Undertale makes the most impact when the player goes in blind. It’s the same problem one encounters when discussing why The Cabin in the Woods is a good movie. The things that make it so good are the very things you don’t want to ruin for others.
To that end, here is an abbreviated, spoiler-free review:
Undertale is as charming retro RPG that will both elate & devastate players who explore its many secrets. It easily ranks among one of my favorite games, & serves as an example of why gaming is so good. I place it among my games that everyone, gamer & non-gamer alike, should play.
Beyond this point, I will avoid story-related spoilers as much as possible. But I will endeavor to explain my experiences with Undertale that made me love it so much. Caveat lector. Let the reader beware.
I first learn about Undertale before it even came out, having up-voted the trailer on Steam Greenlight. I was intrigued by an RPG that blatantly tells you that you can get through the entire game without killing a single foe. Saying that you can find a peaceful way through isn’t a spoiler, as it’s part of how the game was advertised. Lots of games offer non-lethal alternatives, such as by letting you sneak around confrontations, smooth-talk your way out of fights, or put people to sleep. Generally, these are the routes I prefer to take when offered a choice, because I find them more of a challenge. Not that I have anything against the catharsis of violence in video games. It probably doesn’t say good things about my person that I’d rather manipulate people to get what I want as opposed to just punching them. Then again, I’ve long known I’m passive-aggressive.
Somehow, I managed to avoid spoiling the game for me for a whole two years. Thankfully, most people are in agreement that revealing too much to the uninitiated would ruin the experience for new players. All I knew going in was what the trailer showed & that everyone kept saying it was a great game.
I don’t think this counts as a spoiler, because it blatantly announces this fact, but for those who haven’t played yet, regardless of everything in between, I recommend playing a full Pacifist route before a full Genocide route for the best experience. I imagine that most players’ pattern involved a Neutral run first, kinda doing what comes natural, sparing some enemies but killing others, before trying a full Pacifist then Genocide.
Undertale does a really good job of presenting this moral dichotomy within the structure of its gameplay. It is very much a “mechanics as story” thing. It starts all nice & sweet, & then suddenly, “Oh my God this thing is trying to kill me without provocation!” But then you’re saved & guided through the first stage by this character you really come to like, & they straight out tell you how to do a Pacifist run. In their motherly fashion, they encourage you to talk to the monsters that attack you, to befriend them & let them live. They’re just confused. They don’t know better. The first area does a stellar job of teaching you everything you need to know about the mechanics of this world, including the moral choices. During this hand-holding session, you don’t have to listen. You can still beat monsters up. But even when I later did a Genocide run, I didn’t let them see that. I played along so they… wouldn’t be disappointed? Considering I knew I’d kill them later, what was the point? To catch them off guard? To hide my wickedness?
Undertale does a good job of bringing out the best & worst in the player, as we’ll soon see.
Then comes the first boss fight. And like any good boss fight, it tests what you’ve learned up to that point. Not just about the fighting mechanics, but of your understanding of this world. It tests your resolve, whichever way it might lean. They make it clear they don’t really want to fight you, & are doing this in a misguided effort to protect you. They haven’t really done anything wrong. What will you do? You’ll either need a cold heart to Fight through the opposition regardless of who they might be, or you’ll need to hold strong to your desire to Spare even when the enemy hurts you without justification. Whatever you choose, the first area culminates beautifully (or horrifically), & sets you on your path.
Knowing it was an option in the beginning, I wanted to do a Pacifist run the first time, but I struggled at this first boss. I knew not to fight back, but I didn’t know how to convince them to stand down. Before that point, there were things you could say, Acts to perform, to make enemies lose the will to Fight, but not with the boss. So I foolishly struck back, thinking I could wear them down until they’d relent. Then I felt guilty. Then I Reset.
Then the game remembered.
When characters started saying I seemed familiar to them, that they already knew my responses, I knew I was dealing with a game that was going to mess with me. I haven’t tested it as fully as others might have, but I doubt there’s much you can do in the game that it won’t remember & call you out on.
From that point on, I endeavored to Spare every enemy, even though it becomes a far harder task as the game progresses. I’ve heard some people levy that as a criticism against Undertale; that they feel the message is a bit, if not wishy-washy, simplistic & naive. That not everyone in the world will be nice to you if you’re nice to them. But… isn’t that the point? Yeah, it many cases the player would be justified in fighting back. I’m just trying to get through this level unmolested, yet monsters keep trying to murder me. But in our own world, don’t acts of selfless kindness and compassion make us take notice? The world can be a cruel, uncaring place. But when people see someone being kind to them when they know they don’t deserve it, it gives them pause. Our human nature is inherently selfish, so rising above that takes a great act of will. That’s why it stands out to us so much when we see it. The exact same is true in Undertale. The monsters view humans as the enemy, as creatures without compassion, and behave according to their prejudice. It is through the player’s Acts of Mercy that they come to realize their mistakes.
That is what Mercy is — giving someone something they don’t deserve. Showing kindness when the person has done nothing to deserve it. Withholding a punishment someone justly deserves. The more I thought about it, the more I was impressed with the message (even if Toby Fox wasn’t intending it to go that far). It’s not a message we hear often nowadays, where it seems like any action, no matter how deplorable, can be justified. It’s one of the things humans are best at, finding an excuse to salve our consciences. No one’s to blame for anything. We’re all just victims of something: our genetics, our environment, our situation… Too few people stop to say, “No, you can do better than this.” In fact, the game outright says that several times to the player if they take the easy way out. You can do better, even if you don’t think so.
Through Mercy, through failing to respond in the way the monsters expect, the player helps bring out the best in everyone. Everyone gets the chance to have what they’d always dreamed of…
And then I True Reset. Despite the game blatantly asking, “Are you sure you want to do that?” Dude, this is the best ending you can get. Whatever you do past this point will only be worse. And if you just want to get the same best ending, are you really willing to take away their happy ending, making them go through all that over again, just for the selfish joy of playing savior again?
But, I mean, it’s just a game.
When all is said & done, it only made matters worse that I took away everyone’s happy ending just to turn around & kill them all.
I’ve played a lot of games that revel in carnage. Sometimes you’re the good guy, & sometimes not. I won’t deny there’s a sort of glee that comes from being an a-hole in games, especially when they don’t want you to be. I enjoy my Dooms & Saints Rows. I’ve even taken the evil route in RPGs like Jade Empire & KOTOR. But I don’t think I’ve ever had a game made me feel as bad as Undertale.
It started off innocently enough… well, as innocently as a Genocide run can be. There’s a joy in taking out enemies in a single hit. In becoming this god of destruction. And I’ll freely admit I felt some satisfaction in taking the motherly first boss by surprise. But then, I killed the second boss. And oh my God, I don’t think I’ve ever felt like such a piece of crap in my entire life. Maybe it’s because I got to know the characters through my Pacifist run (hence why I recommended playing it first), but I felt so bad after the second boss fight. Rip out my soul, Toby Fox.
And I know that’s the point. That’s sort of the point of no return. It’s like, if you can kill this character, who you don’t even have to Fight, then you are evil incarnate. And the game past that point reflects it. It doesn’t even play out the same if you’re just doing a Neutral run. I like that there’s a distinction. In a Neutral run, you might Spare some enemies, but you might kill others. Maybe they’re too hard to Spare, or you’re in a hurry, or just tired of dealing with them. And the game acknowledges that. It will flat-out ask you, “Did you do all you could?” But with the Genocide route, several characters flat-out tell you you’re going down a dangerous path. I didn’t even realize this until I saw someone point it out, but in a Genocide run, you’re literally chasing monsters down to kill them. It’s true. To do a true Genocide run, you have to wander around the area before the next boss fight, killing everyone, the random encounters becoming fewer as you go, until you get a message that there’s no one left to fight. You are literally cornering these monsters as they’re trying to evacuate.
I felt like crap after that second boss, & kept moving on thinking, “Please, someone kill me! Give me a fight too strong that I can’t beat in a single hit! Give me an excuse to stop playing!” Thankfully, the game provided, & after wiping out the next area, the third boss annihilated me. And rather than being angry, I was elated. “Yes! I don’t have to keep going!” And I haven’t been able to pick up the game since, not even to reset. I’m afraid of characters remembering. And don’t think your conscience is safe by watching someone else play a Genocide run, because the game will call you on that, too. I swear I was watching a Let’s Play, & a character commented something to the extent of, “Or maybe you’re too much of a coward & are watching someone else kill everyone, you sicko.”
And when all is said & done, that is what I appreciate most about Undertale. It is a story that, at its core, could only be told through a video game. Every mechanic has some justification for existing in the story. It gets in your head. Nearly every action we take for granted under the justification of “it’s just a game” is acknowledged. I don’t think I’ve experienced anything like that before. It would be the equivalent of reading a book where a character in the story suddenly realizes that they aren’t actually in control of their actions, but that they’re being dictated by someone writing out the story for their own amusement. Undertale knows it’s a game, & therefore knows its being played. And it points its finger at the person behind the screen & says, “You, player, are the villain.” There is no separation between player & proxy. You are always in control, for good or ill.