Game Review - Undertale on PC

Written by MasterAvalon on January 05, 2016 @ 5:49 am

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Every so often, a game will come along that somehow does so many things right that it engulfs you into its entire world and entices you to keep on playing, even when you think you should stop. It’s as if it unknowingly invokes a sense of wonder and fixation that completely takes you out of reality. There are just a few games that I believe generate this almost indescribable feeling, so does a retro-style indie like Undertale deserve to be placed among them?

GAMEPLAY - 9

As all great games should be remembered by, Undertale’s arguably strongest point lies in its strange but innovative gameplay. Though it is a JRPG at its core, with Fight, Item, and Run options, it seamlessly integrates two other styles of gameplay during battle. The first is an ACT/Spare function, similar to many of the Shin Megami Tensei games. Through this alternate battle option, you interact with your foes instead of fighting them; the ACT options are different for every single type of monster you encounter, and once you select them in the right order, you’ll get the option to spare them, which ends the battle as if you fought them in a standard RPG. The second style of battle gameplay occurs whenever it’s the enemy’s turn; the player, represented by a heart icon (which is actually your “soul”), gets thrust into a box of varying size, and is assaulted by whatever the enemy decides to throw at you, reminiscent of the bullet hell genre. The “bullets” vary with each monster, and their properties even stack when you’re in an encounter with multiple enemies. Whether you actually kill monsters or spare every one of them impacts the entire game, but I’ll touch on that later. The gameplay constantly tests your ability to adapt and react to a plethora of situations and puzzles, both in battle and on the field. Just as enemies’ attacks vary widely, so do the bosses’ attacks, and there are many times where the game just throws its own boundaries out of proportion and out the window, to the point of strategic exaggeration.

Another huge aspect of the gameplay centers around both the colors your soul can become and the colors of attacks in battle; your soul color affects your movements and dynamic when it’s the enemy’s turn, while an attack color affects what you have to do to not take damage from an enemy’s attack. For example, a red soul is what you normally appear as, and allows you to freely move around the battle box, reminiscent of a top-down game, while a blue soul allows you to jump up from the bottom of the battle box and automatically drop down shortly after as if you’re being affected by gravity, reminiscent of a platformer. Likewise, an orange attack means you have to be actively moving through the projectile to not get hit, while a light blue attack means you have to stand completely still so the projectile passes right through you. There are many more different colors present in the game, mostly appearing for the main bosses and some mid-bosses. These color modes add another whole dimension of depth to the battle system which would’ve otherwise been a bit flat if it was just a red soul against white attacks the entire game.

It should also be mentioned that the pacing is incredibly tight. You pretty much can keep moving forward without wondering where to go next, but the game doesn’t hold your hand or stifle exploration in any way, and there is little to no backtracking necessary.

STORY - 9

On the surface, the plot of Undertale seems pretty straight forward. A loose backstory cutscene is shown before the title screen, which explains that monsters once lived in coexistence with humans on the surface, but after a war between the races, the monsters were sealed underground behind a barrier that none of them are able to pass through. Then one day, a human child falls through an opening at the top of an off-limits mountain and lands on a bed of golden flowers in the underground world of monsters. This serves as the basis for the plot, but as you make your way through the underground, the story generates many more layers for itself, flawlessly weaving its in-depth characters and their histories together with the player character, as well as focusing greatly on the concepts of souls and determination. There are also many “classic RPG moments” in the story, especially in the ending. It contains many different pieces that all merge together to form an unforgettable experience.

There has not been a new IP in recent memory that I can say has characters with better personality than Undertale’s cast. Every single monster has their own set of dialogue and interactions. All of the bosses (and some midbosses) also double as main characters in the story, and without them, there’s no way the plot would be able to advance. This is a welcome take on standard non-character RPG bosses, where you’d just defeat them and move on without them creating any lasting impact on the game, but Undertale gives each and every encounter meaning. You can even go on dates with four of the main characters, and they’re hilarious (plus, are even needed for the true ending). There’s a sentient flower, there’s skeleton brothers, there’s royal goat people, there’s a fish in armor, there’s a nerdy dinosaur, there’s a robot version of Lady Gaga. It’s not hard to find a character that you enjoy hearing speak, can respect their character development, or just downright can’t get enough of. The spectrum of personality in the main characters is almost perfect, and their interactions are nothing less than stellar. They will make you laugh, make you cry, and make you feel like they’re a part of you. They will become your best friends.

Undertale presents itself as a beautiful three-part balance between its nonsensical humor, touching dialogue, and eerie subtleties. The game never fails to consistently make jokes or know how to play with your emotions. It can also freak you out or catch you off-guard through its carefully sprinkled moments of “Oh God” or “what the hell,” and everything in-between. It evokes the seemingly lost old game technique of creating a creepy trigger or unsettling atmosphere without being in-your-face about it. The triple contrast between the quirky humor, heart-warming writing, and low-key terror form the core of the game’s experience. With everything combined, it’s a weird rollercoaster of somewhat unexplainable feelings that is just done so right.

GRAPHICS - 8

Being made in Game Maker: Studio and being retro RPG influenced, Undertale is, for the majority, a pixel art creation. The environments, the characters, the battle screen, and pretty much everything else is made in an 8/16-bit style. It’s a style choice that many indies in recent memory have decided to embrace, but it’s hard to imagine the game as anything else but what it is. If the game was made with modern and realistic 3D models, I feel like it wouldn’t translate very well. Undertale works best in the limitations it’s been given, and actually helps drive its greatest moments; it wants you to focus on what’s happening, not how it good or bad it looks aesthetically.

As you get further into the game, a few higher levels of battle effects are added, but nothing that looks entirely out of place (except for one, but it’s incredibly well done and impactful). However, there are some times where you can tell the pixel work hasn’t been completely polished, such as seeing a non-transparent black color in front of some moving parts of certain sprites, but it’s nothing to knock off points for. Other than that, a lot of the environments are appealing to the eye, and the monster sprites are designed and conveyed very well. The characters simply beg artists to create fan art for them, and believe me, they have made some incredible work.

SOUND - 10

Something that irritates me about most newer/AAA games is that they seem to throw the soundtrack on the backburner, and focus more on the graphics or other technical aspects. It feels like they just settle for the lowest produced background music possible to backdrop their gameplay, and as a result, it doesn’t really leave a lasting impact of “man this song is so good I’m gonna listen to it over and over,” save for maybe a few songs here or there. Thankfully, Undertale is not one of those games. Despite being a retro-styled RPG, it is not restricted by the same technical limitations for sounds that NES/SNES games were. Toby Fox, the game’s creator, single handedly forges insanely fitting background tracks and character themes, by fusing familiar 8-bit sounds with modern instruments, accompanied by fresh, inviting, and memorable melodies; all composed right from what came to his mind. It really knows how to complement the game’s moods and situations quite nicely. You’ll find yourself constantly getting songs stuck in your head and humming them to yourself. When you go back and listen to a song, there’s no doubt you’ll remember the same feelings you had when you first experienced that part of the game, something that is yearned for by so many. One of the nicest things about many of the songs, at least for me, is that parts of them resonate with similar sounds that I’ve heard in other games (Final Fantasy, Klonoa, Paper Mario, to name a few), and it creates a little connection that I can appreciate.

The entire soundtrack is really great and worth infinite listens, but here I’ll talk about some of the standouts and my favorites. Track 68 “Death by Glamour” is by far my top fave; a simply flawless 80’s throwback celebrity dance track fused with classic 8-bit sounds and machine-like noises. Track 98 “Battle Against a True Hero” is a close second, presenting a churning backing beat, emotionally heavy melody, and a lingering bridge. Arguably the best song on the OST, track 100 “MEGALOVANIA” takes things up a notch compared to most of the soundtrack, creating a crazy progression of bass-pounding guitar and drums, fizzy synths, and a cascading melody. Track 87 “Hopes and Dreams” serves as the soundtrack’s climax, incorporating one of the game’s recurring melodies with a mini orchestra of guitar, drums, and strings behind it. The title track, 71 “Undertale,” strips down to a simple combination of subtle instruments, creating an emotional journey. Track 79 “Your Best Nightmare” is the outcast amongst the rest of the songs, showcasing a drum & bass-backed, horror-inspired atmosphere, interspersed with upbeat segments that parallel the part of the game it shows up in. Tracks 5 “Ruins,” 31 “Waterfall,” 51 “Another Medium,” and 65 “CORE” are the greatest area songs in the game, with “CORE” being one of the best I’ve heard in any game before.

OVERALL - 9

There are three potential route options in Undertale. One is the Pacifist route, where you don’t fight any monsters but instead interact with them and spare them to resolve the conflicts. This route is the most rewarding, most feels-inducing, and generally has the most content. The Neutral route is a kind of casual playthrough which activates if you fight some monsters while sparing others. This route retains most of the content from the Pacifist route but cuts off some of the extra stuff as a result of your killing, no matter how small. Most notably, it forbids you from reaching the game’s final world and seeing the true ending, which are found only at the end of the Pacifist route. Lastly, there’s the No Mercy route, which activates when you mercilessly defeat every enemy that comes your way until there are no more monsters in each world, and then defeat the boss of that area. This route pretty much punishes the player for choosing to kill, offering a more barren game world, though with a few changes that you won’t see in other routes. This includes three No Mercy exclusive bosses, one of which is easily one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do in any video game so far. The Pacifist route is noticeably short compared to most RPGs, clocking in at about 5 or 6 hours, and the No Mercy route may be a little shorter than that, depending on how hard you find some of the exclusive bosses, which are indeed quite a challenge. But despite its length, the amount of content and lasting impact that the game generates is more than enough to compensate, and its replay value is extremely high.

Simply said, deciding whether to play the game like a traditional JRPG or throw that all out the window by befriending the enemies greatly impacts the entirety of the game. To get the best overall experience, you’ll definitely want to play through the game at least twice; I suggest playing first on a Pacifist route and then on a No Mercy route. Though I must warn you that you WILL grow attached to the characters so much in the Pacifist route that doing a No Mercy route might be emotionally painful. Not kidding.

There are so many more things I wish I could talk about in this review to further explain how great Undertale really is, but that would be impossible to do with spoiling the story and other content. A general rule of thumb is that the less you know about the game before playing it, the better. After beating both the Pacifist and No Mercy routes, you’ll pretty much know enough that you can freely browse the internet and talk to other people about it without getting majorly spoiled. In addition, there are many subtle references, connections, character-related content, and more to be found beyond just playing the game. It really is its own little universe rich with untold secrets, facts, and history.

Though it came as a pleasant surprise, Undertale is without a doubt one of the best games of 2015, and definitely one of my favorite games of all time. With innovative gameplay, deep characters, invigorating soundtrack, and a layered story, it’s an instant classic. It’s basically Earthbound meets Touhou meets the Mario & Luigi series, in all the best ways, and totally feels like a game that I would make, which deeply resonated with me as I was playing it. Some say that it’s all hype or it’s just driven by nostalgia, but what truly makes it great is so much more than that. If you consider yourself an RPG fan in the slightest, you owe it to yourself to at least give Undertale a try. Unless you have no soul, it will probably move you in a way that so many of the classics have in the past.

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Gameplay Rating: 9
Story Rating: 9
Graphics & Visuals Rating: 8
Sound Rating: 10
Overall Rating: 9

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Game Information

Platform
PC
Developer(s)
tobyfox
Publisher(s)
tobyfox
Genre(s)
RPG
NA Release Date
September 15, 2015
JP Release Date
September 15, 2015
EUR Release Date
September 15, 2015
AUS Release Date
September 15, 2015
MVGL User Score
8.8
Composer
Toby Fox
Official Website
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