Undertale: Are You Filled with Determination?

I’d considered starting a blog like this before—a place for me to write about, and in essence review, everything that I play and watch and read—but nothing had ever been quite good enough to give that final push.  Until now.

Undertale, developed in its entirety by musician and game designer Toby Fox, first leapt onto my radar a few weeks ago when reviews and fan-art began creeping in from various art and video game corners of the Web.  At first glance, it didn’t look particularly enticing; “retro” would be the best way to describe its adorable yet unassuming graphics, and most of its fans refused to give in-depth recommendations because of the potential for spoilers.  But a few days ago, with a couple of final essays awaiting procrastination, I decided to give it a try, and to say that it did not disappoint would be to do it a massive disservice.

In short, Undertale is easily the best new game I’ve played in a long time, and among the few I consider the pinnacle of design and storytelling (it shares that space with, among others, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask and BioShock Infinite).  But before I describe why, let’s take a look at its mechanics.  At first, Undertale seems to be a relatively normal turn-based JRPG; its interface looks quite a lot like EarthBound’s, and its in-battle options of Fight/Act/Item/Mercy seem modeled after the menus of JRPGs like Pokémon.  But enter a battle, and the game unleashes an almost arcade-like action sequence in which you, embodied by a little red heart in a large white box, must dodge various bullet-hell attacks until you reach your next turn.  So instead of a purely methodical, turn-based system, the game’s battles alternate between contemplation and intense action, which results in far more fun than either alone could possibly generate.

But that alone isn’t enough to make it incredible—in fact, mechanically, it’s just a streamlined JRPG.  No, Undertale’s excellence lies in its writing, and the ways in which it deconstructs the nature of RPGs with their core mechanism: choice.  Like many RPGs, Undertale gives you the option to kill nothing, kill everything, or only kill some things on your way through the game; in other words, you can go pacifist, neutral, or genocide.  Each route delivers content that only that route can provide, and the game’s several endings are only accessible after certain routes, which again isn’t in itself revolutionary in the slightest.  But the sheer level to which the game responds to your choices is incredible; not only do characters react differently to you based on your history of either killing or sparing, but the game itself tries to push you towards playing—as the system puts it—mercifully.  And if you don’t, the game reacts in ways that make the experience of being a psychopathic murderer noticeably uncomfortable.

Moreover, the game remembers what you’ve done in previous playthroughs.  Outside of manually editing the game files, after certain actions, there is no way to truly restart Undertale.  A full genocide run will irrevocably alter the ending you receive if you reset your file and try for the pacifist route, yet so much story content (as well as one incredible boss battle) is only available during a genocide run that the temptation is always there, just under the surface.

And then there are the characters, all written with more depth and empathy than I’ve seen in a game since Majora’s Mask.  In fact, the inhabitants of the Underground reminded me quite a bit of Termina’s doomed NPCs: their personalities, their flaws, their quirks and travails, and their relationships with each other all made them seem so much more real and human than a “next-gen” engine or voice acting ever could.  Toby Fox succeeded with a fantastic script, a Kickstarter campaign, and Game Maker in doing what Triple-A games companies routinely fail to do with armies of programmers and millions upon millions of dollars; he evoked a true sense of empathy and created a cast of characters with real, human struggles, all without ever sacrificing fun, action-packed gameplay.  Play it right, or wrong, or any way you like, and Undertale makes for a heart-wrenching experience.

I can’t go into much more without spoiling the most rewarding parts of the game, so I’ll just leave with this.  With video games (and films, and books, and every arts-and-entertainment medium), I will, every once in a while, come across something that makes me ask if I will ever play (or watch or read) anything as good as it ever again.  That doesn’t mean that I think Undertale is the best game ever made, but in terms of what it tried to do with its genre, mechanics, and writing, it could not be any better.

So go play it, and be filled with determination.


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