I purchased Undertale shortly after its initial release way back in 2015, but I never finished it. This is because my initial experience was interrupted when I ended up enduring a period of emotional unrest (to put it lightly). I’m not prepared to get into all the depressing details, but the events were so traumatic that I’ve been avoiding certain activities that I associate with that time period in fear of stirring up those feelings. This means that I’ve avoided Undertale since.
I’ve always regretted that, since what I had played of Undertale really connected with me on an emotional level. So, this being roughly three years later, and with the release of the Switch version, I’ve decided to confront my fear and finally finish it. That, and my husband insisted, saying that I needed to create new memories to try and eliminate the bad ones. Also, I had a fever for a few days, and that meant I couldn’t play anything that required a lot of quick reflexes and situational awareness.
Oh, gosh, I am such a downer.
NO CRYING UNTIL THE END
Since the dawn of the medium, video game developers have been almost entirely unable to come up with methods of conflict resolution that extend beyond violence. Mario never talks to Bowser to convince him to go and play tennis rather than kidnap princesses, and every evil dude in Video Game Land is unwilling to give up without a literal fight, even after watching their plans fall apart. Let’s be fair; simulating conversation is hard, but weapon ballistics is easy.
Undertale is an RPG at heart. Enemies have HP and you have stats and weapons that dictate how quickly you can whittle that down. However, on top of that, you can also act in certain ways depending on the enemy, and certain actions can drain the enemy of their will to fight, at which point you can show them mercy and go about your way. No one gets hurt. This is an option for just about every fight; you never have to kill anyone.
In fact, for the main bosses and other enemies; not only can you convince them that violence isn’t the answer, you’re usually given the option to become their friend afterwards. This is a laser targeted strike on my personality, since I essentially run on guilt, and I desperately want everyone to like me.
WHO’S THE REAL MONSTER?
Undertale follows the story of a youngster who falls into a cavernous mountain and through a magical seal that keeps the world’s monsters trapped within. These monsters, as weird as some of them may be, are just like regular people, and all they want is to be set free from the prison that humanity set up for them. However, breaking the seal requires seven human souls. They already have six of them, and you certainly have the smell of a human about you.
It’s a scary place for a human to be, but you’re aided by a cast of characters, including the guilt tripping Toriel, the lazy but wise Sans, and the spaghetti loving doofus Papyrus. They’re all well-rounded personalities, and while you never get a chance to know any of them very well, they’re easy to love. Or you could just murder every one that you encounter, you monster.
Enveloping this is the sort of warmth you’d find in Earthbound, because, well, it’s heavily inspired by Earthbound. The lead developer, Toby Fox, was even a common sight within the Earthbound community back in the day. I’m normally wary of anything that tries to copy off Earthbound’s sheet, because how do you improve on a masterpiece? However, while you can practically smell Undertale’s muse at every turn, it does present itself in a way that makes itself feel distinct.
IT FILLS YOU WITH DETERMINATION
If you asked me what gives Earthbound its warmth, I’d probably comment about how that’s a really specific question, then give a poorly considered cop-out answer. Really, though, it has to do with its imagination and how it treats its characters; both the major and minor ones. It views the world through a carefree lens, personifying inanimate objects and describing their ordeals.
Undertale is similar to that. There’s a childlike veneer painted over everything and the world is largely an innocent place. It breaks from this whenever the drama or emotion needs to be intensified, but the minute to minute gameplay and dialogue carries with it the sunny optimism that its creator obviously observed in Earthbound. The fact that Toby Fox was able to capture this so deftly and then distill it down is absolutely admirable.
And it is distilled, and that’s where you run into some of its deficiencies. It’s a much shorter game than Earthbound, which is understandable since it’s made by a small handful of people, but it also doesn’t make use of its runtime in the same way that Earthbound does.
Earthbound was very much carried by its variety. When broken down to its core gameplay, it’s bland and doesn’t stand up on its own, but at any minute you could be freeing a town from zombies or exploring the cavernous innards of a man who transformed himself into a walking dungeon.
Undertale is a lot more formulaic than that. It boils down to being presented with an antagonist, solving puzzles and deflecting random battles while pursuing them, then either killing them or making friends with them. Repeat that three(ish?) times, and you’re done. There are no twists and turns to be found, and while the gameplay does throw in some variety, it mostly just falls back on its witty writing to remain entertaining.
That’s not to say it’s repetitive, just a bit monotone. It’s weird to see a game that’s so quirky find itself stuck on one note in terms of plot. The ending is more an inevitability than a climax, and that’s a shame.
THE TRUE PACIFIST
On the other hand, you also don’t have to play the game the way I did. There are three possible endings, and several variations within, and it all depends on how you approach the game. Originally, I thought I’d play through the game to get all the endings, but I just can’t do it. When given the option, I don’t kill, and when I have already made friends with the characters, I can’t go back and murder them.
I wound up getting the ending that requires you to kill absolutely nothing, because that’s the sort of person I am. The last time I killed a spider, I felt so bad about it that I almost cried. Actually, I think I did cry. If you decide that murdering fictional characters is a-ok, then you’ll have the opportunity to play an almost entirely different game than I did. I’m not judging, but the thought of having to do that myself is deeply disturbing.
NICE CREAM AND GHOST SANDWICHES
Undertale feels like a game that was developed for me, specifically. It targets my love of Earthbound and my overwhelming empathy and guilt. Being able to non-violently resolve situations and make friends with the people that hate me is something that I didn’t realize I desperately wanted from a game.
Don’t get me wrong, robbing digital families of their father figures is something I’m still going to keep doing, but when there’s an alternative to that, I’ll most likely take it. If anything, Undertale has proven that you can make a game where violence isn’t the only answer, and it can still be fun. I feel like that alone makes it worthwhile. The fact that it’s a warm, fuzzy, feelgood game that let’s you make friends out of enemies is just whipped cream on the butterscotch pie.
It’s a shame that, for me, Undertale is most likely going to still carry some bad vibes with it, both due to the issues I had the first time, and the fever that I played through the second time, but I’m sure this won’t be the last time I dive into it. It just speaks to me in a way that other games haven’t even attempted, and while it isn’t perfect, it is irresistible.
This review was conducted on a Nintendo Switch using a cartridge version of the game. It was paid for by the author.