Undertale - Brutal Backlog

April 15, 2019
Also on: PS4, Switch
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Brutal Backlog is a semi-regular feature where the JDR team play through some of the unplayed games on their shelves (both digital and physical), disregarding their age or the technical limitations of their era. Only the very best titles will stand up to scrutiny today.

Undertale! It’s brilliant! You have to play it!”

“What, you’ve never played Undertale? I thought you loved RPGs?”

“Go and play Undertale now. Now.”

These are some of the responses I received when admitting the cardinal sin of having never played Toby Fox’s indie darling. It got to the point where someone even bought the damn game for me so I’d have no excuse not to play it. Yes, I love RPGs. Yes, I love a good story. But sometimes life gets in the way, and it continues to do so unless you make a conscious effort to sit down and carve out a chunk of time to play a game.

So I did.

That game was Undertale.

You can get off my back now.  

Ten Minutes In

I recall seeing screenshots and thinking Undertale looked pretty basic, but my word. This is retro to a fault. It has graphics that my old Amstrad would laugh at. The title screen has a basic chiptune soundtrack on just the right side of parody. It also has a hilarious tutorial with Flowey the Flower who turns out to be a horrific monster (which, for some reason, I found to be a genuinely unsettling moment).

Sans and Papyrus make a decent comedy duo.

After a brief history about the ongoing battle between humans and monsters in the world, I fell into a hole and got schooled about the basics by a friendly female creature named Toriel who chased off Flowey. She also gave me a mobile phone to keep in touch. How progressive!

Basic puzzles have been introduced which involve pulling switches and pushing blocks, while combat is an interesting mix of reaction-based steps. Attacking sees you stopping a needle as close to the centre of a meter as possible, while enemy attacks require you to move your heart icon out of the way of bullet-hell style projectiles or suffer HP damage. In another neat twist, you can choose to act instead of fight, choosing from a range of moves such as “cheer”, “flirt” or “threaten”. If you’re successful at either knocking a monster’s health down sufficiently or using your action to somehow neutralise their anger, you can show mercy and spare monsters from your sword, possibly reducing the chance of you having to fight them again.

Thirty Minutes In

It appears that this mercy mechanic may have bigger implications for the story. Toriel, while good-intentioned, wanted to keep me trapped underground so I had to fight her. I ended up killing her, but I am pretty sure sparing her might have resulted in a different outcome. I wonder if I can get through the game without killing anything? It’s done now regardless, and I’m on my way home. Although Toriel did mention a bad dude named Asgore who is likely going to want to kill me because that’s what antagonists usually do.

Poor Napstablook.

Fifty Minutes In

I’m enjoying the humour. The game does not take itself seriously at all and is completely self-aware. I’m currently in a battle of wits with some puzzle-loving skeletons named after fonts, which has been very amusing. There have also been a few tough battles, although I’ve been making it a little harder on myself by trying not to kill them. I might have resign myself to playing through this again and sparing everyone, but power onwards and massacre everything in sight with this first attempt.

Despite my snarkiness at the intro music, the game’s soundtrack is superb. There are just the right number of earworms and tonal changes depending on the context, and other instruments have been incorporated to make it sound more like a thought-out selection of tracks and less like someone tapping away on a Game Boy. Many of the tracks wouldn’t sound out of place in Final Fantasy VII.

Two Hours In

The more I play, the more lightweight the game feels. I think this is deliberate, though. The story is breezier than a Cornish beach with lots of fourth wall breaking and terrible puns. It also seems like the gameplay is a lot more flexible than I originally thought: fleeing is an option in most battles other than boss fights and I’m yet to be penalised for doing so. Perhaps this is the quick way of playing through the game pacifistically.

Puzzles will gently tax you without overwhelming you.

I’ve visited Snowdin, a frosty town which is as close to a traditional RPG hub as I expect I’ll find in Undertale. It’s as superficially diverting as the rest of the game, with an inn, library and bar. The majority of the NPCs don’t have a huge amount of diversity to their characters, but the skeleton brothers ended up being quite sweet.

Four Hours In

The environments I travel through on my quest to leave the underground follow basic patterns — Hotland followed Snowdin, for instance — while other areas had puzzle paths which needed lights to be activated to find my way. None of this has been challenging, but I don’t think it’s supposed to be. My main beef appears to be with Asgore Dreemurr who needs one more human soul to bring the monsters back to the world of humans. It’s your standard “evil sealed away” story delivered with a knowing wink. While it won’t set the world alight, the rest of the game is engaging enough to keep me playing.

Combat gets tweaks throughout to keep things fresh.

Combat is surprisingly inventive. I was expecting the bullet hell defense tactics to get tired quickly, but numerous iterations themed around the enemy you fight result in encounters which rarely get boring. A murderous TV-loving robot is one of the highlights, regardless of how much sense its inclusion makes in the game.

The same can’t be said for the areas outside of the town hubs and puzzles. The bare bones visuals make travelling along rivers and paths less than exciting, but this is at least offset by the minimal length of time it takes. Also, the recurring mouse and cheese joke near save points tickles me.

Seven Hours In

After some more amusing hijinks with Mettaton the robot and less amusing interruptions via phone from another character who was helping me, I’ve reached the end and faced off against Asgore. It took me a couple of goes to beat him, but when I showed him mercy, Flowey the Flower reappeared and my game crashed.

Preach, sister.

Nice move. Another fourth wall broken. Turns out this was part of the game, thanks to me not showing mercy to everyone I came across previously, as I originally suspected. After emerging victorious from a final boss battle which felt like a Monty Python sketch on acid, I was challenged to get through the game again from the start without killing a soul.

Final Verdict

After that last gauntlet was thrown down, I thought about it, and you know what? I’m not sure I want to. I enjoyed Undertale to a point, but I can’t say it blew me away. Nor can I say that it is something I’m desperate to jump back into in order to get another ending. The combat wasn’t exciting enough, the story not intriguing enough. The “monsters aren’t monsters, but humans are” story isn’t particularly original: it was done better and with far more enjoyable gameplay in the excellent Zelda-like Mega Drive title Soleil. It also feels like the kind of RPG that was specifically built for multiple endings, as if the clever-clever twist was the entire fulcrum for the game — which meant that if you didn’t have knowledge of how to get the good ending from the start (and I didn’t, as I expect is the case with most players), it made the final moments feel overwhelmingly unsatisfying. Sure, it plays around with RPG conventions, but it does so in such a knowing way that it’s eye-rolling at times.

Pretty funny.

Despite my gripes, I don’t hate it. I actually quite liked it. Most of the characters were fun. Most of the puzzles were fun. After finishing the game and doing a bit of research, there are apparently two diametrically opposed camps of people with opinions on the game. I guess I’m the outlier. The guy that hires the field out to both parties to battle it out. The Michael Eavis of Undertale.

I’m fine with that. Toby Fox said he considers it to be an 8/10 game. I’d suggest it’s more like a 7; I’m braced for the hate.

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Worth playing? YES - it's still enjoyable today.
Rob Kershaw

I've been gaming since the days of the Amstrad. Huge RPG fan. Planescape: Torment tops my list, but if a game tells a good story, I'm interested. Absolutely not a fanboy of any specific console or PC - the proof is in the gaming pudding. Also, I like cake.