It’s hard to think of a better game with more humble origins than Undertale. The brainchild of Toby Fox was a passion project in the medium if ever there were one, with Toby Fox almost singlehandedly creating the entire game; from its premise to graphics to gameplay, to its sublime soundtrack, with only some of the artwork being provided by others. Taking inspiration from Nintendo RPGs EarthBound, Mario & Luigi, and Super Mario RPG, Undertale not only did a fantastic job at living up to its inspirations, but also in creating an identity very much its own. By providing an engaging battle system, a unique sense of humor and charm, and a narrative that could only work in the video game medium, Undertale subverted many RPG traditions and became a video game masterpiece.
In Undertale, players take control of a human child, who has fallen into the dreaded Mt. Ebot, whose underground has served as the world of monsters ever since they were banished there by humans long ago. A magic barrier prevents the monsters from leaving the underground, and only the power of human souls can break it. Because of this, many monsters want the human dead, as their king is but one soul short of destroying the barrier. But these monsters are far from mindless killing machines, in fact, most would rather tell you a joke or show off their hat than do you harm.
In their quest to leave the underground, players will confront many monsters. During such encounters, the player can go the usual RPG route and slay the monsters, gaining experience points and leveling up along the way, or they can find non-violent ways to end the encounter. By selecting the “Act” command during battles, the player can interact with monsters in a myriad of ways, with each individual monster having their own distinct personality that the player must figure out in order to find the best solution to the encounter. If you can figure out the right action (whether it be dancing, flirting, or even giving a monster personal space), you can then simply spare the monster, which won’t net you any experience points, but will still provide gold.
Interactivity is added to these turn-based battles when the player is on the defensive. Every enemy has their own unique attacks, with the defensive segments modeled after bullet hell games. During a monster’s attack, the player takes control of their soul (represented by a heart), which the player must then navigate to avoid oncoming projectiles. White enemy attacks are the standard, and are simply to be avoided. Blue attacks won’t harm you so long as you hold still, while orange attacks will require you to move through them to avoid damage. Meanwhile, the occasional green attack will actually heal the player’s health, leaving you to attempt to grab them amid the bombardment of other bullets.
The battle system is an utter delight. The ability to fight or act is already a terrific innovation, but by combining it with the only interactive turn-based battle system that rivals Mario’s finest RPGs, Undertale’s battle system becomes an all-time great for the genre.
That isn’t where Undertale’s innovation ends, however. Arguably its most notable element is how detailed its narrative is, and how it brings out the best in the video game medium.
There are many games that give players different moral options with tackling different scenarios, but none that really showcase the consequences of their actions in any meaningful way. Usually, choosing good or evil in a video game simply dictates whether your character is surrounded by a heavenly aura, or if they have burning red eyes while wearing edgy, black clothing. But every choice the player makes in Undertale leaves a lasting impact one way or another.
The benefits of gaining experience points and leveling up are obvious, as you’ll gain more health and strength the more you advance. But when you kill a monster in Undertale, you may come across another who grieves for their fallen friend, or wonders why they don’t hear from their old buddy anymore. This of course means that going the route of a pacifist may be more challenging – as your stats remain as they are at the start of the game, outside of armor – but doing the right thing becomes its own reward.
I will refrain from going into greater detail, as Undertale’s narrative is one that’s full of surprises. But the way in which it tells its story – with every moral action having its consequence – is entirely original, and may now serve as the benchmark for how to tell a deep, meaningful story in a way only a video game can.
Even with the emotional weight, Undertale is also an incredibly funny game. As stated, each monster has their own unique personality, with the boss monsters easily becoming one of the most charming cast of characters in a video game. Much of the dialogue is laugh-out-loud hilarious, and the sheer absurdity of many of the characters is sure to leave a goofy grin beaming across your face.
Visually speaking, the game may not exactly look ‘pretty’ – being reminiscent of a later NES title – but it does look timeless. The fact that Toby Fox could capture as much personality in the game visually as he did with his writing is an impressive feat unto itself. Undertale’s greatest aesthetic pleasure, however, has to be its soundtrack.
Undertale’s score – composed, of course, by Toby Fox – is one of the all-time great video game soundtracks. It marries the infectiousness of retro video game music with an impeccable sense of personality. The overworld tunes are often hauntingly beautiful, while the battle themes are catchy, and each boss is given a track that’s nothing short of unforgettable. Undertale’s soundtrack is perhaps rivaled solely by Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze for the best of this decade. And as far as I’m concerned, it joins the likes of Donkey Kong Country 2 and Super Mario RPG as one of my favorite gaming soundtracks of all time.
Some may nitpick at the fact that Undertale is a pretty short game, especially for an RPG. But that seems like a moot point when one considers that Undertale is one of the few games that feels like a fully-realized artistic vision by its creator. Everything that is present in Undertale is nothing short of delightful. It’s unique, charming, funny, touching, and a whole lot of fun.
When Toby Fox created Undertale, he molded his game after some all-time greats in the RPG genre. Little did he know that his “little” game would end up sitting right alongside them.
12 thoughts on “Undertale (PS4) Review”
Ah, decided to come around and break out the 10 for this one too, eh? Excellent! My work here is done.
The number of times I’ve awarded that grade doesn’t even break double digits, but Undertale is one of the very few to have achieved it. Forget Gone Home, *this* is the quiet triumph in storytelling the medium needed in the 2010s – it stands as one of the decade’s finest works. On that note, I think Mr. Fox succeeded at being the “righteous rebel video games need” to a far more effective degree than Jonathan Blow with Braid because I think he went into the project with no higher goal than to bring his artistic vision to life, not to dogmatically tell others what they need to do to lend the medium artistic credence. That makes the statement both profound and personable – unlike the product of a person who clearly doesn’t think highly of the medium or its artists. And yes, this does mean I think a game that contains the line “I’m the legendary fartmaster” is a more profound artistic statement than Braid, The Witness, or Limbo. I regret nothing.
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Well, I certainly have to thank you for being the one to really put Undertale on my radar. 🙂
It really is a special game, and has only grown on me all the more over time (the true mark of a classic).
Currently, my 10/10 games don’t reach double digits, either (this is the seventh). When I get around to reviewing the remainder of them, it will go a little past the double digits, but only just. I remember some time ago we discussed how many games we think we’d award a perfect score to, and I previously said I thought mine would be “less than 10” and you said yours would be “less than 15” but it seems the roles have reversed (though I guess having both Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey released last year definitely bumped mine up). Either way, no matter the number, Undertale definitely deserves to be among those select few.
Come to think of it, I’ve only given four movies a 10/10 so far (all of which are animated, since I’ve only started doing non-animated movies more regularly more recently). While the obvious reasons that movies have been around longer than games, and they lack the more objective interactive traits means I’d probably give more movies perfect scores than games, I don’t think I’d give all that many to movies either. I think I’d just do it for my favorites of my favorites (kind of like how I gave Mario World a 10 and SMB3 a 9.5 simply out of the weight of personal preference, even though mechanically speaking both are basically flawless).
And yes, I completely agree with everything you said regarding what really defines a game as art. Jonathan Blow and his ilk seem more pretentious than artistic (and the fact that he makes ignorant blanket statements like “I don’t play Japanese games anymore” doesn’t help his case). People need to stop thinking that art has to go one, very specific route. It’s that mindset that prevents animated films (and comedies, and super hero films, etc.) from wining Best Picture. Something can potentially be outright childish nonsense, and still be art if done properly. Meanwhile, the kind of things that are specifically designed to “be art” can (and often do) outright suck.
People were quick to point out a statement Nintendo made a few years back as being a negative, when they said “we make games, not art.” But I think that mindset has been a large reason why Nintendo’s works can be considered art. They care about their craft, and aren’t trying to appease a so-called “higher” audience. Indeed, most of the games I’d give a 10/10 to are Nintendo titles, which I know makes me a “fanboy” in the eyes of many independent “critics” in the gaming community, but it’s not my fault Mario games tend to be, well, damn good.
With that rant out of the way, Undertale is amazing.
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Yeah, I did once say I had fifteen or so, but that was before I became a little stricter on which games deserve a 10/10. For a lot of the games I would’ve awarded a 10/10, they were just merely really, really good, but not to the point where I was convinced they were a once-in-a-lifetime achievement. I also did that to make the 9/10 and 8/10 grades more valuable because I wanted to make it clear that achieving either of them is a great accomplishment.
I remember one particularly dire interview in which one of Mr. Blow’s peers infamously said that Japanese games suck and that they need to get with the times. The best part is that Mr. Blow didn’t even apologize for his peer’s outburst and in fact said that he agreed with his sentiment… right before shooting himself in the foot when he admitted Dark Souls was good (not to mention that Braid blatantly referenced Super Mario Bros., leading to a treasure trove of mixed messages right there). It’s incredible they quixotically fancied themselves the best of the best when by that point they had made one passable game apiece. That’s what I meant when I said that back then, indie games (especially Western ones) seemed to be sold more on ego and attitude than on actual quality.
Either way, I find it interesting that Mr. Blow is so dogmatic on what video games need to do to become art. Considering that many of the best artistic statements are the result of people refusing to play by the rules, following his lead would only restrict creativity rather than help promote it. For that matter, believing everything he says would only result in a gamer unwilling to leave their comfort zone – just like the type of gamer he and his ilk rebel against.
I disagree with Nintendo’s statement at face value, but I actually admire the sentiment because it shows that they’re one of the few developers remaining whose games are completely unashamed to be games. In doing so, a lot of what they’ve created, such as Majora’s Mask, is way more of a profound artistic statement than anything Jonathan Blow has made – looks like having an actual comprehensible story counts for a lot in the end. Who knew?
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I don’t think Nintendo was trying to say that games aren’t art or anything like that, simply stating that they make games for the purpose of fun. But again, that’s a large reason why I think they’ve produced so many works of art within the medium. If you’re simply creating something to be the best of what it is, without any pretensions going into it, there’s a much better chance that what you’re making is going to feel genuine.
As for Jonathan Blow, well, there’s a joke to be made about his game design philosophy that coincides with his last name, but I’ll refrain from saying it. Not to mention claiming that any and all games suck that hail from a different country is iffy for more than one reason.
I really wish more people shared your sentiment on the subject. I’m so sick and tired of these holier than though indie darlings being put on a pedestal because their work looks down its nose at others.
As overrated as I think Journey may be, at least it doesn’t feel self-righteous, nor are its developers pretentious neck-beard types. I’d much rather see it place on lists of greatest games than Braid, Limbo or Fez (good lord, don’t even get me started on Phil Fish). Funny thing, you don’t see those games make it onto such lists anymore. IGN’s most recent list didn’t see them make the cut, but it did include Undertale. So maybe people are starting to catch on? Let’s hope!
Anyway, that is a good way to look at things, putting games you truly feel are fantastic in the 8 or 9 categories to give those ratings more credibility. I’ve been trying to do similar (though I don’t think I’m as consistent as you in that area). The reason I try to give only a handful of games (or movies) perfect and near-perfect scores isn’t just to look harsh or anything, but to actually make them, and the other ratings, actually mean something. It seemed throughout the 2000s, video games that scored under a 9 were seen as disappointments by those giving those scores. Maybe if you’re using a more easy-going rating system (such as Roger Ebert’s 1 to 4 star system), it makes sense to dish out the highest rating with a relative frequency. But in the video game world, they tried to have stricter rating systems, yet pretty much gave any game they thought was good a 9+. What does that say about every other score?
By giving only what I think are the absolute best games (or my absolute favorites) top honors, that means I can bolster the other scores by placing other great games/games I love in them, should they have more obvious flaws.
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I think the fact that all of those games failed to place is a testament to how poorly they have held up (actually, I haven’t played Fez yet, but you can expect a review when I eventually do). Indeed, I seem to remember one publication that referred to Braid as the video game equivalent of Pet Sounds by The Beach Boys, which is a pretty inane statement. Granted, I drew a similar comparison with Metal Gear Solid 2 and album called Trout Mask Replica, but that was mostly as a commentary on how the two works had similar production stories and receptions; their actual content was quite different (to say the least). Either way, that proclamation seems silly in hindsight.
I think what helped those developers achieve those accolades is that, kind of like that episode of The Simpsons when Homer became a local boxing champ by waiting for his opponents to tire out rather than by learning how to throw a punch, the indie circuit didn’t exactly provide them with tough competition. Nowadays, Blow and Playdead (and Fish if he were still in the game) have to deal with people who can not only surpass them in their sleep, they can do it without the egotistical posturing, meaning when they get accolades, you know they’re the real deal. I think that The Witness received such a polarized reception from fans demonstrates how behind the times it was. Braid’s Wikipedia page suggests it was vital for the indie scene’s growth, but I believe the scene became the force it is now without having paid much attention to what Blow, Fish, or Playdead were doing at all.
I think another way you can tell that Braid isn’t as respected as something like Undertale lies in the memes surrounding them. With Undertale, the memes mostly concern things people like about the game. Yeah, some of them are pretty dumb, but even then, there is a level of genuine admiration there. The best Braid could do was “Metaphor for the atomic bomb,” which only ever seems to be brought up to mock the game and its attempts at deep symbolism.
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Also, did the creators of Limbo ever express any dire opinions? I am familiar with the dumb things Blow and Fish have said on record, but I have to admit I haven’t heard anything from Playdead.
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Admittedly, I haven’t heard anything too bad from Playdead developer-wise. Their games have so far just showcased the negative tendencies of indie games.
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