Undertale (PS4) Review

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.




Where My 2016 Awards At? (Also Something About Undertale)


We’re a third of the way through February, and I have yet to do my annual video game and movie awards. I know your life revolves around such things, so surely you are in a panic wondering where they went. Fret not, dear childrens, for my annual awards are on the way.

Once again, real life and other endeavors have been postponing some of my writings here, and even some of my gaming time. I’ve only just started playing Final Fantasy XV and a couple of other 2016 favorites, so I’m waiting until I put a little more time into them before I make any final decisions.

My video game awards will be arriving shortly. As for my movie awards, I may simply do my list of top 10 films of 2016 this year, instead of awarding different categories and such. Not because I think any less of movies than I do of games (they are both my great loves), but just for time purposes.

So yeah, that’s going to happen soon, along with a few more reviews for games and movies, and perhaps another update or two on how my game making/sprite animating is going.

Also, in an entirely unrelated note, I think I’m going to be upping my score of Undertale from a 9.0 to a 9.5. That game has just really stuck with me. The only question is, on my 10 and 9.5 games page, do I list Undertale from the date I originally reviewed it, or the date when I upped it to a 9.5?

Oh well. Trifles. Just look forward to the crap I write and enjoy Undertale and stuff.

Artful Vs. Pretentious Game Design or: Why I Don’t Like Many Critical Darlings

*Article partially inspired by Very Very Gaming’s recent write-up on Braid*


Games like the Bioshock series, as well as indie darlings like Limbo and Braid all have one thing in common…

…They are all boring as Hell.

Okay, perhaps I should elaborate a bit. Each of these games, as well as many others that have been inspired in their wake in both the indie and mainstream gaming scenes, are all considered to be part of the “artistic” side of gaming, due to their emphasis on aspects like story and atmosphere over “fun.” They’re games that are tailor-made to push the question of “are video games art?” and often receive praise for the massive inputs of their creators over studios, with many people hailing these creators as the video game equivalents of auteurs.

But let’s take a moment to really think about that statement. Who’s to say video games weren’t always art? Just because they were originally created with “fun” in mind, does that really make them unartistic by nature?

"Infinitely more fun, engaging and creative than Limbo could ever be. And thus, it's a better example of video games as art, too."
“Infinitely more fun, engaging and creative than Limbo could ever be. And thus, it’s a better example of video games as art, too.”

It’s all too easy to argue that games like Super Mario World and Tetris, which never even attempt to be anything more than great games, are actually far greater artistic achievements than any ham-fisted Bioshock or Braid ever were. Both Mario World and Tetris, while maybe void of storytelling, are rich and deep in creativity. More specifically, a kind of creativity that is unique to the video game medium. Every stage in Mario World tries something new with the platforming genre, while Tetris is a simple formula that is never the same twice.

By comparison, it’s all-too easy to say that Bioshock simply has a lot of cinematics with a rather pedestrian attempt at social commentaries padded on to disguise what is otherwise a by-the-books first-person shooter. Similarly, Limbo is a platformer so empty in gameplay and content, that claiming it to be a game where all you do is go right wouldn’t be an inaccurate statement, and the only reason it’s remembered is because it throws some stylized visuals and atmosphere on top to compensate for its lack of anything else.

Point being, games like Super Mario World and Tetris have timelessly proven what video games, and video games alone, are capable of, whereas something like Bioshock (most specifically, Bioshock Infinite) and Limbo are rather inept in their own medium, and simply decorate what little they have with “themes” and “artsiness,” which only ends up making those attributes feel shoehorned and meaningless.

What of these so-called “video game auteurs?” Ken Levine, creator of Bioshock, and Jonathan Blow, creator of Braid, are often seen as artistic visionaries in the video game medium. But why, exactly? For the simple reason that they have more creative control over their projects, more or less. While having such input and influence on one’s creations is something any creator strives for, it also doesn’t innately make everything they touch a work of genius. This may be an unpopular statement in this day and age, but big studios are very much capable of creating art. While it may be easier for personal artistry to shine through when a creation is helmed by an individual, that doesn’t necessarily make them innately superior on an artistic level (after all, when George Lucas had full control of Star Wars, we ended up with the prequels. Disney gave us The Force Awakens).

I am very much in support of the Andy Warhol view that the desire to make money off of one’s art doesn’t demean its value as art. If anything, I’d have more respect for someone who creates something and has a desire of making money off of it, than some pretentious hipster who gives the same, generic “I’m not in it for the money” spiel whose work oozes with self-righteousness.

Long story short, it’s not only possible for a big budget, major studio game to be art, but they’ve actually accomplished this feat countless times through the decades. Often times, they did it without needing to tout their own horns.

"Braid is basically what would happen if Mario gave up fun and decided to start looking down his nose at people, all while having a stick up his ass."
“Braid is basically what would happen if Mario gave up fun and decided to start looking down his nose at people, all while having a stick up his ass.”

Jonathan Blow, for example, is always quick to speak about why games “need to be something more,” and yet is quick to make blanket statements like “I don’t play Japanese games anymore.” or refers to games like Farmville as being “inherently evil.” Basically, it’s the same kind of hypocritical, self-indulgent jargon you always here from such pseudo-artists. They love talking about their own work as artistic intellectuals, and then write off differing works with ignorant blanket statements and name-calling. I can’t remember ever hearing of Shigeru Miyamoto or Will Wright giving themselves such pats on the back.

"I'm only disappointed that the critics bought into this hook, line and sinker."
“I’m only disappointed that the critics bought into this hook, line and sinker.”

Then we have Ken Levine, a man who loves implementing social commentaries into his games, but does so about as effectively as a college freshman in his first week of a political science course. The allegories are so blatant they can hardly be called allegories at all (Gee, d’ya think the dude named Andrew Ryan is like, referencing Ayn Rand?), and his themes often have prominent contradictions (Bioshock Infinite can’t give itself enough praise for pointing out the ugliness of prejudice…and then showcases a blatant prejudice against the religious… so I guess open-mindedness only goes so far). The point is people will hail the likes of Ken Levin as artistic geniuses simply because the themes are attempted, but it seems like no one ever stops to actually analyses how effectively (or should I say ineffectively) they are implemented. Just because the man has a voice and puts it in his games doesn’t mean it’s worth listening to.

The major problem here is that there has been a growing mentality that these kind of games are art, and games that may only aim to be “fun” or “creative” are not. It’s starting to grow into something much worse, with some people even having the mindset that any game that emphasizes entertainment and gameplay is inherently bad, and that only these  pretentious “artsy” games are good. It’s a similar mindset to what some film critics and film award committees have, where they’ll only praise/award the works that conveniently pander to their preferred styles and ideals.

What makes this all the more concerning (should I say depressing?) is that, for the longest time, video games were seemingly immune to such things. Because of the unique nature of video games as a medium, no one used to care about how much plot was in Mario or what social commentaries games were carrying. There were still plenty of games with complex plots, and games with themes and commentaries, but they coexisted within the realms of “fun” and “entertainment.” No one wanted games to be anything more than fun, but when they had other attributes, it was seen as a bonus, not the sole requirement.

This put video games in a very unique spot that made it one of the few mediums that could be appreciated for its artistry and enjoyed for its fun factor. Perhaps the only other medium to prominently showcase this combination is animated cinema (most other films choose a side between artsy and entertaining, whereas animated films seem more readily able to be both). But while animated films continue to keep a hold of that combination, it seems like video games are becoming more willing to abandon it in favor of pandering to the “artistic” crowd.

"Undertale tells a meaningful story while also being a fun game that isn't afraid of being weird, silly and immature. You're doing it right!"
“Undertale tells a meaningful story while also being a fun game that isn’t afraid of being weird, silly and immature. You’re doing it right!”

It’s still very much possible for artsy games to still be great games, with the likes of Undertale and Papers, Please proving that indie games can be genuinely rich from an artistic level and engaging from a gameplay standpoint, and titles like Shadow of the Colossus being able to tell stories as only a video game can, while still being a fun game to play. But then we have this increasing wave of developers who, like Jonathan Blow, claim that “video games don’t need to be fun,” which really just seems like a convenient way for them to justify the lack of actual game design in their titles. Perhaps a game doesn’t need to be immediately “fun” on the surface, but it should definitely be engaging to play. No amount of atmosphere, story or social commentary can entice me to pick up a controller if the game itself is flat-out boring.

Would we rather see video games continue to go down a similar path to animated films, which can create works that are unique to their medium, can be both fun and artful, and that we all remember? Or would we prefer them to go the route of the Oscar-bait/arthouse film, which might give a few pretentious snobs something to yammer about for a few minutes, and then have no lasting appeal or value?

Video games have always been art, but the more they try to prove that they’ve “become” art, the more they lose the things that made them art to begin with.

Top 5 Games of 2015 (Game of the Year)

2015 was a tremendous year in video games. We had AAA blockbusters, indie darlings, and games from all genres and categories reach great heights in quality.

Exceptionalist that I am, some games were undoubtedly better than others. Of all of 2015’s great games, these five stood out the most to me.

These five games, for one reason or another, proved to be the cream of the crop. They may not quite be the same games you’ll see dominate other people’s lists, but they are the games that had the most impact on me.

Without further ado, my top five favorite video games of 2015. Continue reading “Top 5 Games of 2015 (Game of the Year)”

Video Game Awards 2016: Best Gameplay

There is no greater attribute to a great game than gameplay itself. After all, even the most profound video game narrative would be pointless if the game itself were a stinker. Similarly, a game entirely void of narrative can be made into a masterpiece through gameplay alone. Gameplay is the heart and soul of game design. The glue that holds a great game together. I admit, 2015’s Best Gameplay was a tough call, but in the end, there had to be one.


Winner: Super Mario Maker

Super Mario Maker

This award was really a coin toss between Super Mario Maker and Undertale. But while Undertale may be one of the most fun RPGs I’ve played, I have to give the edge to Super Mario Maker due to the fact that it made level editing itself fun.

Let’s be honest, as awesome as the idea of making your own video game is, most games that allow you to create your own piece of the experience tend to be pretty demanding and tedious, to the point that it can take away from the fun of making your own levels.

That’s not the case with Super Mario Maker, which implements simple drawing and drag-and-drop mechanics to make the process of creating levels as fun as playing them.

Not to mention that Mario Maker features gameplay from some of the best platformers of all time. So there’s that.

Still, I have to give Undertale a special mention for giving a sense of interactivity to turn-based battles that’s usually reserved for the Mario RPGs, and for making every encounter a unique experience.

Runner-up: Undertale

Video Game Awards 2016: Best Indie Game

Indie games have become a major part of the video game world. Though they lack the budgets and production values of AAA titles, indie games have finally gained the momentum to go toe-to-toe with the big names of the gaming world today.

I am not one of those people who simply thinks “indie = creative, blockbuster = trash.” In fact, I have found many indie darlings to be flat-out boring (I’m looking your way, Limbo). But I feel that we are finally seeing some indie games that live up to the hype that precedes them. As far as 2015 goes, the best indie game was a no-brainer.


Winner: Undertale


Undertale is one of the best RPGs I’ve ever played. And more than likely the best indie game I’ve ever played. An RPG that draws inspiration from EarthBound, Super Mario RPG, and Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga could only ever be a wonderful thing. And Undertale does its inspirations proud.

Every monster brings something different to the table, every battle is interactive, and you don’t have to harm any enemy you come across.

Undertale succeeds in two key areas that so many other indie titles stumble: It tells a compelling story that actually feels artistic and not simply self-important. And it combines its narrative with deep and engaging gameplay.

If every indie title could be a fragment as fun as Undertale, I may just have to grow a neck-beard and declare myself a hipster. But Undertale is a shimmering diamond in the rough, so it looks like I’ve dodged the neck-beard bullet.

Runner-up: Rocket League

Video Game Awards 2016: Best Music

I dearly love video game music. Some might call me crazy, but video game soundtracks are the majority of music I listen to (the rest are film soundtracks). I hold video game music in very high regard. As such, naming the best video game soundtrack of any given year is a big deal for me. But as far as 2015 goes, there was one clear winner.


Winner: Undertale


It’s hard to think of many video games that are as much a labor of love as Undertale. The brainchild of Toby Fox was – aside from some art work – created entirely by Fox himself. This includes the game’s stellar soundtrack, which is one of the best in years.

What’s amazing is that the fantastic Mr. Fox claims that he has had no prior musical training, and that he more or less just played what he thought sounded good. You’d be forgiven for thinking Undertale’s soundtrack was done by a number of professional musicians. Dude’s got skills.

Undertale manages to capture a retro feel with many classic video game inspired pieces, and also includes some very tearjerking scores as well. In a game full of highlights, Undertale’s music may be one of the biggest highlights of them all.

Runner-up: Kirby and the Rainbow Curse

Undertale Review


Undertale is a game all about the unexpected. On face value, it may appear to be just another indy title with a passion for the retro. But this brain-child of one Toby Fox looks to subvert RPG norms in fun and inventive ways. It’s most blatant inspiration is EarthBound, though it also evokes Super Mario RPG and the Mario & Luigi series on equal levels. All of which are apt inspirations for an RPG that wishes to be unconventional. What’s all the more unexpected is how well Undertale lives up to its inspirations.

The “hook” of Undertale is simple enough in concept: You don’t have to kill anything. But the depth of this concept is what gives Undertale its uniqueness in both gameplay and story.

In terms of gameplay, Undertale looks very much like EarthBound, complete with retro-style first-person battle screens. But players are able to go along with or against RPG conventions with the options to fight or act.

By fighting, you can defeat the monsters, earn experience points, and level up, as is RPG tradition. But if you choose to act, you can find a non-violent way to win the battle, whether it be striking up a conversation, initiating a dance-off, or giving a simple compliment. Once you’ve won the favor of a monster, you can choose to “spare” them, ending the fight without gaining experience points (though you can still earn gold).

Neither option is more difficult than the other, however, as most monsters are not easily swayed or defeated. No matter which route you choose, you will still have to endure their attacks. It’s within these segments where the influence of the Mario RPGs shines through.

During enemy attacks, the game takes on something of a “bullet hell” setup. The player’s “soul” is represented by a tiny heart, which the player can guide within a window. The enemy attacks are present as various projectiles, which the player can avoid altogether, provided they have the ability to guide the heart out of harm’s way.

Like in the Mario RPGs, every enemy provides its own unique challenge, meaning that avoiding their attacks feel like mini-games unique to each monster.

UndertaleThough each enemy fights differently, Undertale’s battle system has a few consistent rules to keep things together. Enemy attacks that are colored white will damage the player. Blue attacks won’t harm you so long as you hold the heart still, while orange attacks are the reverse, and will be harmless if the player willingly moves the heart through them. Some monsters have attacks that can be turned green, which then heal the player.

The battle system is an utter delight, and one of the most fun and interactive I’ve seen in an RPG. It’s probably the only RPG I can think of outside of the Mario series where the battles provide a constant sense of surprise. This variety is reflected equally in the aforementioned “act” options, which are unique to every monster’s personality.

The story is another highlight of the game. Undertale tells the story of a long-forgotten war between humans and monsters, where the humans emerged victorious and banished the monsters to a subterranean realm. The monsters can’t break the seal keeping them in the underground, but humans can find their way to this world of monsters through a single mountain.

Players take the role of a child who happens to fall into the monster world, and must go on an adventure to find his/her way home. An adventure that takes many twists and turns and, ultimately, questions the child’s morality.

The two things that ascend Undertale’s story to the realm of great video game narratives are its writing, and the way in which it takes full advantage of its medium.

The writing can be downright hilarious. Undertale is not only the funniest game I’ve played since Portal 2, it’s one of the funniest games I’ve ever played, with an absurdist sense of humor that once again echoes the likes of EarthBound and Mario & Luigi. Yet the game is also able to tell a compelling and even tragic narrative that brilliantly contrasts the game’s humorous writing.

UndertaleUndertale is also one of those rare games that understands how to tell a story unique to the video game medium. There are so many games out there that simply want to replicate movies, but Undertale is a story that plays out in a way that could only happen in a video game. Every decision the player makes in every battle (and some outside of battles) will have an impact on the story and characters. The game even includes three different final bosses, depending on whether your choices are righteous, villainous, or somewhere in between (with the third option providing numerous different endings of its own).

Visually speaking, Undertale is simple but charming. The retro look is appealing and well done, and the character designs are original. Though some of the environments can admittedly look a bit sparse.

UndertaleThe soundtrack, composed, of course, by Toby Fox, is one of the best in recent years. The music of Undertale can range from retro and catchy to atmospheric and melancholic. It is distinctly a video game soundtrack, one that can capture a range of emotions without feeling the need to simply replicate the style of a film score. It’s beautiful to listen to.

If you love RPGs, Undertale is an absolute must-play. It even follows in the footsteps of its inspirations EarthBound and Super Mario RPG in being an RPG that’s fun and accessible even for those who aren’t fans of the genre. It’s one of those rare indy games that lives up to the reputation that precedes it, and a damn fine RPG under any criteria.