Monday, 14 March 2016
[PC Game Review] Undertale
Released: September 15th, 2015
Developer/Publisher: Toby Fox
Before my complete review of Undertale, I want to recount my experience with this game...
It was... I don't remember what day it was. Thadeus had bought me a game he loved. Undertale it was called. For a while, I didn't really want to play it. I mean, the graphics seemed... not that impressive and all I knew about it was that it was influenced by Mother/Earthbound, which granted are some of my favourite RPG's, but for some reason, I held off on playing the game.
I sat down one day, Thadeus eagerly sitting on Steam chat, awaiting my reaction. I fired up the game, commented how I could tell it was made in Game Maker, cause of the collision detection. Commented how I wish the music wouldn't constantly change styles. I kinda half-ass played it, not really paying full attention. I met Flowey, he of course was creepy as all hell, letting me know it was "kill or be killed". I killed some enemies. That's what you do in RPG's, right? I earned some EXP and felt pretty good. This character Toriel took me in, she seemed very nice. I liked her. In fact... I started to enjoy her company. Then I wanted to leave her place and move on. She blocked my way, said she was going to test if I was ready.
Then I killed her.
Realizing what I'd done, realizing I had killed a character who was friendly, I panicked. What happened? In other games, friendly NPC's wouldn't die if you fought them. They would stop, not let you kill them, something would keep it from happening. Yet here I sat, watching Toriel vaporize in front of me after the most blood chilling speech I've ever seen from someone friendly.
I cried, I felt rotten. I felt ashamed. I reloaded the game so I could get her back. The next fight the game told me I thought of letting Toriel know I watched her die, and she said she felt like a ghost when I looked at her. Finally figuring out how to spare her I moved on. Then... Flowey appeared again. He let me know he was aware I had reloaded to try and save Toriel. I felt a chill down my spine unlike anything I've ever felt in any game. I knew it was possible for game characters to break the fourth wall but this felt like Flowey was speaking directly to me. Not the sprite on the screen, but the player controlling the sprite. Instantly I felt like I couldn't play anymore. I was scared, way out of my comfort zone. I had just played a game that held me directly responsible for taking the life of a friendly character. I shut down the game and didn't touch it again for a long time...
I deleted my save file... manually... complete reset of the game... then I went back one day. Thadeus urged me to go back to it, struggling not to spoil it for me.
I had an experience that changed my entire view on games. What games can do to you, how they can impact you. Undertale takes every trope, every preconception you might have about games and turn them entirely on their heads. Instead of killing everything, you are urged NOT to kill, but to use non-violent solutions. The game has no limits on who you can kill. You can kill everyone if you so desire. It is up to you if you want to kill everyone or make friends. So on my second playthrough, scarred by my initial experience, I didn't hurt anyone. And the rest of the game was honestly one of the most unforgetable experiences I've had in gaming ever, something that will truly stick with me forever.
Undertale proves that 8bit sprites on a computer screen can feel as real as you and me, it proves that killing is a horrible thing and holds nothing back to push that point home. It proves that in the end, the only thing that matters is what you choose.
So choose wisely...
While I don't want to spoil everything, the gist of the game (told in an opening narration that seems amazingly influenced by Mother) is that the world once was ruled by humans and monsters, but a war broke out and the humans sealed the monsters underground behind a magic barrier. But one day in our time, a human child falls down into Mt. Ebbot, seemingly the only way down to the monsters anymore. After waking up you are confronted by Flowey, a seemingly innocent flower who is a lot more than he seems to be. You quickly learn he's actually trying to kill you and are saved by a female goat named Toriel, who takes care of you and functions as a literal tutorial guide, teaching you the basic gameplay mechanics. However, you quickly learn that in order to get back home, you have to cross the magical barrier, and in order to do so, defeat Asgore. After a test of your willpower, you leave Toriel behind and set out on a journey to reach Asgore. How you go through this journey is up to you.
The character you play as is intentionally left nameless and gender neutral, allowing the player to completely immerse themselves into the game by projecting onto the character. Whether you're a young kid or an adult, anyone can play this game and feel immersed in it which I think is amazing. It uses very simple old tricks but they work wonders.
The game is split into two different levels. The overworld where you explore, talk to NPCs and do the main path of the game, and the combat system which occurs whenever you encounter a monster or an NPC initiates a battle. The overworld gameplay relies mostly on simply puzzle solving, character interaction and exploration so there's really not much to say about it. It feels very similar to Mother in that you have a menu with items, stats and a phone (which you can use for a lot of things).
The battle system is where things start to get really interesting though and where the game shines as very unique. While you have a Fight button you can use to hurt and even kill both enemies and friendly NPC's alike (which does have pretty huge consequences I might add), you also have an Act button which opens up the non-violent solutions to a battle. Each battle is basically like a puzzle and choosing the right actions in the Act menu is essential to solving the puzzle and giving the monster some kind of resolution so that it gives up and you can choose the Mercy option and spare it (at the start of the battle, the Spare option won't be available). You can also use the Item menu to access your inventory. Between each action you make, the monster will attack you in a style reminiscent of bullet hell shooters, although it relies mostly on you dodging the attacks.
What the game does very brilliantly is making EACH battle, even with minor monsters feel memorable and meaningful, and each battle has slight variations on the mechanics so the game never feels repetitive or stale, you never know what to expect and it keeps the game interesting and fresh all the way through.
The controls are fairly simple, you move with the arrow keys and use Z, X, and C for different things. Z is the general action key, X is for cancelling usually, and C is for bringing up the menu during gameplay.
Undertale mixes a lot of different styles together, but for the most part has a very limited 8bit influenced color palette, giving it a retro style that's still pretty charming. The character sprites are all drawn with a ton of personality and small details that are fun to pick up on. The HUD during battle is very well defined and some of the backgrounds are downright gorgeous. The graphics aren't really the focus of the game though, as their limited range almost makes your imagination kick in more than it would with something more realistic looking.
Undertale has a rather remarkable sound design. While a lot of the sounds are very 8bit and 16bit sounding, the soundtrack ranges in styles from 8bit, 16bit to very orchestrated themes. While I kind of wish the soundtrack stuck to one style, it's only a minor complaint. The themes are all really good and function well for their intended purposes and I'm still humming most of them on occasion.
FINAL SCORE: 10/10
This is a game I urge everyone to play all the way through. It's one of the most memorable games made in ages and holds its place as one of the most important games ever made. It reminds us that games don't have to be about mindless murder, but can be about something very beautiful and emotional, something that can leave us with a feeling we'll never forget...
Reseting the game has never been this difficult.