Well, this was unexpected. When I first saw this game it was the feature of a let’s play by Joel at Vinesauce. Now if you are a fan of his work, you know he is known as much for playing absolute garbage games and making fun of them as he goes along as anything else. So when I the title picture of the first episode next to his name and what looked like the kind of flower-monster I personally would expect on old pre-IBM PC compatible home computers show up in my recommended YouTube videos, I immediately clicked it, expecting a garbage game that he would spend the entire time making fun of. But by the end of the first episode, I was proven wrong… so wrong in fact I have not yet watched the rest of his playthrough as I found myself wanting to play.
Fast-forward to about a week ago and I had just finished the latest book of Dreamfall Chapters and updated the review and I didn’t see any must play games on my list to fill the gap. Normally this would be a time when I would let a little bit of randomness help me choose what I play next, but Max convinced me to buy and play this game instead. As I put the game away now, I’m glad he did.
Story: Long ago humanity and monsters co-existed over the land. It was a time of peace, but not a time meant to last, for eventually the two races want to war. The monsters lost. To survive, they retreated to the underground, and have remained there ever since.
One day, a young child dared to approach the entrance to their underground realm, but tripped, falling literally face first to the grounds below, being instantly trapped in their world. And with that short of an explanation (as explained in the intro of the game before you even hit ENTER to begin playing) your adventure starts.
And this is the point you take over in the game, and where you will meet your first two characters: a diabolical little flower named Flowery who’s first choice of action is to try to trick you into letting him kill you by literally running into his bullets, followed by Toriel, a goat-like monster with a very mother-like personality who comes to your rescue. With the demonic flower out of the way, she will then guide and try to teach you how to survive in the ruins you have found yourself in.
These humble beginnings will launch you on a journey with a goal much like any child in a strange land with no family or friends they know… to simply get home. And while that will never really change as you play, the game excels at filling in the details with a fantastical world of strange creatures and monsters. And while a lot of what you do has a direct impact in how your story plays, explaining that to you now is very likely going to spoil the discovery, and that is a big part of what makes this game’s story tick: discovering these connections for yourself as well as the absolute insanity and/or flaws characters reveal about themselves in many of the details.
The main story never really stops being a simple tail of a child who wants to go home, but the tones the story can hit and the things that happen around and because of you are really why this story shines, both in comedy and pure solid impact.
Graphics: I am going to have to be upfront about the graphics of this title. When I first saw this game, the first screenshots had me immediately convinced someone wrote this on their own in some kind of editor and thought they were clever by making it all look like a game made somewhere between the Atari and NES eras of gaming to cover for how bad they were at it. After all, that seems to be one of the worse trends in many indie games out there these days. And while playing I am not entirely sure how much truth there was in that first impression, I can assure you there are other much better reasons for the art-style chosen here.
Undertale uses two different perspectives for most of the game: a top-down view of the world you are exploring, or a combat view that shows the characters you are fighting and your choices on how to do that. In the top-down view, the game takes a lot of inspiration from EarthBound’s fairly simple look, but considering this game was not made to compete in the console wars (new or old) I don’t think the art style hurts it as much as it did that game.
Your character looks fairly simple and non-descript to the point where really all you can tell it it’s a child in a striped shirt with brown hair. Any other detail you bring to the image is pretty much from the expectations you bring yourself. But I think that was also in the design as it is not a feature shared by any other character you run into, be it someone you will be interacting with a lot or an NPC who will stand in the same place for the entire length of the game. These characters tend to take the 8-bit graphics and run with them to show off quirks (some amusing, some downright hideous) that make each of these characters unique (with the exception of one, but you will know them when you see them).
And the world you will be playing in runs with the same level or individualized detail, as you will be traveling through very varied places, despite the graphic level chosen for the game. What starts looking like a lazy choice to put minimal work into the world around you within the first few screens quickly draws back the curtain to reveal scenes that were clearly crafted with a love for the project in total instead. Granted, not all of these work well (supports beams in some places have a tendency to look like smaller rectangle paths you might be able to walk on, for example), but over all, the result is a game that shows it’s doing what it does on purpose and with an artful touch that really will surprise you from time to time.
Combat, however, features this duality perhaps better then anything else will. When you first look at it, what you will see is a field for the monsters you are about to fight in a grid box with absolutely no color in it: everything is drawn in white like old games might have done before color was readily available. Below it will be a box with a white boarder and your commands/stats will be below this in a few basic colors. The overall impression is underwhelming at best, but when the fight starts to go, you begin to see why this is the case, as colors have direct meaning to what happens and the developer does not limit the action to the boxes that look so convenient to do that with.
Rather, clues to what you are expected to do at any time will show up literally anywhere on the screen. And while this does not get used as much for random encounters, it adds something extra to every boss encounter in the game, sometimes completely changing game-types in the process, all the while relying on this approach to look completely like one cohesive package.
The end result is one of the few games I can honestly say despite the very retro-grade look, lets form follow function almost completely. I would never call this one of the prettiest games I have ever played, but where looks are concerned, it’s probably one of the most well thought out.
Sound: Sadly, I can not say sound in the game fairs with the same level of thought as seems to have gone into how this game looks. Don’t get me wrong, the music to this game sounds great and will be appreciated by any 8-bit chip-tune fan listening, but outside of a few characters and moments getting their own (and very suiting) themes, there just isn’t much here that is going to click to the moment or really be memorable long afterwards. And yes, I can already hear fans of this game asking about the track “Megalovania” which is used in this game. I can even agree, the song is awesome. BUT I have two major issues with featuring this song as the audio face of the game so much.
First it is not new for this game. Originally, this song was part of “The Halloween Hack,” a hack for the game EarthBound written by the same author back in 2008. It would also gain it’s popularity not from this but from a little famous online interactive comic that is in the final stages of finishing as I type this called Homestuck.
Second, not everyone will get to hear it. This song comes with the final boss of a very specific way to play the game, and frankly I do not believe most people will actually hear this track while playing.
Rather I would like to point to the theme of a character you will meet on your journey fairly early on to show off the best everyone will remember hearing in the game. His name is Papyrus, and the pure energy mixed with just as pure eagerness is just a joy to hear, enhancing just how much these traits dominate this character’s personality.
But much like the music, this entire game is built to sound like an early video game from the 8-bit era, so expect the sound effects to fit the same build. You have a descent variety of them, from a hitting thud to water splashes, to right/wrong sound effect to even distinguished “talk-sounds” for the various characters that used to be popular in various early NES games. The variety works in the game’s favor, keeping it sounding fresh, even as it sounds retro, so enjoy. As long as you like that old-school aesthetic your ears will not get bored.
Gameplay: When you start, you will be looking at the world from a top-down perspective which will make up a majority of the game. You can explore as you will in this mode as well as open up your inventory, your stats, and from a fairly early point in the game, a list of characters you can call on a cellphone Toriel gives you. All of these screens are fairly simplistic and behave about as you would expect, including the basics of reviewing your current stats, level, XP required to get to the next level and what equipment you are currently using.
However, you will find a lot more to enjoy while wandering around as just about everything can be looked over for clues, details, or even a little comedy, and most of it has multiple texts that will come up, so looking more then once (or even coming back later) can often be highly recommended. If you are not the type to do this, however, the game will not force you.
What it will force you to do from time to time is solve puzzles or enter combat as one would expect from an RPG game. Puzzles tend to be built into this top-down view requiring you to manipulate things or your location in such a way as to complete the defined goal before proceeding. These puzzles come in a suprising variety for the length of the game (I completed it in 9 hours, but depending on how you play, it’s finishable in 6), from ice sliding to hit a bunch of spots on the ground exactly once to deactivating timebombs, you will rarely be taking on the same thing for long.
When in battle, however, this game really stands out. The combat will start looking normal as you will see what you are fighting and a selection of options you can use on them: Fight, Act, Item, and Mercy. Fighting will let you select who you want to hit and open up a “minigame” of sorts requiring you to do some small event to hit the enemy and decide how often and/or how hard you do so. While some weapons have very similar challenges here, it will be up to you to find the one that fits you best and then find similar weapons to upgrade to.
Items behave about as you would expect from an RPG, letting you choose what you want to use and see how it effects the battle/characters, but things start to get weird at “Act.” Act will let you select the monster you want to act on and then give you a list of actions you can do that is specific to that monster type. For example, many dog-monsters have the option “Pet” in this list which will have different results depending on the monster (or even how the fight has gone so far). This could result in anything from in-battle effects to changing their entire behavior to even their name turning yellow in the lists, allowing you to effectively use the last button on this list “Mercy” to spare rather then kill your enemy.
And this Spare action is more important than you realize. By sparing an enemy, you are actively choosing to skip the XP (and potentially some money) to not kill the monster in front of you and improve the impression the main characters will have with you. Much of the meta of this game is deciding when and where not to do this, and it is one of the key ways you can influence how your game will proceed and ultimately end.
However you choose to act, if it didn’t end combat, it’s going to be the monster’s turn to attack, and rather then just list off if they hit you individually or not, the game will then shape the action box as needed and you will play a small “bullet hell” game where your reflexes and ability to recognize patterns will directly decide how much damage you take. In these moments, you will be moving a small heart around in a box (size depending on the attack) to dodge whatever the game throws at you for that monster. And this is also where the game actually uses color for gameplay instead of just image. While anything in white needs to be dodged, there are also blue, orange, and green items that appear as well. Blue and orange items can be touched without getting hurt, but you need to either be staying still when a blue object touches you or moving when it’s orange for this to occur, providing some extra depth to the reflex gameplay. Green, on the other hand, you want to touch, as these items are actually healing items. Add all this to some monsters changing behavior based on how you do with this, and there is a lot to this combat system you normally would never see anywhere near and RPG.
Bugs: I can not say I ran into a single bug while playing this game. The closest I can give is a recommendation on what to play it with. Simply put you will NOT want a modern controller for it. You either want something that feels like an old NES or NES controller (complete with a good rocker switch) or to play with the keyboard. The game was clearly not designed for the flexibility of a modern analog stick, resulting in the game feeling very squirrely when using this option. But aside from that detail, this game ran perfectly on anything I tried it on.
Overall: Undertale is perhaps one of the best recent surprises to pop out of the gaming scene, and manages to remain so well after you see a few screens of the game. In fact, it will keep you happily guessing what is going to happen next, as well as perhaps even what the hell just happened. This game really is simply a joy to play, and if you are a fan of console-style RPGs, but looking for something genuinely new, look no further. Undertale is that something new dressed up in VERY old-style graphics. And while it’s extremely short for an RPG, it’s also so dirt cheap that I find it hard to believe anyone will complain.
Source’s Listed System Requirements:
- 2GB RAM
- 128 MB VRAM
- Windows XP, Vista, 7, 8, or 10
- 200MB hard drive space
- AMD Phenom II 6X 1100T (6 core) processor running at 3.3 Ghz
- 8GB RAM
- Nvidia Geforce 760 GTX with 2GB VRAM
- and Windows 7