Thoughts On Undertale

My friend has been talking about Undertale a lot recently. You don’t have to look far to find a pouring of praise for the game either. It even managed to win the ‘best game’ contest on GameFAQs. It’s very difficult not to set your expectations high in wake of this and of course I just had to give it a go myself. At first I was sceptical, but after getting past the tutorial it managed to win me over. It has a lot of charm to it. Unfortunately I found the ending to be disappointing, which left me feeling gutted because of how much I’d enjoyed it up to that point. So here is an account of my feelings towards the game, the good and the bad. There will be spoilers so if you haven’t played it yet stop reading and go check it out. I highly recommend it and there’s a very good reason for why this game has had such a strong impact on so many people. I also advice sticking with the game until achieving the true pacifist ending, as you won’t be getting the most out of the experience otherwise.

In short, what makes Undertale good is that it has great humour and likeable characters. By the end I felt really invested in the game, which just goes to show that you don’t need amazing graphics to achieve this. In fact, the art style really grew on me; I know that some people find it to be off-putting, but it compliments the game well. The simplicity of it works better with the humour and allows us to project onto the characters more easily. Some of the boss fights actually looked pretty cool. If I’m going to make any sort of a criticism for it, it’s just that the art didn’t always feel consistent and some parts look much better than others. My favourite part of the game however, is the amazingly catchy soundtrack.

One of the most distinguishing features of Undertale is the bullet hell battle system. I’m not normally a fan of this type of gameplay, but I actually really enjoyed Undertale’s take on this. I loved how this system helped to define the characters, as the different attacks reflect their personalities. This is an improvement over other RPGs (such as Final Fantasy) where you grind through hordes of enemies with little thought. As well as this there seems to be a lot of praise for turn-based systems that allow the player to interact after choosing an action (the timing in South Park: The Stick Of Truth for example.) It helps us to feel like we have more control over the outcome of the battle and this can heighten our engagement.

Unfortunately, the strengths of the battle system also feels like its drawback. It felt too scripted to me, with the sequence of attacks happening in a similar order every single time. While having each battle feel completely original is a wonderful idea, I also think it’d be unfeasible in most RPGs. I noticed that there were far fewer monster encounters than in other games, because it’d take more time to design each one. I’ve seen criticisms for the short length of Undertale, but it makes sense considering the level of detail in each battle and how it branches as a narrative. The system also feels too simplistic. There weren’t many options to choose between and very little strategy to it. While I think it’s an interesting direction to take a turn-based battle system, some of us enjoy them because of the strategy that comes from a wide selection of options. It changes its own rules mid-battle sometimes as well. It felt more like a form of scripted expression for the narrative, rather than a solid and concrete system with set rules.

I didn’t think the ability to spare a monster was without faults either. While some of the designs and names helped to determine the right action to take, others felt more like a process of trail and error rather than a fun problem to solve. I didn’t find there to be enough feedback to know whether my actions were working or not either. Feedback is really important in a game as it directs our behaviour and also feels more satisfying (this problem is explained in Kill Screen’s ‘Undertale’s not as peaceful as it pretends.‘) A lot of the main battles seemed to involve selecting ‘spare’ or health items over and over while patiently waiting for them to end. I didn’t always mind that it took a while though, as it enabled me to spend more time listening to the awesome music.

Arguably, the narrative is also one of Undertale’s strong points, and while it succeeded for me in regards to the attachment I felt for the characters I’m personally not a fan of the overall direction of the story. I was reaching a point of thinking that I could possibly add this game to my list of absolute favourites, but the ending and meta aspects of it left me feeling bewildered (not helped by the fake crashes.) I can see why a lot of people find it to be thought provoking and it certainly is memorable, but how you interpret it is probably dependant on the type of gamer you are. A review I’d read beforehand might have miss-sold the experience to me, as it claimed that you could befriend or make enemies with any of the monsters and so I was expecting a lot of choice and multiple outcomes – but the first ending I got was incredibly unsatisfying. Ordinarily I don’t always go straight back to a game after feeling like I’ve completed one playthrough, but I looked up the endings and found out that replaying is an important part of this game. Turns out there is a neutral ending, a genocide one and a true pacifist one, with a few variations on each. In order to get a better ending you do have to go through a neutral one first. It’s possible to re-load the save to get there if you’ve done everything right, but as I hadn’t I had to restart the game over. I’m glad I went through the effort to do this as the new ending was much better and also revealed important details about the narrative. I have to admit, I can be quite soppy when it comes to stories about friendship.

The second ending I got made up for some of the frustration I felt with the first one, but overall I’m not too keen on this way of structuring a game with obvious good/bad, right/wrong endings. From what I gather the other endings are less fun and satisfying to get through. Apparently the genocide run can leave you feeling incredibly guilty too. As well as this Undertale remembers your choices, even in later playthroughs (as explained in this video ‘Good Game Design – Undertale: the “Real Morality” Principle‘.) Killing everybody in one run actually leaves a mark on your game from then on (although from what I hear it’s not too big a deal, but if you’re the type to strongly invest in a story it could be unsettling.) While a lot of choice was available to me, I didn’t feel free to develop my character how I wanted when the game obviously had an ideal path in mind for me. I didn’t notice that much of a difference between both of my playthroughs (I was trying my best to be nice each time,) but there were entire new sections of gameplay on the true pacifist route. Perhaps it’s just me being stuck in my ways, but it doesn’t seem right to me to withhold important parts of the narrative that can only be found by players that have the completionist mindset, and I have noticed that a lot of criticism comes from the people that haven’t done the true pacifist ending. On the other hand, the game seems to berate completionists if they follow the game up with a genocide run.

Another niggle that compounds the problem is that the requirements to get the true pacifist ending are too precise. It’s not difficult to achieve, but I was still learning how to play the first time through and so killed a couple of monsters. They kept attacking me even after I tried to talk them down so it felt more like self-defence. As far as I know, as soon as you make a mistake you’re locked out of being able to get the good ending. I looked up a guide on my second attempt to ensure I didn’t do anything wrong. This is a contrast to how I’ve played other RPGs, like Dragon Age: Origins for instance, as in that one I could remember the different things I’d done and was curious enough to experiment. There wasn’t this feeling that I could get a good or a bad ending, so there was no concern that I might make a mistake. The morality behind Undertale also feels a little too obvious and heavy handed in places, with themes like forgiveness and redemption lacking.

Since getting the better ending my game now launches with some text about how the characters are all happy and I should think carefully before resetting. Other games usually reward players that are willing to put in the additional effort to see all of the content, while Undertale seems to want to deter you from this (explained in this video by GamerFox24601.) It’s not necessarily a bad thing to want to get a lot of value out of a game however, but just the way in which the world of Undertale works. I personally feel satisfied that I have fully completed the game knowing that I got the best ending and everything is tied up in a positive way. It would feel less complete to alter my one save to attempt a genocide run and undoing everything else I’ve accomplished.

Many of the qualms I have about Undertale are probably justified somehow by the story. I feel like mechanics and story should compliment each other well, whereas Undertale feels like it has made sacrifices to its mechanics to support its narrative and meaning. Whether this is good or bad really depends on what you want to get out of your games. Undertale was a unique experience for me that I found really interesting. After playing I became fascinated by it and wanted to find out more. I think there are elements of it that could definitely help to inspire other games (see the video ‘4 Ways Undertale Sets The Bar For Future RPGs‘), but I personally don’t want to see other RPGs replicating it outright. Undertale feels special because it’s a one off and doesn’t have to be the mark of a new trend. As a game built by a solo developer, its success is incredibly impressive. Oh and I fully approve of the dogs.




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About wallcat

I have a strong passion for computing. In particular programming for which I am able to use a variety of languages including C++, Visual C#, Blitz Basic, Actionscript 2.0, Python and Lua. I also enjoy web-design and have some knowledge of HTML/CSS, PHP/SQL and Javascript. As well as programming I have a strong background in art and enjoy drawing in my spare time. When I’m not sat at my computer I like to keep fit by going to the gym or using my exercise ball.

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