Undertale’s clever understanding of the RPG mindset and fantastic writing make it an unforgettable experience unique to games.
Update: Undertale is now available for Nintendo Switch. The game is identical visually and content-wise, except for some minor tweaks over the 2017 PlayStation 4 release (and the original 2015 Windows/OSX version). Most notably, the Switch version adds a new miniboss encounter not found in the previous versions. Our original review from August 15, 2017 follows.
Note: the review contains some small spoilers for Undertale.
I finished my first playthrough of Undertale in stunned silence. My journey had begun with dumb puns and silly puzzles, but the end affected me in a way I never expected. That’s kind of Undertale’s specialty — playing with our expectations of what an RPG should be, subverting them, and using them to drive a story unique to what games can do. Its strong writing, integration of gameplay with storytelling, and acute understanding of its audience all build to something that surprises at every turn.
As a lone human fallen into an underground world that serves as a prison for monsters, I had my journey laid out for me, as most RPG protagonists do. For my first playthrough I took a pacifist approach, being as kind and merciful as possible as I searched for a way back to the surface. But I made a mistake: I accidentally killed a monster in the beginning. So I restarted without saving, as I would in any other game when I needed a do-over. Except… things were different this time. Dialogue had changed to reflect that I’d seen her die. Then Flowey, Undertale’s chaotic evil, fourth wall-breaking flower, tore into me for having the gall to abuse the power of the save state.
Gaming the System
Undertale expected me to have played RPGs before and played with those conventions in unexpected ways. That first berating from Flowey shaped the rest of my experience — I learned I couldn’t bank on a soft reset, so I had to tread carefully. Everything I did mattered. That clever manipulation of gameplay mechanics adds weight to a story that couldn’t have been told in any other way or medium. Undertale has to be a game, and that’s the key to its brilliance.
Its dodging-based combat minigames especially rely on that concept. Boss battles consistently subverted my expectations, even after I thought I’d figured everything out, but even run-of-the-mill random encounters are closely intertwined with storytelling and worldbuilding. Every enemy has a unique personality expressed both through combat and non-combative options. In my pacifist run I ended up talking to a lot of monsters, giving out hugs, and even (and especially) flirting with them to avoid killing them. In order to spare a monster that wanted to flirt but didn’t want to admit it, I had to “get close but not too close.” That option changed the rules of combat so that I had to narrowly dodge incoming projectiles… until the monster blushed so much that it stopped fighting.
Undertale has to be a game, and that’s the key to its brilliance.
There are tons of jokes that appeal to internet nerds, and I often felt like Undertale was talking directly to me, like it knew what I was thinking. An anime-loving character’s “selfie,” for example, is actually a picture of a garbage can with pink sparkle filters over it (and speaking from experience, this is very accurate). I especially love Undertale’s humor when it has something to say, however subtle. I entered a snail race (called Thundersnail) and was told to press Z repeatedly to encourage my snail to win. I spammed Z until she burst into flames, and the Thundersnail organizer told me that “all that pressure to succeed really got to her.” It was, like many of Undertale’s one-off jokes, extremely relatable — and knowing and predicting its audience is one of Undertale’s biggest strengths.
Monsters Are People Too
Undertale’s writing is consistently funny, but it can also be touching. Small, semi-hidden notes and dialogue enrich the world and build on an already compelling story of humanity and morality. A favorite was a series of “echo flowers” in a beautiful, ethereal hallway that repeated snippets of an overhead conversation. A monster didn’t want to share her greatest wish — that one day she would climb the mountain that traps all the monsters underground and look out at the world — for fear of being laughed at, and although her friend promised they wouldn’t, the friend ended up laughing anyway. It was silly, until the last flower repeated: “Sorry, it’s just funny… That’s my wish too.”
Experiencing the depth of the monsters’ hopes and dreams is crucial to Undertale’s exploration of morality, personhood, and conflict. Different monsters talk about each other in front of you, so once I met them I got to discover who they actually were, as opposed to what their reputations suggested. Most of the main characters are also very well developed with consistent personalities across different dialogue and story routes. It made it hard for me to summon the aggression to attack any of them — and that’s precisely the point. When I was trying to go for a more violent run, fighting monsters I’d once flirted with made Undertale’s message about humanity hit even harder.
Some fights can be frustrating or even tedious, however, at least at first. In a violent playthrough, I had to grind quite a bit to meet certain story requirements and grew tired of it after a while. Fighting enemy after enemy replaced the puzzles in the peaceful runs, however, and the tradeoff felt very balanced and ultimately meaningful to the story. I also found myself trudging back through areas I had already cleared just so I could beat a boss or get an item, and while it was absolutely worth it in the end, I wasn’t terribly excited to do it. At one point I had run out of gold and needed to buy healing items, and the only shop that would buy items off of me was about a 10 minute walk away. (The other shopkeepers don’t buy items because they don’t want your trash.)
That said, I don’t regret any of the extra time I spent walking around, because I got to find things like Thundersnail and the echo flowers. It’s the little details that make Undertale so special, and I wanted to see them all. Every one of them feels deliberate — long sections of dialogue at the beginning and certain fights can be slow, but they are necessary for establishing the characters in a way that only games can do. In a different run, underwhelming boss battles turn mournful because of what one-hit KOs imply in the world. It was Undertale’s ongoing, well-woven theme of determination that kept me playing and replaying.
Even though the art isn’t always pretty — it’s often ugly, even — Undertale is an incredibly expressive game from start to finish, making up for visual limitations with excellent music and charming animations. It’s also gender- and sexuality-inclusive in a very real, noticeable way. Every small detail reveals an intimate understanding of its audience, and that is essential to what makes Undertale’s commentary on personhood so effective.
Playstation 4 Review, August 15 2017
By Brendan Graeber
After playing through Undertale on PS4, I’m happy to report that everything was ported over to console perfectly (including the clever takes on saved games and more). The only real additions I spotted are on the periphery, like being able to set a background to the centered 4:3 ratio screen, and the dynamically changing art is a nice touch. You can also choose to navigate both the world and in combat using either analogue stick or D-pad. Both work well, but the sensitivity of the stick in certain fights had me preferring the buttons to the stick.