Undertale Review — Weaponizing Pacifism

Eat your heart out, Vash the Stampede.

You know, when I saw one of my Steam friends had bought Undertale, looked up that it was an RPG reminiscent of Earthbound, then put it on my wishlist with the intention to play it one day, I had no idea at the time that its popularity would cause an explosion bigger than anything Rocket League-related. I just figured it was a fun tribute game not unlike Shovel Knight, but within a few weeks, it had become recognized as one of the most emotionally affecting games in years with a story that puts The Beginner’s Guide’s to shame. And whilst I found The Beginner’s Guide to be a five-dollar game that was being sold for ten (it takes half the game for Davey Wreden to stop jizzing all over his friend’s old stuff), I do like my quirky RPGs and the game was short according to most sources, so I finally worked up the nerve to overcome the massive praise that few games could ever actually live up to and got to playing it this weekend. Can’t say I worship the thing, but that doesn’t change the fact that Undertale is definitely game-of-the-year material and you should give it a try if you haven’t already.

I should probably start by saying that Undertale isn’t for everyone, even by usual video game standards. The graphics are crap, the game has a bit of trouble deciding whether to go with retro music or not, and considering how it’s basically Earthbound for a new generation – with a good helping of Wario Ware thrown into the mix – that means you’ve got to be able to enjoy quirky humor to really appreciate what it’s going for. Also, whilst I don’t mind the game not holding my hand for me, my time was limited and it wasn’t until after I killed a frog that I realized doing so would lock me out of seeing the ending that truly made the game shine – unless you’re one of those dicks who always pick the dark side options in Knights of the Old Republic. So I had to make frequent use of the Wikipedia page in order to learn how to get through enemies and even had to start a new game two hours in in order to erase my mistakes. But y’know what? It was worth it just to experience Undertale’s narrative chops

The story is pretty much both a criticism and a tribute to RPGs, except with a tone completely opposite The Sith Lords’ grim atmosphere yet its core has just as much balls. You are a young boy or girl (I can’t quite tell from the art) who was thrown into a world of monsters and must find your way back to the human world whilst braving the dangers the game throws at you. However, things become complicated when you realize that the inhabitants you encounter aren’t as black and white as they appear to be and depending on how you deal with them, you’ll either discover the true nature of the monster world or the fact that you have no soul. And you’d have to have no soul to not appreciate the game’s humor, because it generally made me laugh. The skeleton brothers in particular always at least put a smile on my face whenever they were on-screen.

I’m trying hard not to spoil anything major in this review, but I will say that you need to figure out the battle system quickly if you want to get far into the game because it’s pretty much the only challenging thing about it and how you use it determines the ending. It’s a mix of turn-based combat and bullet shooters where you can either fight monsters with Mario RPG-like timed hits or try to reason with them ala a Shin Megami Tensei game when it’s your turn, and dodge their attacks by moving a heart cursor away from various incoming fire when it’s their turn. I don’t think I have to clarify what you should do if you’re aiming for either a good or a bad ending, but I will spoil for you that no matter what, you have to use turn-based combat during the final boss fights, so make sure you’re not playing with carpal tunnel syndrome in your right hand. Also, I should clarify that I aimed for the good ending. Mostly because I hate disappointing characters I’ve grown fond of and partly because the game punishes you for doing the bad ending – which is the main reason why I’m not as down on its existence as I am with most games that use the moral choice aspect.

Because good god do I hate moral choices in video games, mostly because I hate being evil in any game that has it. I once played the dark side path in The Sith Lords and not only did I not enjoy myself, but the power-ups I gained for sticking to the dark side weren’t even that good. Not only does the evil side usually involve major disagreements with characters I’d rather not have disagree with me, but most of the time it doesn’t even make sense. Since the game has to progress naturally regardless of your pick, it tends to limit the characterization of your main, making them look like spoiled brats when they start killing innocent people rather than Darth Vader…oh wait.

Your lead usually isn’t exactly a paragon of charisma when he’s going for the light side either, but generally that’s alleviated by the supporting cast being well-written, and all the good ones are always on the light side. And Undertale is no exception. There is only one person on your side if you choose to be evil, he doesn’t even show up until the end of the game, and most importantly of all, he’ll screw you over in a way that affects your game permanently short of editing the files yourself. So in short, Undertale has the option to go for the bad ending whilst punishing anybody who chooses to go for it. Um…whilst I can understand resenting the player for being a cold-hearted murderer, why did you even provide the option in the first place? That’s like a police officer giving a suspect a gun whilst warning him that if he ever uses it, he’ll be thrown in jail.

But ignoring that ending’s existence, the good ending might be a little cheesy on paper, but in practice it really got to me like no other ending of its kind has in years. It’s basically the go-to example I’d use in regards to how to execute that sort of happy ending right, because of its believable representation of seeing the good in people and how it’s driven by strong funny characters I’ve grown to like over time. And truthfully, without it, Undertale would just be a serviceable/decent game at best that I’d probably just occasionally remember over time for its humor whilst never playing it again like Earthworm Jim. Aside from the combat, there’s not much complexity to Undertale’s gameplay. The puzzles are really simple and the game world is pretty small with only four major locations. You won’t be utilizing shops very often and you can’t even sell anything to them as part of Undertale’s RPG piss-take.

But y’know what? That’s like saying Silent Hill wouldn’t be nearly as enjoyable without the fog…which did happen but let’s stay on subject. Undertale’s overall story does exist within the game and I can’t help but want to experience it again and again whenever I have some free time and Youtube videos just aren’t scratching that itch. Funny, heartfelt, subversive, tongue-in-cheek, and above all, it’s good. Last I checked, people enjoy things that are good. And also last I checked, I’m still a person – although I have been running into more and more signs that I’m actually a Replicant as of late.

PS: I should probably get to actually playing Earthbound some time, huh?

9 responses to “Undertale Review — Weaponizing Pacifism

  1. Sounds interesting. Personally, I think that if you give the players moral choices you should have to go all the way – it’s a ROLE playing game, so if players want to interpret the role of an evil, ambitious jerk aspiring to become a dark overlord, you should provide them with consequences that are coherent with them doing so. Including at times giving them better rewards. In most cases it would make much more sense that the EVIL guy would be the one getting more money, powerful weapons and generally having an easy time than the good one. Some games actually make it so (Dishonored becomes actually 10x harder to finish if you’re going for the good ending, though that has little effect on the story itself that I know of). KOTOR is a total joke, both for the reasons you mentioned, because of how stupidly and needlessly evil the dark side options are, and how in fact being dark side induces plot holes (most notably, why does the whole Jedi council fall for it and train you anyway if not only they see you clearly being ambitious, cruel and a jerk but *spoiler* they also know where you come from so should know where THAT is going?).

    • Undertale is definitely worth the ten bucks to play it at the very least. I haven’t even given light to a tenth of the many jokes/secrets in the thing. For example, if you buy a spider item really early in the game, you can get past a certain boss in the last section without having to get hit seventeen times.

      • Just replying here to mention I just got it and started playing it. And… dunno, the whole thing really feels a bit *too* goody to be enjoyable. I guess I’m pretty worried about these supposed “consequences” of bad runs and how the whole thing stores information about your previous saves anyway, but at the same time I really can’t stand too much having to pick always the most peaceful option, even when a random jerk starts trying to kill me for no reason at all. It feels a bit too forced imho – if the monsters were so peaceful and nice to begin with why would they even START picking fights like that? I know they fear me but even in the most xenophobic of settings it ain’t like the residents will start bashing immigrants on the head with a stick on sight, usually. It would be nice if for example being peaceful actually meant having to fight less or not at all (maybe that’s the case and I just haven’t gotten the full effect yet).

      • It’s not the most realistic thing ever, but eh. Infamous had people throw rocks at you despite the fact that they’ve seen what you can do with your lightning powers if you go for the evil side.

      • Ah, yeah, I mean, it’s not like we really have a *better* example to compare. I suppose my annoyance spawns from the fact that I’d expect the game to acknowledge that peace is a two-way road and all the goodwill in the world can help only if there’s at least a bit of an attempt on the other side as well. It would actually make the game’s point about pacifism more compelling rather than making it feel a bit like a gimmick that I pursue merely because people told me that’s how I get the most interesting ending.