System: PC, OSX, Linux, PS4, PS Vita, Switch | Publisher: Toby Fox, 8-4
Developer: Toby Fox | Reviewed On: PS4
Since the birth of online games stores such as Steam, Xbox Game Store, PlayStation Store, these platforms have provided a gateway for independent game developers to release their titles whilst foregoing the expenses surrounded with producing the game physically. It can also help provide gamers with an easy means to obtain their product in the Internet age. Today, we’re taking a look into a game that was released in such a manner & became a unexpected cultural sensation.
In June 2013, indie developer Toby Fox launched a Kickstarter campaign to help finance his upcoming role-playing video game. In just 30 days, over 2,000 people pledged their support to Fox, raising over $50,000 in the process. When compared to the $4 million raised in 2 months for Kenji Inafume‘s Mega Man-inspired title (Mighty No. 9) that year, Fox’s funding may seem like just a drop in the bucket but fast forward three years, Fox’s game would go on to sell over an estimated 3.5 million copies worldwide on Steam alone. It secured 3 accolades from lucrative award shows & one of its most prominent characters would feature as a DLC character costume in Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros Ultimate.
The big question is how did this indie title turn into one of the most celebrated new IPs in recent years? Well the proof is in its bread & butter & this will be the subject of my review today. In our final game review of 2020, we take a look at the 2015 indie RPG game that won & stole the hearts of video game fans around the world. Welcome to my review of Toby Fox’s Undertale.
Undertale tells the story of a human child who, whilst exploring a nearby mountain, trips and falls into the entry point of another realm. This alternate world is inhabited by monsters who once co-existed with humans on the surface of Earth, but were banished underground after their civility broke down; erupting into a war between the two. With a natural aura of uncertainly present & certain monsters wishing to confront them, our protagonist must find a way they can safely return back to the surface. As you explore its multiple, diversely themed regions & encounter many of its residents, it’s up to the player to decide how our protagonist will approach these situations & the event that will inevitably arise.
While this tale is of a simple premise, what brings this story to life is the potency of its characters. From a puzzle & spaghetti-loving skeleton to an anime-loving reptilian doctor who struggles to express her feelings, you will become acquainted with an array of monsters who all project their personalities in a quirky & memorable way. Even when engaging in battles, conversing with shopkeepers or just walking up to background characters just to see what they have to say, their choices in dialogue allow them to stand out in simple ways that make them feel investable & believable without feeling forced by its premise.
You could be invited to visit the house of a melancholic ghost, end up in a flexing competition against a sea horse or even take a particular character on a date! There is an abundance of life & imagination flowing through these characters & the multiple encounters I witnessed made me feel a wave of anticipation, just to see what the next on-screen character would do or say.
The game also offers multiple storyline paths which, while not heavily diverging from its key events, offer added perspective on the world, its history & its inhabitants; all of them worth seeking out. It’s also surprising how the tone of the game can be drastically different with each differing path. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult for me to dive deeper into this without spoiling any key moments, for those who have yet to play this. But to summarise, I am in awe of what the game provides in this aspect. The world that has been created is full of life & it promotes this simple story into a memorable journey.
With its roots set in RPG gameplay, the game naturally features many classic mechanics & traits that sees you explore an open world from a top-down perspective, strike up conversations with varying characters, buy items to aid you in battles, solving various puzzles & engage in random battle encounters & boss battles. Whilst it may sound like your paint-by-numbers role-playing experience, the game implements some interesting choices to give it a sense of uniqueness.
First, when you engage in a battle, you are given the atypical options to fight, use items or run away. The damage of attacks is determined using a time-based button system & successfully defeating enemies will earn you EXP points. There is a small element of customisation where you can pick up varying armour and weapons that will allow you to increase your attacking power & defence throughout the game. The most interesting option in battle is the ability to talk to enemies. Now you're probably thinking after many years of RPG games enforcing the mantra of "enemies must fight each other", why would this be necessary? This is a question the game finds an effective solution for.
Inspired by this prospect, previously featured in games such as Shin Megami Tensei, Undertale embraces this speech mechanic by allowing you to select actions that you wouldn’t realistically choose in your typical encounter, but can help to circumvent a situation without resorting to violence. Whilst the options available will be specific to each enemy type, there is a wide variety of options present including hugging, laughing, cleaning, flirting, flexing and more! Selecting the right options will satisfy the enemy to a point where you can spare them; winning the encounter & rewarding you with money.
It may seem very unfair in hindsight that you don’t earn any EXP points for sparing enemies, but trust me; everything in this game happens for a reason. The reality is you can complete this game without ever laying a single finger on an enemy. Even the boss battles! This approach of pacifism is a rare trait in the genre & I felt that making the right conversation choices often required more focus when compared to its attack system.
One of the game’s key strengths is that it understands its core audience, so naturally it throws numerous moments in its dialogue & events that attempt to break the fourth wall; all of which felt unexpectedly trivial when compared & sometimes, even portrayed as a parody. One small example would be when I asked a monster to transport me to another area & they ended up giving me money! It’s able to maintain its integrity using this formula as a result, creating numerous entertaining encounters that further compliment this wholesome journey.
When it comes to defending yourself, the game chooses to do more than just allow the enemy to perform a single attack that deals X amount of damage. It offers you the opportunity to evade damage in a unique way, taking inspiration from shoot-em-up arcade games. After performing your action, you will be in control with a small heart within a boxed area where you will engage in brief mini-games that forces you to avoid being harmed by its inbound obstacles and projectiles. Whilst this sounds pretty simple, later encounters will require an element of skill & precision with a healthy number of appropriate items, in order to gain victory in these encounters. Boss battles can also put your heart under certain ailments, forcing you to work within the limitations you are faced with.
The crème de la crème of this game is its ecosystem & aforementioned multiple paths. In total, there are primarily three storyline routes you can take; all drastically different depending on your choices & all taking approximately 6 hours to complete. This divergence all begins at the beginning of the game & without providing direct correlation, one path gave me one of the toughest final boss encounters I've experienced in years. Another completely shocked me with an encounter I wouldn’t have imagined if I tried & the final path concluded in an emotionally-infused final chapter that moved me in a way I never expected.
My personal recommendation to first-time players is not to read too much into this. Simply play how you want to on your first run & only then, seek out & play through the remaining paths once you’ve completed it once...well, there is a pinch of salt to consider with this suggestion; the game will remember your actions, every single one. Certain key moments will have an impact on the world & how its characters interact with you. There were times that the game guilt-tripped me for executing a specific action, which made me feel very uncomfortable.
What is even scarier is that if you choose to commit to a particular path until its conclusion, the game will ensure that any of your future playthroughs will be tainted. I can’t go too much into this but I will say that on reflection, it’s a chilling prospect but a landmark implementation.
Finally, the game includes numerous minor moments & hidden encounters that are just waiting to be uncovered, making for some entertaining situations. Whether it be the mysterious locked door in the Snowdin Forest or a hidden shrine dedicated to the Annoying Dog, these moments serve to satisfy anyone with a thirst of curiosity. Even when you’ve played through the game before or re-visiting a situation because you died, certain actions are acknowledged & carry other which characters may recognise, adapting their dialogue accordingly.
Conversations you’ve witnessed before are changed to make them quicker because the characters will be aware of what they’ve said to you previously. It was a pleasant surprise that caught me off guard & the sum of all of these aspects weirdly convinced me that the game was alive, watching me closely.
Moving onto its presentation, the game's 8-bit aesthetic evidently takes inspiration from 20th century games in the genre; specifically Ape Inc. & HAL Labatory’s 1994 Super Nintendo gem, Earthbound. Whilst some people may be put off by this choice in aesthetic, there are moments when the game truly shines as a result of this choice. From the glowing blue rivers in its Waterfall region to the detailed & wintry Christmas setting of the town of Snowdin (Hahaha! ...get it?), it showcases a beautiful array of pixelated environments & set pieces with its characters creatively crafted. Nothing felt repeated for the sake of convenience & its colour palette choice had mixed positive results; from perfectly suited rooms to beautiful pixelated scenery.
The game's soundtrack also aligns with this mindset, presenting a flurry of tracks that includes catchy chip-tune music, stripped-back melodic pieces, fear-inducing synths & light-hearted tones that perfectly suit each situation the game presents. For days, tracks like ‘Bonetrousle’ & ‘Megalovania’ stuck to my brain like bubble-gum while the song ‘Reunited’ threw me into a melancholic state; aware of the emotionally driven moment I previously experienced. For a soundtrack containing over 100 songs & soundbites without a single one feeling out of place or feeling half-baked, this gets a worthy stamp of approval from me.
Undertale is a distinguishable RPG experience that engulfed me with a flash flood of memorable moments; from start to finish, to restart to finish. It deconstructs the standards of role-playing games by implementing mechanics that whilst some go against the norm, work effectively in its favour; for both fans & newcomers to the genre. Each of its storyline paths will reward you with a differing sense of accomplishment & the game’s impressive ability to cognitively monitor & give you feedback on your experience, it will either immerse you further into its premise or hold you accountable for your actions; something only a small number of games can pull off to a high degree.
Its gameplay presents a competitive challenge coupled with a dense story extended across multiple storyline paths, a vibrant world filled of personality & complimented by a rich cast of eccentric & likeable characters. Its presentation style acts as a tribute to the honourable games that inspired its existence, topped with a beautifully composed soundtrack that will play with your emotions like modelling clay. To think that this game was primarily crafted by a single developer, it’s an impressive accomplishment & a testament that not every game needs to be designed to a AAA standard or with the equivalent funding, in order to deliver a distinctive & enthralling experience that can resonate with players.
It’s a must-play in my eyes & would recommend this title to anyone seeking a uniquely memorable & passionately-crafted video game experience.