Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Undertale Review (PS4)

Experiencing a game like Undertale for the first time two years after it debuted and has built up a rabid cult following clouds your perceptions of it a bit. I had to remind myself a few times that it isn’t the game that is annoying and up its own ass, it’s the terrible fanbase that has effectively ruined it for everyone else with endless memes and references and overzealous proselytizing of all that is Undertale. Put down your pitchforks, Undertale fans, now on to the good stuff. With that off my chest, when you ignore all of that nonsense and focus on the game itself, Undertale actually is pretty good. Its unique take on old RPG tropes really does make Undertale a standout experience and the humor and writing is wildly successful in creating a world full of characters you really care about. For Undertale to win me over, someone who is instinctively and reflexively pessimistic about things that get too popular too fast, is quite an accomplishment. See our full PS4 Undertale review for all of the details.

Game Details

  • Publisher: Toby Fox                 
  • Developer: Toby Fox
  • ESRB Rating: “E10” for Everyone 10+
  • Genre: RPG
  • Pros: Unique twist on RPG tropes; likeable characters; nice presentation
  • Cons: Puns; so-so combat system
  • MSRP: $15

Undertale is the story of a human child that falls into the underground world of monsters. The goal is to escape from the underwold and return to the human world, but leaving is a little more complicated than simply passing through the barrier that seals the monsters inside. Along the way you meet a wild cast of monsters including pun-spouting skeletons, spiders selling baked goods, a tsundere airplane, a huge amount of very good dogs, a killer robot, a weeaboo, and many more memorable characters.

What makes Undertale interesting is that your choices along the way greatly affect the story. Not in a fake Telltale Games “choices matter … sort of … not really” way. I’m talking dramatic changes in story direction and character interaction and dialogue and all sorts of stuff. What you do in Undertale really actually matters and every interaction has weight that carries all the way through to the ending. Undertale challenges the very foundations of the RPG genre and seeing just how drastically one action can affect an entire playthrough is fascinating.

The way Undertale accomplishes this is dramatically changing the typical turn-based JRPG battle system. You can still choose to fight enemies, of course, but you can also talk to them. Or flirt with them. Or even ditch the lame ones. This all leads to the ability to spare enemies rather than fighting or simply fleeing from battle whenever possible. You don’t have to kill anything in Undertale if you don’t to. In fact, you don’t even have to equip weapons or armor you find along the way at all. Or you can fight and kill everything you see. Or just play it by ear and do whatever you want. It is a fantastically unique system that is unlike anything you’ve ever played. It also means Undertale has fantastic replay value as it has multiple endings and tons of secrets to find.

While I do enjoy the end results of the interactions with monsters, the actual battles are pretty underwhelming. In your turn of the battle you choose options from a menu like any other game, but the enemy turn changes you into a heart that has to dodge around attacks in a tiny box like a bullet hell shoot-em-up game. If your heart touches an enemy attack, you take damage. Every enemy has different bullet patterns and abilities – as well as different likes and dislikes that impact your conversation options – but I don’t find this mechanic to be particularly fun. Boss monsters are definitely more interesting and have more unique mechanics, but the random battles you fight against the same handful of fodder monsters as you wander around aren’t especially good.

The game also has some pacing issues that hinder things a bit. Random battles against repeated bland enemies lose their luster very quickly. Talking to characters is also like Russian roulette because you might find some new interesting funny character that is a shining beacon of hope and happiness in an otherwise bleak world, but you also might run into boring bland awkward lame loser nobodies that add nothing to the world and rant on for far too long. I suppose that is realistic, and it’s just like every other RPG, but when the bright spots are as wonderful as they are in Undertale it makes the bad points seem even worse. Also, puns are bad.  

The presentation in Undertale is one of its most recognizable features. It looks like an 8-bit NES RPG with simple sprites for everything, but it is very consistent in how everything is presented so it is easy to tell exactly what you’re looking at. The music is also a distinctly retro RPG style, but not necessarily 8-bit bleeps and bloops. Overall, the presentation is undeniably fantastic. I also have to say I really enjoy the new PS4 feature of dynamic borders around the screen that change depending on what area of the game you’re in.

Undertale is one of the most unique gaming experiences you’ll ever have because it takes your expectations and totally and thoroughly twists them into something new. With mostly great characters, oftentimes funny writing, and choices that actually matter, it is easy to see why so many people fell so fanatically in love with Undertale. As I said at the top of the review, I was extremely skeptical of Undertale, but I ended up really enjoying it. If you fall into that same category, give it a try. It’s so charming and so unique and so well executed that you need to see what the fuss is about for yourself. Buy it.