The first thing that was probably spoiled for potential Undertale players is that most things in the game are spoilers. So be warned; I’m going to be discussing basically every aspect of the game and its plot.
I’ll start by saying that I do not regret playing the game. It has many charming qualities including excellent music, a quirky battle system, and humorous writing (especially early on). What I do regret is the state of the game as a whole. while its unique collection of elements pretty much guarantees a massive internet fan base, those elements do not work well enough together to create a real experience for the ages.
My first criticisms will be the more mundane gameplay ones. As a person who shies away from turn-based games outside of the original Pokemon titles and card games in favor of action, I can tell you that certain moments in the game felt so counter-intuitive as to prove extremely frustrating. I imagine the Earthbound (read: any nonsensical early jrpg) crowd will not have that many problems with this, but again, that’s not me. The only reason I told myself I would go through with Undertale in the first place was the dodging mini-game that spiced up the battles.
There was definitely a strange difficulty spike near the end. I coasted through most of the game using only the occasional healing item thanks to the frequent save points (always a plus in my opinion), but found that on the last two bosses (Mettaton and the king in this initial playthrough) I died several times each. I use a controller for all my games and I’m not sure if a mouse would have made it easier to dodge but I would never endure the horrors of that control scheme for anything other than a point-and-click adventure game (W, A, S, and D don’t even line up people! Wake up!)
Getting a little more figurative with my complaints, I had difficulty understanding the message the game was trying to communicate to me on several occasions. I had been lured into trying the game by the talk of being able to combat enemies or talk your way out of battle in any situation. While that was mostly true, there were some fights where I simply did not understand or receive the cues for a peaceful solution. I was able to convince Papyrus not to fight after letting him kill me three times, but letting enemies win was a time-wasting idea in every other fight I encountered.
Again, being raised on pokemon has conditioned me in certain ways. When I see a flee button, I assume only a chance of success. Apparently, there were a couple of times I could only avoid killing by fleeing. I had assumed I would be allowed to talk my way out of everything, so I was left sad and confused when I felt forced to kill both Toriel and Undyne and wondered if those were required deaths where the characters would somehow return.
It went against all my instincts to enter a battle with a character who had been chasing me for an entire level, in a climactic space with more detail than most of the environments in the game, and hit the flee button. That’s like going left in Mario. If you’ve played you know I was incorrect. I wound up with a neutral ending rather than the pacifist one I had intended.
(This is the only spot I could find to insert one of my biggest praises of the game: the altering of the battle mini-game with certain conversations. I wish there was a lot less confusion over what route was the most passive and a lot more slowing enemy bullet speed when their self esteem goes down.)
In fact the ending I got was extremely disappointing. The king gave in and all looked to be turning out okay, but then he was destroyed by the sadistic flower from the beginning of the game. The flower then promptly insulted me and shut the game down.
This is the point where I went ahead and spoiled basically everything else about the game by searching a wiki. Though I use the term ‘spoiling’, it did not have that effect on me because I did not intend to play again. Revealing much of the remaining content in the game would have required a so-called ‘genocidal’ run, something I have absolutely no interest in. One of my few criticisms of the Bioshock franchise was how pointless the decisions were because I have no incentive to act evil. (Note I said evil and not selfish or anti-heroic, because I could be convinced to act that way in certain games.
This is the biggest point of disconnect between me and Undertale. It wants me to obsess. It wants me to dig my fingernails into the humus of its persona, its fledgling legacy, and even its code to get full satisfaction. It’s the kind of thing that deifies the game in the eyes of certain fans (the ones who dug up a construction site for The Binding of Isaac: Afterbirth and put mostly-black screens through a ton of filters for Five Nights at Freddy’s). For me that is asking too much. I’ve played many games that earnestly present their singular story upfront and passionately; in fact, it’s the default. I don’t see how Undertale’s revisionist content enhances any sort of emotional payoff.
It breaks the the fourth wall and presents characters that can confront you with the sins of your past lives. While interesting and perhaps even unsettling, you should stop and ask yourself what good that does in a narrative sense. What is Undertale trying to say with its alternate timelines/dimensions/saves? If its ultimate goal is to get me to care about the characters, why should I? All I have to do is restart and the character will go through the motions again, even remembering what has happened before.
This is different from my personal pick for best entertainment product of all time: Journey. In Journey, the character’s travel is obviously cyclical, but there’s no shenanigans with the actual mechanics of storing events on your hardware. Journey’s cycle adds to its message: humans are tragic but hopeful figures that may not be doomed to repeat themselves, but certainly have. What’s the point in Undetale? what’s the message? Reality changing is routine for the monsters, so where is the permanence in any decision? (I’ve often cited this as a criticism of the endless revisionism of mainstream superhero comics, where there are so many versions of a single character that any of the stories about them become meaningless. They can never be allowed to truly change, age, or die.)
It gets even harder to take them seriously when the characters’ actual physical design gets in the way of that. If you want me to feel honest powerful emotions, you probably shouldn’t have me fight a commercial jet in a wig making jokes about anime. Undertale’s characters aren’t funny characters so much as they are simply funny. This is one of the few instances that I would argue a game needed a lighter tone. It’s fine if you want to set your game in an underground world of monsters literally made from magic, but if you’re constantly including character designs approaching the internet meme level of randomness, you’re going to lose impact.
I’m saying that Undertale, despite hiding the traits of many of its characters behind arcane gameplay, did not manage to infiltrate my tear ducts, and I’m the kind of person who cries every time this song plays. The game just can’t match the cleverness of a real emotional gut punch that other games manage to tie to a single trigger pull or tilting of an analog stick. (Here’s looking at you Brothers: a Tale of Two Sons.)
While overall I enjoyed Undertale for its early humor (god the text messages got old near the end), its constantly shifting and enemy specific mini-game battle system, and its music, its insistence that it’s the new meta-design for player/character interactions and virtual storytelling is definitely a letdown. Perhaps that’s more the fault of its fans than the game though, as they have relentlessly plugged the ‘complexity’ of something that should have been merely charming.