Undertale Review — Progressively Pointless

by Jed Pressgrove

If you kill just one monster that threatens you in Undertale, at the end you will be asked, “Is killing things really necessary?” This question isn’t morally serious, as developer Toby Fox’s message goes on to explain that playing through the game again without killing anything will give you a “happy ending.” This awkward moment confirms Undertale as little more than an obstacle course posing as an aspiring pacifist’s wet dream.

Though not marketed to children, Undertale often resembles a patronizing lesson for kids. When monsters start fights with you, you can either kill them to become stronger (the traditional role-playing game outcome) or make them lose their will to fight by talking to them, flirting with them, and so on. For one monster, you can select “Don’t pick on,” and the monster feels much better about itself and can be spared. For another monster, you have to laugh after it tells a joke in order to make peace. However, some enemies must be attacked until they’re too weak to continue, so the “merciful” path isn’t necessarily obvious. Ultimately, showing mercy is another turn-based routine that can be tedious, raising the question of whether it’s violence or monotony that prevents audiences from caring about throwaway characters.

The flaccid stakes in Undertale highlight the lack of a significant message in the killing/mercy dichotomy. Fox wants players to think twice about killing enemies while largely reducing the latter to unfunny punchlines, as when two dark knights finally realize they’re into each other or when a flamboyant robot turns into a pop star diva. Undertale’s depiction of humankind is even shallower despite the trusty find-a-way-back-home plot. Take a long look at the protagonist. The flaw isn’t the lack of next-gen polygons; it’s the absence of soul. (Undertale’s rambling about the souls of humans and monsters doesn’t make up for this limitation, either.)

The off-putting vacancy in the Undertale protagonist’s face is especially puzzling given Fox’s schmaltzy attempt to undercut typical turn-based combat. Almost jokingly, you dodge the attacks of enemies in real time as a heart avatar. Does Fox think the mere shape of a heart can be a stand-in for human depth? If the little snot you play as is supposed to comment on a hollowness about previous role-playing games, Fox takes the lazy route. The silent protagonist cliche, already parodied well by Super Mario RPG, does not complement any inventiveness Fox squeezes out of the monster encounters. And if the hero is meant to resemble a dead fish to show that “anyone can be a hero,” Undertale should come with a bucket to vomit in.

Undertale seems rather desperate when you enter a church and are told “You will be judged for your every action.” After a laughable sermon about RPG design (“[EXP] stands for execution points”), you are instructed to think about your actions in Undertale. But what’s there to contemplate? Either you managed to spare a goofy-looking thing that attacked you or you didn’t. Unlike Jack King-Spooner’s Beeswing and Brian Fargo’s Wasteland 2, Undertale pushes make-believe morality — a sort of BioShock bullshit — as opposed to situations that get to the essence of life and struggle.

There’s a part in Undertale where you can pray to remind an enemy of its conscience. Such flippant moments suggest that Fox misinterpreted Earthbound, Undertale’s biggest influence, as merely quirky. Earthbound was strange, but its spiritual consciousness and emotional warmth were striking and genuine, especially in its prayer-centered climax. The final fight in Undertale doesn’t have much to show other than creepy sadism. Before the concluding battle, the game literally turns itself off, and it will turn itself off again if you happen to lose. If you win, the binary choice returns: kill or have mercy. If you want to be “good,” you have to pick mercy over and over and over before Undertale almost shuts up. Fitting that the big bad guy at one point says, “You idiot. You haven’t learned a thing.” That’s a perfect encapsulation of how pointless Undertale’s wannabe progressivism is.

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17 comments

  1. I love you seriously, this is the best Undertale’s Review I’ve seen yet , please never stop writing, I love your writing and how you say so much with very few words.

    I especially like the comparison with Bioshock, and the part of ”There’s a part in Undertale where you can pray to remind an enemy of its conscience. Such flippant moments suggest that Fox misinterpreted Earthbound, Undertale’s biggest influence, as merely quirky. Earthbound was strange, but its spiritual consciousness and emotional warmth were striking and genuine, especially in the prayer-centered climax. The final fight in Undertale doesn’t have much to show other than creepy sadism. ”

    Undertale really don’t like to me, when I play it, i only thinking about this game how didn’t understand anything about Earthbound.

    I’m not saying you should be happy or not because we hate this game (or love it) ; But I’m glad of have the same opinion as you about this game.

    thanks , continuous writing, you are big.

  2. I dunno I kinda liked it.

    I will admit some lack of knowledge here: I’ve never played Earthbound, so I don’t have some of the context you have about it. So moments you may have found to be eye-rolling, I found charming. I still have not quite finished it yet, since Dustforce came along on my computer and have overtaken my video gaming time, but I would be lying if I said it didn’t press buttons in me.

    One other game that Undertale reminded me of is Moon: RPG Remix Adventure. Only except for the choice game angle Undertale uses, Moon makes the player play through a basic Dragon Quest-style RPG straight. With all the tropes and cliches that genre provides. But then after that, the player is stripped of their role as the hero, instead being cast as an invisible shade, and is forced to play through the game from a very different angle. The hero they played as is still present, and acts out the behavior they did in the previous “run”, but is cast as a aimless, rather dim engine of violence, murdering whatever monster that happens to be in his way for the sake of getting stronger. The player is tasked to clean up the mess they made as the hero.

    Although I never played it, it seems to have an extremely interesting take on the concept that Undertale tries to tackle. Unfortunately for Undertale, it was made in an era where “choice” games were popular, so it seems to take notes from them.

  3. I would say that you’ve addressed quite a lot of things that made me uneasy how the game made me felt. The rather black and white morality was pretty much handled in a way that lacked an amount of depth that could take it farther and the choices you make is either: make friends or be an asshole.

    BUT! in it’s defense, it’s more about deconstruction of the genre’s contemporary tropes and cliches, in which case it had done rather nicely in context rather than as a whole. Something that can be improved upon with more effort but still quite remarkable for a one-man job.

    Also, it seems that you just stopped playing the game only half-way and concluded the game is pointless where you are visibly angry at the flower for him trying to make a fool of yourself. There is, however a solution in which you can achieve a “true” ending where you play where you left off to make friends with the monsters and unlock yet, another boss that’s much closer how Earthbound does it.

    As such, I find your review here incomplete; lacking as much as the game lacks in depth.

    1. The ‘true’ ending leaves a giant, dangling thread where a central character is literally not acknowledged by his parents, and gets zero chance at redemption whatsoever. It’s as dissatisfying and shallow as the regular ending is, so this review is still every bit as valid.

  4. Wow there are so many terrible mistakes and flaws in logic in this review I doubt that you played the game before deciding that it was “laughable”.

    “This question isn’t morally serious” Believe whatever you want, lots of conversations have been started by this game.

    “…often resembles a patronizing lesson for kids” No shit, do you even know what a ‘Frisk’ (the name of the main character) is?

    “Fox wants players to think twice about killing enemies while largely reducing the latter to unfunny punchlines” This is obviously wrong to anyone who has actually played an RPG, I’ve never once thought twice about killing a traditional NPC, but these innocent hapless frogs absolutely made me question..

  5. Okay, been trying to think of the best way to respond to this article without sounding like a fanboy, so I hope I succeed. First, yes, the combat can appear to be pretty simplistic at first, but as the enemies get harder you see how difficult it becomes to keep acting peacefully. Is it really worth taking the high ground when your foes become even harsher? I will agree that there were times when determining the peaceful option was a bit difficult to determine (the fights against Undyne and Mettaton, for example). Yes, the game does expect you to show mercy, even to your most aggressive enemies, but it isn’t always easy.

    As for some of the other points you bring up – the player character isn’t really a cliched silent protagonist, though you need to complete a Pacifist or Genocide run to uncover the mystery behind them. You suggest that the actions taken are irrelevant, but who you spare and how you treat the inhabitants of the Underground will affect the end game, as well as certain moments throughout the main story. And while you dismiss the NPCs, I’m not really seeing any clear reason as to why you didn’t enjoy them. A little clarification would have been useful here.

    Anyway, hope I said my piece well. Not trying to change your opinion, just stating mine. Sorry that you didn’t like it.

    1. “Okay, been trying to think of the best way to respond to this article without sounding like a fanboy, so I hope I succeed. First, yes, the combat can appear to be pretty simplistic at first, but as the enemies get harder you see how difficult it becomes to keep acting peacefully. Is it really worth taking the high ground when your foes become even harsher?”

      This here, is actually a major sticking point for me about the game, despite personally finding it charming. Yes, the monsters get harsher, their patterns more difficult, and their [MERCY] path more obscure…but you can’t really lose. I don’t mean in the usual sense where you get a game over screen and start from your last check point. I mean in a sense more akin to a roguelike, where death means all your progress is undone, and you have to do everything over again.

      DETERMINATION breaks the game in multiple ways. The moral choice doesn’t come in to play as strongly, simply because you’re just a few steps away from the encounter if you ever so happen to lose. Unless a person is coming to the game absolutely fresh with literally no knowledge, I don’t feel there’s really a point in the game where one truly has to weigh whether to act violently or not, because you’re never in a position where you have anything to lose. You’re essentially credit feeding the entire game, and the only way for you to truly lose is to stop playing. This is so evident that it’s a plot point: The game drills it in to the player’s head that there’s no way a monster can actually beat a human, because the human it’s talking about is the player.

      Truly [MERCY] is an apt name for that option, because there’s nothing any of the monsters can do to you.

      1. Determination doesn’t mean that you just “do it all over again until you succeed”, it is shown in the fight against the final boss in a genocide run that the timeline resets everytime you die until the point where you filled yourself with determination. And the rest of your point is LITERALLY what the game is about in terms of breaking the fourth wall. Congratulations, you got the point of the game. Isn’t it cool how a great game can teach you something?

        Roguelite elements in Undertale would have killed it completely, it would make no sense.

  6. If you kill just one monster that threatens you in Undertale, at the end you will be asked, “Is killing things really necessary?” This question isn’t morally serious, as developer Toby Fox’s message goes on to explain that playing through the game again without killing anything will give you a “happy ending.”

    Don’t forget this is in character, it’s Flowey baiting the aspiring pacifists to go through the path that will bring him the most material gain.

  7. Ugh, thank you. I stupidly bought this game years after hearing how good it was, assuming that all the good things said about it were legitimate and that it was a thoughtful game that encourages pacifism and lets you enjoy yourself while doing it. I guess either I heard the wrong things about it, or people were speaking nonsense because what I got instead is so frustrating I don’t even feel it’s worth $10.

    I mean, don’t get me wrong, I had some amusing moments with the jokes and all, but overall, I couldn’t even get through a whole run of the game. The combat system is tacky and overbearing on some of the boss fights, even if you’re trying to be a pacifist; the thought behind it comes across as incredibly shallow (the game seems to resonate most with young teens, at least that’s my impression in reading about it after having played some… and disappointingly so too, as I played KOTOR as a young teen and as an adult and I feel like it had far more moral depth and thought-provoking content in it than this game despite not punishing you in exaggerated ways for your choices, which some seem to think is a requirement for the game to send a message); every fight feels like a new reflex test combined with a puzzle that has jack squat to do with morality and defeats the point of encouraging pacifism (I mean, I am a pacifist in RL in all but confidently declared title and I don’t see what most of these mechanics have to do with pacifism… you can’t even talk to monsters in most cases before they start attacking you – it’s amazing how detached from reality the whole thing is while riding the coattails of real morality. In RL, something literally attacking you would induce fight-or-flight and you wouldn’t get to decide whether to try to spare the thing, you would just fight or run because you’d be operating on pure instinct).

    It feels generous to even call it a game. It feels more like a sermon written by a very well-intentioned but immature 15-year-old who can’t decide when it’s more important to joke or be serious because they quite seriously don’t know better and don’t have the moral maturity and social awareness to navigate such an in-depth space. The cult following it has built comes across like an impregnable fortress of recursive reasoning that renames every glaring flaw of the game as important and meaningful simply because it’s trying to be important and meaningful, a sentiment akin to saying we should never question the preacher because they are trying to preach.

    Never mind the fact that this is a game and that it markets itself as a game, and a playful and light-hearted one at that with a “good message,” only to wrap its hands around your throat when you’re looking the other way and start squeezing until you pass out. The game seems determined to lure you into thinking that you’re here to have a good time, only to pull the rug out from under you and make you feel miserable. A fan of the game might think I’m describing playing genocide, but I haven’t even tried that. Just trying to play pacifist alone is miserable enough. You character is portrayed as a kid, trying to get home, in the midst of literal monsters, and you are supposed to dodge literal attacks from literal monsters in forced encounters to avoid hurting them, while you try to get home. Oh but the monsters are people too and you are traipsing through their land, a defender of the game might say. In what land do people attack you for trying to walk through their territory, with no effort made to communicate first and in many cases, no coordination between them either? Situations have undoubtedly existed like that throughout human history, but I wish you luck convincing someone that the way to navigate such a situation is to blindly plow forward while attempting to run or sooth every single person you encounter along the way. You can’t befriend a damn escort or something? Find some leader in charge who will mark you as a friend? FFS.

    This “game” is a clear attempt to be “art” and I can’t stand “art” that forces its protagonist and cast of characters and internal logic to be dumb, to try to make its message seem smart.

    If only the game was a comedy, it could probably be excused for its shoddy holes, but its attempts to go for “high art” put it deservedly in a box where it deserves to be criticized for every overhyped, underhanded trick it tries to pull to insist upon itself as something meaningful.

    This is the Jonestown kool-aid of video games and I’m not drinking it.

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