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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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South Park: The Stick of Truth Review — Product Loyalty

by Jed Pressgrove

The fact that South Park: The Stick of Truth doesn’t suck as much as previous South Park games (and other various licensed games) might seem impressive, but don’t be fooled by advertising that claims old jokes and substandard RPG design is an accomplishment.

In terms of creativity and humor, The Stick of Truth is amateur hour compared to Jazzpunk, which might have been more warmly received if it were based on a popular television show. The idea that Stick of Truth “looks just like the show” and is like “playing an episode” leads to gullible consumer logic: if one enjoys the show, then one must enjoy the game. In reality, the show is much more ironic than the game. I did laugh at some of the old jokes in The Stick of Truth (particularly the anal probing segment), but the constant referencing of episodes serves mostly as a reminder that, yes, many of us find these episodes funny. Do we have to play an overpriced game to know this?

Some might point to the “original” writing in The Stick of Truth. When the game isn’t revisiting popular concepts from the show, it jokes about video game conventions such as the overuse of zombies and the silent protagonist. While these moments can be funny, the game’s repetitious use of Nazi zombies doesn’t subvert anything, and Super Mario RPG’s play on the silent protagonist was more inventive in 1996. The Stick of Truth also has humorous descriptive text, but so did Fallout and Disgaea. Even Canada resembling an old-school RPG feels somewhat expected — Zeboyd Games already transported its protagonists to RPG antiquity in Penny Arcade 3.

The Stick of Truth’s window dressing can’t conceal the game’s lack of compelling design. The first time you take a shit works as a critique of quick-time events; the rest of the game’s button mashing is simply dumb. While the game’s environments are faithful to the show, they often make for dull exploration (appropriately, the journey into an asshole is an exception to the rule). The NPCs also seem relatively lifeless compared to the people you meet in Earthbound. The Stick of Truth does allow a good bit of interaction with special moves, but the game favors repetition over the rule-breaking mentality of Jazzpunk.

Substandard RPG elements make up the rest of the game. Obsidian Entertainment has created an awkward mixture of Super Mario RPG and Fallout: New Vegas. Instead of automatically receiving items after turn-based combat, you are forced to check the bodies of individual defeated enemies for items, even though there is no weight limit. The game’s implementation of Super Mario RPG’s innovative battle system is woefully behind the times. The combos are dull things to perform; apparently, Obsidian forgot about The Legend of Dragoon’s accomplishments. The game’s special moves are more interesting, but once you find a viable strategy, you can ride it the whole way — the enemies provide little variation in challenge. The game also lets you heal and attack in the same turn, so the combat pretty much lacks any semblance of drama. The most challenging part of the game is getting used to its awkward twin-stick fart magic.

Given its lack of great ideas, The Stick of Truth is absurdly playable. The game is a very shrewd cash-in on sentimentality for the long-running television show and RPGs. But it’s no better than the much cheaper and more profound Saturday Morning RPG. I would be surprised if The Stick of Truth is more fondly remembered than cartoons on a Saturday morning.