A young child of unknown gender falls into a hole and finds their self in the underground, realm of monsters. This realm is the result of a war between humans and monsters that the humans won, forcing the monsters underground and sealing them off with a barrier.
Upon landing in the monster realms, the child encounters an evil, monstrous flower it is forced to kill. And so my tale as the nameless child begins, searching for a way out of the realm, back to the surface and presumably back home.
Undertale is JRPG… wait it’s more like a point and click adventure… or a point and click adventure using JRPG mechanics… or maybe it’s a pure adventure game… but there are also puzzle elements, so perhaps that means it’s an adventure puzzle game… but with references to JRPG tropes.
If that paragraph was hard to follow, you now have an idea of how hard it was to figure out the point of Undertale, because it certainly wasn’t the story I outlined above. This is because Undertale is a “deconstruction” game, a game that has been made to satire another game or genre. Good examples of this are Dr. Langeskov, The Tiger, and The Terribly Cursed Emerald: A Whirlwind Heist, as you are literally behind the scenes helping an adventure game operate; and Spec Ops: The Line, with a story that questions the individuals fascination with war, shoot-em-up games.
Undertale is attempting to desconstruct a lot of the tropes in the RPG genre, specifically JRPGs. It plays like a poorly animated and poorly drawn Chrono Trigger, or Earthbound. The main way it “desconstructs” is through the combat system, a build on from the turn-based, menu system used in most RPGs. While you have the usual “Fight” and “Items” command, there’s also the “Act” and “Mercy” commands.
The reason for this is that you can attempt to befriend the enemy, or at least dissuade them from attacking you. Although doing this is generally harder and takes longer than fighting them. And they will still fight you for a while. Even when they do fight you, you play a little heart in a mini-game where you literally try to avoid their attack. Based on this, the combat, or lack of combat isn’t bad. You are also able to fight someone to the point where you can show them mercy as they surrender. Although you don’t earn EXP if you don’t kill anyone, it’s possible to finish the game without levelling up at all (you can be sure earning EXP will mean something).
So with this in mind, I mostly fought my way through the randomly-occuring encounters, showing mercy when it was convenient, until the first boss battle. The first boss battle was against the motherly monster who took you in and cared for you, but was blocking your way out. I knew that if I could get her health low enough, I could “Mercy” her to surrender. I dealt 15 damage at a time until she got to half health. Things were looking up, until I suddently dealt 350 damage and killed her. That was the point where Undertale lost me, as it suddenly changed the rules and forced me to kill the only character who showed me empathy so far.
That was until I encountered Papyrus, the skeleton, human hunter. By solving all his puzzles and dodging all his traps, you soon befriend him – assuming you can survive the boss fight – and go on a date with him. You’re a young child, and he/she is an adult skeleton, I think. It’s fucking weird. This was where the game further lost me.
After traversing through the underworld, killing, showing mercy and interacting with the denizens along the way, I finally reached the point where the I could get back to the surface, but blocked by the king of the land. My journey there had been a tedious and pretentious one, albeit full of clever deconstruction.
The world, despite a lot of effort being injected into the writing and natural sense of humour, wasn’t that engaging and offered nothing interesting visually. The sprites looked they were from a NES or old Atari game, which I wasn’t a fan of, but I can forgive on the basis that the graphics aren’t the focus of the game and that I’m pretty sure this has been developed by one dude.
After beating the last boss of the game, and making my choice for the fate of monster-kind, the game then launched pretentious mode. A character from the very start came back and nullified my decision and then prompty and directly overwrote my save game. As a deconstruction, this was clever, a bad guy who affected your save game. The decision to then subsequently and automatically exit the game to windows was a lot less clever and mostly just annoying. This continued every time I lost againt this guy. I’m not sure what the point was, but I wish it hadn’t been the case.
A deconstruction, by its nature, can’t be particuarly innovative. A deconstruction can be clever, which Undertale certainly is at many points. The way shopkeepers question you when you try to sell things, “What is this, a pawn shop?”; and the way you gain EXP is all very clever, and points out much of the flaws through gamefication that we see in JRPGs and games in general.
While Undertale is a clever deconstruction, the basic elements of the game are a bit lacking. There’s too much walking around in boring environment, repetitive and sometimes annoying battles or gameplay, and narratives that are forced or just dumb.
While the purpose and point of the game was interesting, I didn’t overly enjoy my time playing it.
I felt that the six and half hour game could have been done in two, and still got the same message across without a lot of the tedium.
Finally, I should say hats off to the developer for trying something different and purposeful, even if it didn’t tickle my buttons.
The next review in approximately one month will be on Journey