Before playing Toby Fox’s RPG, it was easy to dismiss as a hype train come derailed in the same manner Five Nights At Freddy’s as a series became overly hyped by its fanbase—that all fades once you immerse yourself.
What any fan of Undertale would know is that the game borrows from other beloved cult classics—Mother anyone? This isn’t by accident since before Undertale Toby worked on a Halloween rom-hack of Earthbound. In fact, he even has his own “Totataka song” with “Megalovania,” a score which appears in the Earthbound rom hack, Homestuck, and as a boss theme in Undertale. Once Megalovania begins to play, you know things just got real.
For those out there who haven’t played Undertale yet, no worries. This piece isn’t going to be filled with heavy spoilers. Instead, this will be about what makes Undertale a memorable game and why I believe other games could learn from it.
Before we get started, I’m going to touch on the main protagonist a bit and how they differ from other heroes in your typical RPG. Gone are the “are you a boy or a girl” stereotypes at the beginning. In Undertale, you’re simply the fallen child. Not much is there to discern gender as the character design is androgynous and that’s how Toby Fox intended it. Whether someone wishes to call the protagonist he or she is up to the player. Personally, I prefer “Frisk.” It’s much less complicated that way. Some may argue the game may be trying to push an agenda while others entertain themselves with the notion of a non-binary main character.
What’s Toby Fox’s official stance on Frisk’s gender or any sexual undertones in Undertale? It’s Skip. No, really. That was the official statement. A genderless—for lack of a better term—protagonist isn’t such a bad thing in the grand scheme of things. With people making a huge fuss more than ever over gender politics, it’s refreshing to have the game come first and not what’s in the pants of the character you play as. Monsters in Undertale will address you with neutral pronouns such as them/they. No hidden agenda, no pandering, the main character is meant to be entirely neutral, that’s all.
Something I loved and wish was featured in more games is that the act of killing actually meant something versus randomly slaughtering countless numbers of mobs with little to no consequence. In other RPGs, the formula is simple: attack things, gain EXP, level up, attack things harder. Rinse and repeat until you get to the final boss. Yeah, there is story thrown in, but the majority of your actions against the common baddie goes ignored. In Undertale, killing just a single monster determines the ending the player will get. Quite a strong contrast to feeling triumphant in mainstream RPGs where levels are absolutely vital to progress.
Such a concept of good and bad isn’t new, but its implementation is another story. Depending on how you choose to do a run, you’ll either be enjoying some japes with a cool skeleton or regretting everything. Just to drive the point further home, the game remembers your every action and knows if you reset because you felt bad for killing a monster you shouldn’t have instead of sparing them. In a way, this makes the game feel more alive. Nothing quite like trying to reset your sins away and the game reminding you what an awful a person you are. Flowey no. Flowey please. Flowey stop.
Other genres could also benefit from this, not only RPGs. When you have violence in pure excess, it’s no longer exciting anymore, taboo. Games I’ve grown up with have morphed from being risqué to being all out trashy. Mortal Kombat X is a perfect example of this trend. Watching pixelated blood rain from the head you’re holding up was interesting at the time, but the fatalities today make the mass panic of the 90s seem like the Puppy Bowl. It’s cool and all, I guess? Overachieving in technology doesn’t automatically translate to overachieving in quality. Yes. I know Mortal Kombat is intended to be for shock value, but shock value can only sustain interest for so long.
What does this have to do with Undertale? Nothing and yet everything. No. I’m not going Jack Thompson or Jack Thompson lite pulling bogus statistics out of my back pocket to make bold claims. The point is mindlessly killing just isn’t that interesting anymore when it comes to video game mechanics. At least not unchecked. If you slaughtered countless lives, you kind of deserve a living hell within that world—just saying. We have all of this amazing technology and yet I feel more sympathy for a pixelated skeleton named Papyrus than I do for any photo-realistic model dropping human spaghetti all over the pavement.
Simply put, games intended to be hardcore edgy end up coming off as edgelord the game. In fact, the only way to make games like Hatred even tolerable for me is to watch videos of the series getting memed on. Ah, much better. Some of you might have liked that game, but a decent chunk also spite bought it which isn’t good. If I wanted to senselessly murder people, I’d play any recycled shooter’s campaign. Don’t take this as a jab against the shooter genre, those are fun, for multiplayer.
Moving on, Undertale’s charm lays with the player being in complete control. Do you level up like any other RPG? Do you try to reach level cap to the very end? Do you breeze your way through the underworld without harming a single soul scrapping by on a whopping HP stat of 20? The choice is all yours and your actions determines the next chain of events. The boss monsters aren’t another notch in your RPG belt, those monsters become your friends. You care what happens to them and their future. Or at the very least, you want to see what happens when you play passively.
Don’t think you can spam spare and flee to reach the end even if your intention isn’t to harm a soul. You’re going to have to “fight” to make it through majority of the encounters. Why the quotes? Well, you’re really doing a lot of dodging. Each monster has their own unique mini bullet hell sequence you have to clear since Undertale does away with the standard turn-based combat—no munching on Temmie flakes in between battles waiting your turn. Another layer to the combat system is the act of acting. For a pacifist run, you’ll need to interact with monsters in various ways in order to spare them. Within those mini bullet hell sequences are additional mechanics, such as don’t move if an attack is blue. It sounds more confusing than it really is; you’ll easily get the hang of it once you play.
If I had to criticize the combat system, it would be the actual fight option itself. No flash attacks, just a basic timed event to try to land critical hits. Fair warning, do this enough times in a particular way, you’re going to have a bad time. Although I promised not to give away any spoilers, I’ll share a mini hint. Various items you acquire in the game can either aid a fight or even help you bypass it entirely. Not like I want to help you or anything, but it wouldn’t hurt to help a spider bake sale or two. The way Undertale deals with the fighting aspect is what I believe other game studios could learn from, not necessarily make a copy paste job of it.
What’s a story driven game without the dialog? As discussed, Undertale features a unique take on the norm when it comes to RPG fighting systems, but what about personality in interacting with the world itself? Toby Fox has done a really good job of being one step ahead and I like that. Even within some boss fights exist Easter eggs if you fool around too much during a serious moment. You’ll eventually get the feeling that no matter what action you take, Toby Fox is one step ahead. Beyond Toby Fox being some sort of a wizard, monsters within the world will notice if you killed any prominent background characters. Made this mistake on my very first playthrough and felt awful whenever an NPC would ask “Where’s Doggo?”—thanks for the guilt trip.
Throw in an awesome musical score and you have the completed package. Undertale houses some of the most memorable characters and offers a unique take on the RPG genre that even AAA studios should take note of. Is it perfect? No, but for the price of admission you really couldn’t go wrong. I mean, what’s 10 dollars when people tend to spend more than that on a night of fast food? Sure, other games share key features which made Undertale a joy to play through, but Toby Fox created something special with only pixels. In contrast, die hard Final Fantasy fans aren’t very impressed where the franchise went in spite of the visuals being stunning since the low poly model days. As blasphemous as it may be to members of PC Master Race (or John Bain), graphics aren’t everything.
With 49 hours invested, I still haven’t seen all the various neutral endings. There’s a flow chart and Reddit discussions ect, but the best way to experience Undertale is to go in blind. One could hope that Toby Fox will release some extra content to let us save that one monster who is unsavable or maybe offer insight of a certain skeleton shrouded in mystery. Even if some story remains a mystery, Toby Fox himself is shocked at Undertale’s success.
Three months old and over 4 million banked. Other indie devs could only dream of being the next Cave Story and Toby Fox managed to join that rank. What makes Undertale so special? One word: character. Other games share the idea of a well thought out cast, wickedly nice music score and eye pleasing visuals, but character is what leaves the lasting effect. Character with a hint of determination.
You know a cult classic in the making has been born when the lead dev is shocked their game is still talked about regularly in such high regard. As a fan, I’d love to see more of these characters, but only if Toby Fox himself wills it. The very last thing I’d want for Undertale as a potential franchise to rush any future games. Better a one hit wonder than milking the franchise for all it’s worth ala Five Nights At Freddy’s. No game is without fault, but there isn’t much to fault Undertale on.
Will we see another “Undertale” in 2016? I hope so! With so many rushed games, incompleted works from devs hoping to capitalize on their popularity and dime a dozen simulators–having something refreshing packed with loads of humor is always welcome in my book. Gamers can be really fickle, but when you release a game that is genuinely good—let’s just say it’s possible for gamers that hate each to equally talk fondly over the same game.
Have you played Undertale and do you relate to what I’ve written? Comment below, we’d love to hear for you. Or, if you just need more Undertale, check out TechRaptor’s review of the title.