“You should play Undertale.”
I’m not one to refuse indie game recommendations — especially ones that have a large fervour around it. I watched the first few minutes of GiantBomb’s Quick Look and noticed the high praise for the game’s soundtrack but that was it. I kept the game in the back of my head and as soon as I saw it go on sale on Steam, I took the plunge.
The early turn from charming to evidence of an underlying darkness with the introduction of Flowey piqued my interest. I was curious how this lost little girl was going to get out of this underground world filled with monsters. Who was Flowey? Was he the G-man of Undertale? Was he part of something more sinister? I had so many questions.
Undertale featured one of the more interesting turn based battle systems found in Japanese styled role playing games. I was able to ‘Fight’ or ‘Act’ with enemies, giving me the ability to deal damage and kill them or interact with them through gestures like petting, feeding or talking. It was immediately obvious that the ‘Act’ option was the more interesting of the two. Using the right actions or combination of actions placated the foe which would allow me to spare them. I tried my best to not kill anyone but I occasionally found myself stuck or lost patience with the mini games and struck down the foe.
Whenever it was the enemy’s turn, I was given the opportunity to avoid damage by manipulating a heart confined in a box. Dodging frogs, tears and other gibberish was amusing for the first couple of hours but I grew bored and annoyed by the process. Like the JRPGs Undertale was inspired by, random battles played a significant role. I could have fled battles but at the same time, I wanted to accumulate money for healing items.
There were quirky and interesting twists to those mini-games but I only ever wanted to play them once. Flexing, dodging sweat and arms for the third time in the span of 10 minutes erased any charm that was built up. I felt the first two thirds of my time with Undertale felt like a long drag and if it wasn’t for the stupendous soundtrack, I would have dreaded my time with the game even more.
The final third of Undertale was a barrage of quirky characters and twists to established video game mechanics. The final sequence culminated with fourth wall breaking mechanics which made me wonder if it would ever make its through the stricter console environment. I had long gave up trying to interact with the mini-games in any meaningful way so I summoned the determination that the game so frequently made reference to and brute forced my way to the final credits.
One of the reasons why I disliked the mini-games and random battles was because it got in the way of me exploring and finding clever bits of dialog throughout. I found those incidental lines of text humorous and incited more than a few chuckles and smiles.
Far and away, the most enjoyable aspect of Undertale was its soundtrack; it’s the only reason why I finished the game. I love it for its variety and its incredible ability to elevate any scene. Most of the songs were around short one to two minute in length but there was a precision an efficiency to its use that’s so often lost in today’s games.
I wish the visuals were as eloquent as the audio work. The main cast of characters exhibited the same qualities that I admired in the sound work but the backgrounds and other designs left me wanting. This feeling was especially strong after seeing some of the wonderful art and designs in the latter parts of the game.
There’s a lot to like in Undertale but most of it fell off for me because of poor pacing, repetition and uneven quality in many areas of the game. I enjoyed many individual moments but I cannot say I was fond of the journey. I can listen to the soundtrack from beginning to end for years to come but the very idea of having to play through another one of those mini-games makes me recoil with disgust. I would love to explore more of the underground and revisit the town of Snowdin and its many residents but just thinking about wandering through all those barren lands and random battles gives me pause. To me, Undertale is the very definition of an uneven experience with high highs and some very irritating lows.