Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Why "Undertale" is Game of the year: A game review.

(Though I would consider this review "Spoiler Free",its much better to play this game without hype or expectations, if you agree, stop reading now.)

Coming from the likes of a jaded, life-long gamer, I can honestly say that “Undertale” is a game that came completely out of left field for me. Having been recommended by a friend, I went dubiously into this game with an open minded critique expecting a typical RPG experience and came out emotionally moved with a whole new outlook on video gaming as a hobby and as an art medium.
It reels you into its world immediately and you won’t want to let go until it’s all over. Visceral and emotionally charged, one cannot help but find that it's heartfelt plot development, offbeat sense of humor, and gripping musical score are nothing short of compelling. 

The hype is real.

You play as a human child who has fallen into an underground world inhabited by monsters that were sealed off by humans during a war long ago. You strive to escape the Underground, but soon learn you weren’t the first to fall in. Simple, right? Things aren’t as they seem. Your every choice has consequences, and every character you meet along the way has their own complex agenda and distinct psychopathy. The incredible amount of painstaking attention to detail that went into making this game is impressive alone. This is a game, which, 20 some odd years ago, would have required an entire Dev team of coders and graphic artists to make, along with a marketing team to promote it and a major publishing company to release it.  Among my first thoughts during my initial play through was “This game was made with heart.”

On to the review!


This is a game that prides itself on being an ‘NES’ style throwback. It fully embraces the Indie doctrine of ‘Story and substance’ over the ‘Pomp and circumstance’ we have come to expect from over-the-top, salaciously rendered pixel-porn that has become the norm of mainstream gaming; often some well-established heavy hitting franchise that has overstayed its welcome or a tie-in title with some multi million dollar movie series. Undertale’s graphical styling gives us a revival of the classic era, and it does so not for the sake of playing on our nostalgia, but out of sheer candor. The monster encounters are like wistful, black & white pantomiming silhouettes, each one crafted with care and detail. The simplicity of the world design is almost ‘Zen’ like in execution, and its charm and exquisitely rendered sprites hearken back to the 8-bit era without patronizing it. This serves us well by further emphasizing we should never judge a game by its polygon count.



The melodies in this game are riveting and expertly composed. The themes run the gamut from heartwarming and bold, to foreboding, somber, or just plain bizarre. It is perfectly synchronized with every character encounter, and creates ambiance that make the underground world truly ‘live’.  The catchy chip-tunes typical of the 8-bit era are born anew through the original composition by TobyFox who cut his teeth creating tracks for Homestuck and playing piano by ear. Playing Undertale is worth it for the soundtrack alone; it elevates the game throughout its progression and drives the story sequences home in such a way that is wholly uplifting to the soul.

Game play:

 Implementing ‘Bullet hell’ gameplay mechanics lends itself to Clever, quirky, and at times delightfully challenging monster encounters and boss fights that keeps the pacing fresh and interesting. Although many of the map puzzles are too easy, it intentionally uses this cliché as a point of parody. It never takes itself too seriously, which ultimately lends itself all the credibility it requires. It’s got glamour, it’s got style….You can even date a skeleton! This is a game that needed to be made. I once pondered long ago what it would be like playing a game where you do not have to kill a single enemy, and if it would even be remotely enjoyable: Undertale answers that with a resounding “Yes.” Each character encounter offers you a unique way of dealing with them that does not require outright slaughter. You can finish the entire game without killing a single enemy. 


This is where Undertale shines the brightest.(Hurr hurr hurr!) Toby Fox takes a seemingly simplistic story that anyone can follow within the first few minutes, then masterfully adds layer upon layer of depth and emotionally charged story progression that ultimately results in a climactic Apotheosis of both player and protagonist that shatters all conventionality, right at the decisive moment, when it spawns a Deus Ex Machina, goes full ‘Meta’ and bulldozes through the fourth wall in flames while popping a wheelie at full throttle.

In any other game this would have proven catastrophic to its integrity.
I find it immensely difficult to deliver a complete assessment of the story without introducing spoilers critical to the plot, which is something I refuse to do. It’s such a pure story that needs to be experienced rather than being subjected to an over-analytical TL’DR fanfic-esque dissection.

Its clever pop-culture references and amalgamation of internet/anime/meme-centric humor speak to the sensibilities of the modern gamer in 2015. Undertale is really a horror game masquerading as a benign, cute JRPG style adventure. It disarms you with humor, only to confront you with a slew of ethical challenges and eldritch abominations. It forces you to think of your own consequences in a game world as a reflection of how you’d behave in the real world. It deals with androgyny and sexual undertones in such a brilliant manner, as to render it a harmless burlesque. The characters are so deeply flawed in their nature, yet so lovable, and that is exactly what gives them mass appeal. Whether or not Tobyfox set out with this in mind, the base elements of the ancient theme of Greek Tragic-comedy are alive and well in this game, and it is made adaptable for the modern generation in the form of a video game. It may even seem absurd to some who refuse to believe that such a twisted creation can even exist or that works of Art can take on so many variegated forms. 


In all fairness to the critique, it was clear to me right from the start that the game mechanics and graphical style are reminiscent of the Earthbound (Mother) series, and that it even draws upon some of its oddball charm, however, Undertale cleverly strikes out on its own volition and delivers a unique brand of quirkiness that sets it apart without directly 'imitating' anything before it. Despite how much TobyFox was influenced by the EB series, Undertale is by no means an ‘Earthbound clone’; it stands on its own two feet proudly, sallies forth, and delivers a homerun. The torch has been passed.

That being said, it’s very true that ‘Undertale’ is on the short side. Depending on your style of play, this game can be completed in a matter of hours, or over the course of a few days.  Initially, I felt as though the maps could have been more expansive in breadth and scope and more fleshed out…but I digress. For a game that costs only 10USD, having been developed by a very small dev team, this is a non-issue for one major reason: Toby Fox has embarked on this incredible venture and woven an intricate tale for us: Undertale delivers its message. It says what it needs to say, and I’ve come to realize it’s absolutely perfect as it is, short though it may be.  It throws typical RPG tropes out the window. It rejects the doctrine of completionism  and the mundane task of requiring hours and hours of mindless grinding typical of virtually all RPGS, or setting out to obtain some pointless ‘McGuffin’ in order to advance progress. It utterly redefines what it means to be a gamer by examining the relationship between the player and the character. In the same way that the Legend of Zelda series realizes the significance of the monomyth and the Heroes journey by allowing you (the player) to ‘Link’ to the Hero, Undertale reinforces that connection through embracing the core message of hope, forgiveness, redemption, and above all else: Determination.

If you don't....well, let's just say you're in for a bad time.

Those who truly ‘understand’ the game will require a degree of empathy and the ability to feel unhindered emotion and project their thoughts outside of themselves by ‘letting go’ and therefore engaging with the interactive medium of gaming to vindicate the art form to its highest potential, helping to understand the nature of others who have different perspectives. The powerful emotional impact this game possesses will result in a cathartic experience that has been described by many as nothing short of intense.  If you are unable to feel ‘something’ after completing one of the 3 possible endings, you may be just as repressed and internally tortured as the game’s “antagonist”.

I haven’t felt this way playing a video game since I was a child playing the NES classics back in the day. It was something I thought that I had lost and would never feel again. Undertale embodies the re-awakening of something so very familiar, but also something refreshing and so very unique, and I am sincerely thankful that someone out there still ‘gets’ it. In a mainstream world full of Halo’s, Metal Gears and Madden sequels, nothing could have prepared me for this experience. There’s so much hate right now in video games, so much division between gender, class, and corporate fanboy-ism pledging allegiance to their respective camps that many of us have lost focus on what a pure gaming experience truly is. Undertale comes along in all its lo-fi, 8-bit glory, and resets everything.

In a way, we are all like the child fallen into a world of monsters.

This is hands down game of the year, and in my humble opinion ranks among one of the greatest games of all time. I am not saying this lightly, either. Don't mind the haters: Undertale is the true underdog of retro-classic gaming in 2015.

Reading this review fills you with Determination to play Undertale.

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