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Does It Hold Up? Undertale

Nadia re-examines Undertale a year after its release to determine if Toby Fox's RPG about monsters and men still deserves its accolades.

Critique by Nadia Oxford, .

Undertale is an indie RPG put together by a tiny team headed by Toby Fox. Fox had little game-making experience prior to Undertale, which was cobbled together on GameMaker Studio. Its puzzles are pedestrian, its replay value is slim, and its graphics probably wouldn't count as impressive on the NES. And yet the game dominated Steam through the last quarter of 2015.

The cycle of the seasons hasn't done much to cool off Undertale fans' enthusiasm for the game, even though we've seen pretty much nothing in the way of added content or updates. Nevertheless, Frisk, Chara, Sans, Papyrus, Asgore, Toriel, and Undyne have more emotional pull than most characters born from games with much larger budgets. Whatever you think of Undertale, Fox's success is still a welcome demonstration of how a simple-looking game brimming with wit and heart can sell itself without fancy graphics or an advertising budget.

What we said at the time

Our own Bob Mackey reviewed Undertale and branded it with a 5 / 5. I actually paid the game zero mind until I read his review, which is coincidentally when people started getting excited about a certain plucky Steam game. When I first played Undertale, I adored it as much as Mackey did.

Granted, Mackey and I have creepy identical twin thoughts when it comes to Earthbound and games inspired by Shigesato Itoi's unorthodox SNES RPG. We can spend hours picking apart tiny story points – and anyone who's read our work on Nerve.com's now-defunct 61 Frames Per Second blog knows we have. So maybe it's no huge surprise that Undertale, a game inspired by Earthbound and Mother 3 in too many ways to count, took over our lives for a small time.

Undertale isn't Earthbound, but it hits the right notes (or eight melodies, if you will)

But I think that'd be selling Undertale way short. As it turns out, "It's like Earthbound!" isn't enough to sell me on a game: Nothing's more Earthbound-y than Citizens of Earth, and I could not get into that game at all. No, Undertale's made an indelible mark on fans' hearts thanks to what Mackey described as its "gleefully absurdist humor."

Undertale's "feels," as the kids say, go way beyond funny stuff, though. There are jokes a-plenty, but when you scratch just below their surface, you find there's a lot of suffering and heartbreak in this seemingly cheerful Land of Monsters. Even Sans, an Undertale NPC who's since graduated to Gaming's Most Beloved Skeleton, isn't the simple laid-back goof-off he presents himself as. When you discover the reason why he drifts through life the way he does, well, it kind of hurts.

Mackey also praised Undertale's unique battle system, which combines traditional menu-based RPG mechanics with projectile-dodging reminiscent of a bullet hell shooter. There's nothing else quite like it in any RPG. Fox designed the system with the intent of keeping battles fresh and interesting, and it works for two reasons: The bullet hell sequences keep the player on their toes, plus monsters' personalities sometimes also manifest in their attacks. It's neat.

Sometimes Undertale looks good, and other times ... less so.

In hindsight…

When I first played Undertale, I was so shook up, so turned upside-down, that I couldn't imagine anyone hating the game, ever. Then a good friend of mine tried it, and detested it. That was an important reminder that people's enjoyment of games is always, always subjective, no exceptions. It was also a reminder that anyone who's not a fan of old JRPG clichés like menus, random encounters, and squishy overworld sprites might have a hard time getting much out of Undertale, even though Undertale pokes fun at those tropes.

Even if you are a fan of every mundanity that powers JRPGs, you might find it's hard to go back to Undertale if you've already finished all three moral pathways Undertale offers – That is, Neutral (kill some enemies), Pacifist (hold off on violence of all types), and Genocide (KILL. EVERYTHING). Once you've picked the game's story down to its skeleton, so to speak, there's not much to re-visit. Playing through the game again a year later, I have to admit the game's puzzles are boring, and its graphics aren't anything you want to look over one more time.

The other option is snail pie, which we'll pass on (even if the Illusion of Gaia reference is appreciated).

Mind, going through any of Undertale's three moral pathways for the first time is incredibly intense. I never finished the game's infamous Genocide route because I couldn't bring myself to slaughter the characters I'd already made friends with twice over (okay, and Undyne demolished me, never mind even reaching Sans). When we talk about games we wish we could experience for the first time all over again, Undertale is my number-one pick. I want to go back and face off against Toriel for the first time. I want Flowey to rip through the fourth wall like wet paper towel, screw with my save files, and freak me out. I want to face off against the nightmarish abominations wasting away in the True Lab. Alas, I'll never get to experience those small, raw shocks ever again. Curse my healthy memory.

One popular bit of Undertale criticism that I still vehemently argue against is the accusation that its Pacifist system mainly exists to deliver a smug message of violence in RPGs, and video games in general. It's a valid point, but keep in mind you can't experience all of Undertale's story unless you finish every moral pathway. If you hold off from the Genocide pathway, you never learn about Flowey's identity and motivations. That's quite a story gap to leave open. In other words, if you don't turn into a murderous mad-person at least once, significant chunks of Undertale's story is withheld from you – and that's not even taking into account the hyper-hardcore boss battles you can only attempt if you plunge your toy knife into the left eye of every monster you meet.

Is Undertale a game worth trying out, even if you're not absolutely one-hundred percent sure you'll dig its JRPG heritage? Yes, absolutely. Better to risk the $10 and potentially click with the game's remarkable story and characters than to never take the plunge. Undertale's not a very replayable game once it gives up all its secrets, but that doesn't make it any less special the first time through.

Also, that soundtrack. Oh, that soundtrack.

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Comments 14

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  • Avatar for sloth-machine #1 sloth-machine 2 years ago
    Definitely need to give this game a go, I can only put it off for so long. Thanks for your take on the game Nadia. When it comes to RPGs I feel pretty much everyone at USgamer is right on the money with their opinions (except Jaz, haha).
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  • Avatar for Jaz_Rignall #2 Jaz_Rignall 2 years ago
    @sloth-machine Indeed. That's why I don't usually go near them, unless they're MMOs called World of Warcraft.Edited September 2016 by Jaz_Rignall
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  • Avatar for sloth-machine #3 sloth-machine 2 years ago
    Deleted September 2016 by sloth-machine
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  • Avatar for froyton #4 froyton 2 years ago
    I do see why others would not find much replayability in the game after they've seen the main three routes. That being said, I'm going through another pacifist playthrough right now, and I'm still enjoying it. It's not the first or second or third pacifist playthrough I've done, either, and I'm still finding little things here and there that I hadn't seen or noticed before. Even in parts where I haven't found anything new, I'm still enjoying it... Just like with Super Mario RPG, I feel that this is one of those games that I'll never tire of.

    I'd also say it's absolutely worth checking out, for anyone who hasn't already. Just don't go in expecting it to be the #1 game of all time, which many people hyped it up to be - this caused a lot of other people to try it and be disappointed. And play it the way you want to. Don't let anyone tell you that you have to do A or B, just play it the way you naturally would.
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  • Avatar for AstroDemon #5 AstroDemon 2 years ago
    Nadia's right in that everyone's enjoyment is always subjective. I did try to enjoy Undertale, but I often felt like even though I understand most of what the game is making fun of, maybe I'm too old now to think it was funny and enjoyable. I ended up rolling my eyes a lot of the time. Also, the bullet-hell dodging mechanic during the RPG combat sequences really turned me off. Still, it's an impressive game for one person to create and publish.
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  • Avatar for sloth-machine #6 sloth-machine 2 years ago
    @Jaz_Rignall My first reply didn't post correctly, but Jaz, I hold your thoughts the highest due to your experience as a games journalist. Just knew RPGs aren't your thing (didn't mean any disrespect haha!)Edited September 2016 by sloth-machine
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  • Avatar for himuradrew #7 himuradrew 2 years ago
    I wish they'd port this over to the Vita. :)
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  • Avatar for touchofkiel #8 touchofkiel 2 years ago
    I've had this game on GoG for some time, but I just can't fathom playing a JRPG on my computer. Is it a long game? Because 3 runs is a lot...
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  • Avatar for GeoX #9 GeoX 2 years ago
    Undertale is SO GOOD, but it's also frustrating because I know damn well I simply do not have the intestinal fortitude to do a genocide run, and I know that this is causing me to miss out on a lot of the game.
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  • Avatar for Jaz_Rignall #10 Jaz_Rignall 2 years ago
    @sloth-machine Totally understood, and I really appreciate your comment. I assumed you were just having a fun dig - RPGs definitely aren't my thing, even though I've tried many over the years!
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  • Avatar for Modern-Clix #11 Modern-Clix 2 years ago
    I was willing to give this game a shot due to some positive buzz, however, two things happened that put me off.

    One, I see members of the fanbase that reminded me of the Homestuck fanbase, which was obnoxious and at times toxic. Isn't that nonsense for underage brosef shooters?

    Two, and this is a big one, you would not believe the amount of people that have said Earthbound ripped off Undertale -.-

    Seriously?

    Seriously?!?!

    Worst yet, from now on, any game that is inspired by Earthbound, will forever seen as a rip off of Undertale.

    So I fully admit I am purposely shutting myself in with this. Guilty. But sometimes a fandom can sour you up.
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  • Avatar for BigPrimeNumbers #12 BigPrimeNumbers 2 years ago
    I was really hoping (and still am!) that this would make its way to consoles. Would love to give it a whirl.
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  • Avatar for Vonlenska #13 Vonlenska 2 years ago
    Undertale is probably the sharpest turn-around I've ever felt for a game. The first few hours are really kind of clunky and unpolished in a way that left a bad impression (not to mention I'm awful at the bullet hell stuff), but shortly after meeting Alphys, the game grows into something charming, silly, sad, scary, wildly creative and 100x more engaging, with one of the finest finales in memory.
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  • Avatar for TernBird #14 TernBird 2 years ago
    As much as I love Undertale, I can understand why people might not like it. It's a little too "meme"-y at times, and that can really turn people away. The "meme"-y-ness really ties into the plot, too, so people who just have no patience for "I CAN HAS CHEESBURGER" dialogue will really have a hard time with Undertale. I can be sympathetic.

    But I really appreciate Undertale's moral stance on killing. It's only a shocker because of how rare it is in gaming. It's pretty messed up that violence is still the main means with which to interact with environments these days.
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  • Avatar for siamesegiant #15 siamesegiant 2 years ago
    The writing is as great as always here but I'm not sure if I get the whole 'Does it hold up?' thing, so soon after the fact. Surely it would be more useful to go further back? Most people who were going to play something this soon after release would already have done so. Maybe games that are a little older, but not 'retro' would make more sense?
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