A Criticism of Undertale I have been meaning to write for a while
**SPOILER ALERT: I will reveal major plot/endgame in this review. Please do not read if you do not want it to be spoiled. I apologize in advance if I ruin anything accidentally**
Also I apologize for being rambly and unedited. I can go back and edit. Just need thoughts out rn
For starters, I don't think Undertale is the worst, or awful, or a bad game entirely. There's a lot of things that it does right, and the writing really jives with some people. I am not one of those people (this game came out in 2015. i was 24-not exactly a teen but not ancient either. I don't know if my age affects things or its just a matter of my taste)
I wouldn't be a good judge of the music. It's a bit chiptuney. I liked Toriel's theme and the main undertale theme. I don't know music theory enough to tell you why some tunes work and some don't. The music wasn't like WOAH, but it's pretty impressive for a team consisting of one guy and temmy's artwork. Video games are hard to program.
It has a clever game mechanic and way that the puzzles are executed that feels fresh compared to other RPGs. Theres a lot of puzzles that don't feel stockish. (Puzzles are what prevent RPGs from being grinding machines and reward the player/give breaks from large info-dumping)
Arguably, the ACT mechanic is another clever mechanic, but it operates the exact same as a fight mechanic. You perform an action. the attacking monster stops attacking. You get gold. The only thing that differs from actual fighting is that you don't gain experience (Because in the undertale universe, experience is directly tied to your Level of Violence, which i'll touch upon later). It doesn't make the fights less tedious, but I still commend it for being an attempt to make one of the most boring aspects of any RPG more fun, and for people who enjoy bullet hells it is worth the experience. It's not the most accessible, but that's an issue with the entire video game community and not Undertale itself. It is for this reason I can't criticize Lets Plays unintentionally making an inaccessible part of gaming more accessible to people (Will get to later)
The meat of any good RPG is the story-compared to other video games, the story is why people come back to RPGs versus the more hands-on or tactical gameplay of other genres. Other game genres depend heavily on gameplay (and sometimes graphics if they interfere with gameplay)-what makes a Mario game fun is the platforming-the story adds context for the stages, but a poor (and admittedly with princess peach incredibly cliched) story line doesn't ruin the experience. An RPG however entirely relies on a good story for people to interact with it. Without the story, the entirety of the RPG gameplay format is probably one of the most tedious game experiences there is-its is incredibly repetitive between the level grinding and the actual play format mostly happening in the fight window. Very little deviates from the bash/defend/special/run format as well, and sometimes it is more tedious when it does. Pokemon for example ditches the bash/special divide (where you either start with Magic Points and subtract or bash and gain Techincal Points) by having pokemon learn 4 moves that run out of "Power Points" after a certain amount of uses. It almost makes the game worse-you are constantly relying on repeat pokemon center visits to grind no matter how far along you get in the game (where in a traditional bash/MP system, you can grind longer without having to heal), because as you level up and get stronger moves, they have less PP and dry out after about 10 pokemon battles (hardly enough to gain a level). It also makes it harder to slot status moves or something that doesn't deal damage because it's taking one out of 4 spots you get for ANYTHING to move a battle forward, making the fights less strategy based and more sheer PP'ing heavy moves to cap the final "boss" battles. I am explaining this, because I am not detracting points from undertale for following a "traditional" RPG layout too closely for battles and puzzles (or for ACT not being different enough from the FIGHT function, which I've seen a criticism of), because it is the version that actually works for this specific genre of gaming the best. I am also bringing up storytelling, because I feel like a lot of the issues with Undertale's storytelling get brushed off as sour grapes instead of bringing up something that makes people love or hate the game.
One of the biggest issues for me is that the storytelling comes with heavy judgment for unlocking all of the content. On one hand, it's a choice that the player can make. On another hand, games DO cost money, and whether it was worth $10 or $60, you will not get your money's worth out of a game if you only play half the game. The order of genocide or pacifist first does really nothing for the content save a few easter eggs added in at the end or in sans' dialogue (so little dialogue you can't even find it online). The moral superiority some players get for not playing genocide is strange, as I would assume most people can tell the difference between slaying a fictional monster, and murdering your actual next door neighbor. While fictional media is important for the morals that it imparts, there is a weird trend of people trying to explain real world genocides with harry potter comparisons or the like (or maybe i'm on tumblr too much), so maybe I'm oversensitive to people taking fiction a little too seriously. But at the end of the day, it's still a fictional world. It can only impart so much before the morals start to ruin the actual experience of the game, and undertale straddles that line a little.
The heavy handedness of the genocide messaging seems a bit like overkill, especially when they bring in lets players (as a joke, still annoying). The messaging is so ham-fisted that it's hard for me to get past at points. Violence is bad, peace is good. Throughout playthroughs of it, I can't tell if it's a satire of RPGs with a punishing element, or actually taking it's punishing element seriously. If a satire is missed by that many people, it cannot be that effective, because it's a complaint I've seen often. Not being able to tell how seriously the game was taking itself threw me out of the writing at points. I can't tell whether to laugh with it, or balk at how preachy it is.
The writing outside of the major talking points was alright. It was funny sometimes, lost on me other times. The writing tried so hard to be funny that it actually got annoying-at least with Alphys, her constant online badgering kept getting in the way of actually enjoying hotland, and its attempt at storytelling got in the way of gameplay, even if that gameplay was just moving forward on a D/arrow pad. Even the fact that genocide is more tedious than the true pacifist route is clever storytelling but makes for a poor gameplay experience, as it expects people to go in treating it like another RPG. Sometimes, people can trigger nasty dialogue because they didn't think they could actually spare toriel and didn't know how to get past that part of the game. Or they didn't realize the true reset wasn't actually a reset. Other times, you can take all of the snowman pieces and still trigger true pacifist, or knock over all the candy by trying to take it all and deal with no consequences. The game writing is inconsistent in what it tries to teach and what it punishes and forgives. If the game is about 'be considerate to the 8 bit monster's families', then wouldnt little things like that also affect gameplay somehow? maybe this is because of the limit of the programming and the short number of people working on the game. Theres also a weird 'you should know better' element of the game forgiving and redeaming monsters acting out of fear, but not a forgiveness element of 'youre not used to a rpg that wasnt about killing monsters so you didnt read the tagline and played it "wrong"'. Technically, you are always the "monster" in the game that has to be forgiven for all RPG sins past by redeeming yourself. You are the intruder in their home. The logic makes sense, but it could still be jarring getting a fake-out ending after switching from genocide to pacifist when youve seen alphys redeemed from her frankenstein creations from horrible experiments gone wrong. The game isn't unrewarding because it punishes you for choosing a bad path (which it isn't the first game to do so), its unrewarding because of how it plays out in the game. Having dialogue calling you a bad player for selfishly wanting to make the most out of your purchase doesn't add anything to the moral it wants to portray. It doesn't further your understanding of the game or its mechanics or what it's going to do once you get to that point. It just stands to make people feel kind of shitty for playing a game, and i personally don't consider that art. If they don't take it seriously, it comes across pretentious. If they take it too seriously, you have someone crying over whats supposed to be a lighthearted video game. Neither outcome is good. I consider that edgy writing for the sake of being edgy and "smart". It's almost worse than games like OFF because with OFF, you at least have an idea that something isn't right about the situation as a game player from the beginning. It kind of throws you warnings as you play it. Unlike with undertale's beginning, It doesn't blindsight you with what it is and then constantly insult you for moving forward and not just throwing your game out.
Its a nice touch that they had extra content on the ports to the switch and PS4 for their respective gamestyles (or vita?). Normally ports don't come with bells or whistles and are just direct copies of the game. It wouldve been nice to have more split battles for the switch but I'm still appreciative that they even added it in-I wasn't expecting it and it was nice that they added it.
The plot works if it's only a genocide route. It's a very mean game if it punishes you for playing it without a second option, but in terms of it making sense plot wise, its cohesive. It is contained within itself and doesn't need any further explanation.
The neutral ending also was contained. You get out. You get a call from your friends. Its touching but also makes sense-theyre on another side. you're one human who can only get themselves past a barrier. Nothing off or weird.
With the added Pacifist ending, there are huge gaping holes. Flowey absorbing "every monster soul" felt a bit Deux Ex Machina and the end still isn't resolved 100%. What is stopping the humans from creating a second barrier? Why would the political issues causing the monsters to go underground in the first place be resolved just because monsters can now cross the barrier? Whats preventing other monsters from undoing any progress of breaking the barrier in the first place? Why would frisk even be good "ambassador" on the human end-in the pacifist route, she can win over monsters. But maybe she can't deal with humans-we don't know her backstory or why she fell down the mountain. We don't know if she was just lost or if she was running away FROM HUMANS becasue she couldn't interact WITH HUMANS (and this is now the reason for understanding monsters better). Plus you're trusting an entire nation with one kid. That isn't...how political negotiations go? Something feels like its missing between "break the barrier" and "now the monsters are free".I couldn't break my suspense. The ending felt very pasted on the end for a route that can span hours in the final boss fights with flowey/asriel. It didn't feel like an authentic ending, even if the ending credits were cute/satisfying.
Lastly a nitpick- I find people fawning over toriel as "goat mom" creepy and unsettling, but that's not the fault of the game itself. What is strange, is that unlike deltarune (where toriel and asgore are actually the protagonist's parents), you're not her child-you are a lost human that fell in the ruins. She clearly projects in an unhealthy way over the loss of her two actual children by assigning herself as a caregiver, whether or not you consent to this. She constantly is in contact with you, or is overbearing (some of this is because like her name implies, she is the tu'torial' character). And it is implied in all run-throughs in the beginning, that you don't actually consent-you actively try to leave despite being brought back to your room multiple times, and she confronts you in the end by fighting you (not everyone catches how much you have to stall the fight, and i dont personally think that the one frog blurb in the beginning does well enough to explain this.). after the fight, you can't even contact her again. She immediately treats you as if you were dead. Which again is a trauma response if i were to take the writing at face value. So then why does your happy ending solutions include 'live with toriel'? While going to the surface is an option, it feels like nothing actually asserts that toriel's projection is trauma based and incredibly unhealthy to both the protagonist and her. Its cute that she leaves you a piece of pie while you're sleeping, but it always sat wrong with me that going back was your only other alternate to leaving the underground entirely. Especially when she was so overcontrolling in the beginning of the game. Probably just a nitpick of mine because i never cared for her character in the beginning. Or after. I couldn't tell you why, something about her stuck in my craw.