Does Undertale Live Up To The Hype?
Undertale is poised to become one of this year's indie darlings. This retro-RPG-that-could spins a yarn featuring inspiring music, captivating characters, and a deceptively deep story. Or does it? Editors Dan Tack and Mike Futter discuss extremely different takes on Undertale. Be warned, there are some spoilers ahead.
Dan: Alright, let’s get things started with a bang. Why beat around the bush? You weren’t exactly enthralled with Undertale, and even that might be an understatement, based on the couple of tweets I saw. I have to confess that after my own love of the game, I’m a bit baffled. More than that, I want to hear about your experience with it. Do you think it fell victim to the hype machine? Is it just a mediocre title?
Mike: There is no doubt in my mind that Undertale is a victim of its own hype. I’ve rarely found any experience in any medium live up to the way people describe the latest “best thing ever.” In the case of Undertale, by Metacritic standards, it quite literally is the best thing ever™ – at least where PC games are concerned.
My issue is that I went in similarly to the way I did with The Stanley Parable. I was essentially blind. And like most experiences best left discovered, I expected there to be some kind of epiphanic moment in Undertale. There wasn’t. The combat, while possibly the most interesting piece of the game, never ripens. The characters are rarely interesting. The dialogue shows flickers of brilliance, but those are quickly snuffed out by what seems like a concerted effort to be weird and quirky.
Dan: Wow. Did we play the same game? I was continually fascinated by the changing expectations in combat, especially during boss fights, especially when the music synced up so intimately with each specially tailored encounter. There’s no grinding, there’s no… really anything of that nature. Every fight is its own special thing. The dialogue was cheesy at times, absolutely, but it certainly tackled more interesting things when it wasn’t joking around. As we stated earlier in this article, spoilers are essential if we’re going to discuss this game in any reasonable fashion. While not all the characters resonated with me (I actually found Alphys fairly annoying), many of them had a lot more personality than many games I play, especially when applied to the different, nuanced playthroughs. Obviously I don’t expect people to play through the game more than once, but YouTube provides a lot of bonus stuff there – the “genocide” Undyne boss fight is one of my favorites, as is the epic Sans battle. The “true pacifism” ending (and other secrets which that playthrough unlocks like the True Laboratory) are super cool things that are easy to miss on a “neutral” run. I also played the game blind during my first playthrough, killing some foes and sparing others, for a neutral run. Do you feel that the characters and gameplay were being, I don’t know, forced to push a message? Or were they just boring? How about the boss fights? They really brought things to fruition for me, as I did find the beginning stages of the game with the setup a bit dry.
Mike: I only killed two characters, and both were after extensive attempts to “act” (the nonviolent battle option). There are only so many times I can get the “nothing happened” variant of dialogue before I shrug and assume the game wants me to murder something. In that way, it felt extremely manipulative. Most of the game was force-feeding a message, but these instances felt like Deus Ex: Human Revolution’s boss fights.
It felt like the game was saying, “You know that way we have been encouraging you to play? Don’t do that. Do the other thing.”
That’s absurdly frustrating. And if that isn’t the intent, then the “correct” solution is obfuscated to the point of being inscrutable. I didn’t care for the bullet hell battle system either. I thought it was cumbersome and clunky. The boss battles felt tedious and overly complex in a way that detracted from narrative. The game utterly lost me at Alphys and Mettaton. They weren’t well written, the constant interruptions broke the flow, and that was the point at which I wanted to reach the twist.
There was no twist. There was no payoff. There was just sappy, force-fed morality that barely passed for a plot.
Dan: Huh. I enjoyed being able to play my own way, I didn’t really feel forced into any one method. Sure, playing in certain ways will unlock things, but I never felt like it was being shoved down my throat, even when Sans got mad at me for killing Papyrus near the end. I absolutely loved the boss battles, especially the final true encounter, the Sans/Undyne genocide encounters, the spider boss. Hell, even the normal neutral encounter finale I thought was really cool, breaking the fourth wall and save files and everything, loved it. Everything from Asgore’s SMASHING the mercy button to bone-jumping, spear-dodging, and web-climbing, loved it all.
I don’t know about the characters being “well-written” per se, but they were certainly endearing to me (with the possible exception of Alphys, as already stated). And if you didn’t enjoy the narrative, wouldn’t the boss battle complexity be a good thing? This really does feel like we played two different games, or at the very least, had two incredibly disparate experiences with the same title. I never felt like the game was pushing any force-fed morality on me. In fact, the two best fights in the game can only happen if you go against that messaging. It sure never felt pretentious or preachy to me, merely that you’ll find what you’re looking for. I was glad the game allowed for those differences, I feel like if it really wanted to shove a message in your face it would force you to play a certain way. It really doesn’t; you can’t see it all without playing a variety of ways.
To me, it’s important to check out all the stuff you missed (after completing the game, of course). That doesn’t mean you need to do the legwork and play through the whole thing again. I feel like a lot of the extra stuff that many players won’t find until after they complete the game really add a lot of depth to the narrative and the characters, though I certainly didn’t find them weak to begin with. The constant interruptions in the boss battles were a big plus to me. There’s nothing duller than just pressing the same button for the entirety of a battle, the change-ups and surprises were a lot of fun. And I’d also say, despite not enjoying the title, there’s no way to say there isn’t a twist. There are definitely twists. You can say there’s no payoff, sure.
Mike: I’m at a loss to what you’re describing as a twist. The only one I can recall is mere moments into the game. I didn’t see any deeper meaning or value to the characters. I attempted to watch the true ending when I was done to see if maybe there was something more there. I couldn’t make it more than a couple of minutes before the writing and my lack of care for the characters led me to shut it off.
This is one of those times I simply can’t see what others do in a game. This isn’t a matter of not enjoying something as much as others. This is much more definitively, as you said, two wildly different experiences. I don’t see where the adoration is coming from. And I’m pretty sure it isn’t something that can be explained.
But I want to be clear. I’m not disappointed I played Undertale. I’m disappointed I didn’t love it (or like it) as others have. I believe in playing games I don’t like for longer than I might want to. It’s the only way to broaden my vocabulary about the medium. It’s hard not to feel that, in some way, the time was wasted. However, it’s gone. It’s not coming back. It’s best to just use the experience to help refine my understanding of my own tastes and the general landscape. Gaming is diverse, and it’s important to be able to articulate what you don’t like and why, as much as it is to be able to explain what you do prefer.
Dan: Well, I guess this one simply missed the mark. From my perspective, it’s hard not to have Undertale in Game of the Year discussions, it’s that incredible, but I’m always interested in seeing how experiences resonate with us individually.