Close to greatness, except…
Before I begin, let me say that I’m not a contrarian. I didn’t start this blog to tell people that their opinions are wrong. It’s my intent to celebrate video-games that have unified and delighted gamers. There are, however, certain games conflict me, games that convince me of their brilliance while taunting me with their faults. And though I fear I’m committing some kind of indie-game blasphemy, I cannot deny it: Undertale is that kind of game for me.
Don’t get me wrong. I loved, and still love, Undertale. Once I completed it I came to understand its meta-game trials, its subtle – almost sneaky – narrative approach, and its music (holy lord, there’s the music), I instantly realized it was a type of game I’d never played before, and that is probably my strongest criteria for measuring a truly great game. I’m afraid, however, that that’s the rub. This was an impression I could only appreciate once the game had finished. The act of playing it was a far more frustrating experience.
Undertale is in its execution an experimental retro-styled RPG that works to subvert the expectations imposed on it by that genre, but at a more fundamental level it’s a bullet-hell game. The primary element of engagement for the player is enemy and boss battles that they can compete in or talk their way out of, options are both matched by enemy attacks which consist of a torrent of projectiles on a 2D-plain that the player must avoid. And for everything that Undertale gets right (and lord does it get a hell of a lot right), these sections are often something of a pain.
It’s not enough to ruin the game. Undertale’s victories are so complete and so numerous that it can survive the most stringent of nit-picking. Its attention to detail, music (again, the music), and multitude of story-paths are a joy to behold, as are its ability to turn the player’s expectations on their head. For instances, my frustration with the boss battles were compounded by the realisation that my character was not gaining any XP. After all, the ability to ‘level up’ is a basic aspect of any RPG. The eventual revelation as to why this was (which I’m not going to spoil now) affected me enough to demand I take a short break and take stock of why I enjoy playing video-games.
However, as a good friend (the same friend who convinced me to try the game) put it to me once, the least fun thing about Undertale is actually playing it. As special as its achievements are, they still involve getting through though those bullet-hell combat sections. These start off being little more than a distraction, then range from piss-easy in order to reinforce a point to holy devilnuggets difficult. And when it’s difficult, I found it impossible to say I was having fun with the game.
It actually took me quite a long time to complete Undertale. After failing at a boss or unusually strong enemy several times in a row, I’d quit and then find myself pained to return to it. Eventually I developed a pattern of taking break of weeks or even months, suddenly getting an urge to give it another try (usually spurred when I’d find myself accidentally humming some of its music), falling in love with it again, and then hitting another difficulty spike and quitting again.
Admittedly this is not a design flaw as much as a measure of how much I suck at bullet-hell games, and if you wanted to be defensive about the game you could say I should have just stayed stocked up on healing items and I would have been fine. A fair argument. Still, it can’t be denied how repetitive the combat scenarios get. Some boss battles have the good manners to at least hit you with the same attack patterns, so after dying enough times you’ll eventually come to memorise them and get by on rote memory if nothing else. However, at this point you’re performing rather than playing the game, and it’s hard to argue this makes for great gameplay. Then again, if a battle is going badly, you can always stop playing and just chill out with the music for a bit. I literally found myself going exactly that at times. The music is really that good.
Fans of the game might point out, accurately, that the writing is enough to make the game worthy of a playthrough. The story presented by Undertale reveals itself slowly, and packs several emotional wallops that you don’t see coming. This quality of writing even extends to the combat, as the player can avoid damaging enemies by instead engaging in dialog options that neutralise the fight. However, here again the game presents a problem. It’s fine, rewarding even, when we have the clues to assess the enemy’s needs or desires and use them to end the fight. This is not always the case though, and in such instances the player’s level of agency amounts to trial-and-error guesswork.
Ultimately, my difficulty with Undertale boils down to an inability to entirely recommend it to a general audience. As I earlier stated, one of the game’s greatest strengths – perhaps its single greatest strength – is its ability to subvert the player’s expectations. However, though the game achieves this masterfully, this in a certain mind-set might also be seen as a weakness. I could easily recommend games like Thomas was Alone or To the Moon to non-gamers, but not so much with Undertale. Take my earlier XP revelation for example. As wonderful as it was and as much as it affected me, it’s hard to see how someone who’s never played JRPGs before getting what I got out of it when they’re simply not in on the joke.
Still, at the very least they will always have the music.
Overwhelmingly justified: Yes, providing you have the patience