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Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Undertale Revisited...

Ah, Undertale. This game was for a long time my favorite video game ever, and I still would call it my favorite, but after playing through the game with my good friend Vincent, I realized that when I first reviewed "The Friendly RPG where No one has to Die" I didn't even get any of the game's multiple endings, in addition to riding an intense hype typhoon, and since the game took the Internet by storm in 2015, I have come to the heartbreaking realization that the game I constantly sing praises of and make reference to obnoxiously wasn't nearly as flawless as I made it out to be.

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For those of you who aren't really sure what Undertale is, it's a indie game created almost single-handedly by a guy called Toby Fox. When the game launched back in 2015, it was almost universally praised by everyone, earning various awards, perfect 10-out-of-10 scores from professional journalists, and earning the second most annoyingly widespread fanbase ever (the first going to the over-night horror classic franchise, Five Nights at Freddy's).

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The story of Undertale follows a small child whose name you are NOT supposed to know until the very end of the game's Good Ending as they make his/her (while the child's gender is unknown, everyone agrees that the child more closely resembles a girl) way through an underground kingdom inhabited entirely by monsters, either befriending everyone they meet or leaving a trail of death and destruction, depending on whether you the player are trying to get the Good Ending or the Bad Ending, respectively.

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That's mostly the general plot, and while the overall story is unique and memorable, the way it's told isn't that good. Most of the story comes from loosely connected dialogue from characters that don't have much relation to one another. My biggest gripe with Undertale's story is the seemingly out of nowhere appearance of an anthropomorphic spider girl named Muffet (I see what you did there, Mr. Fox!) that literally has no impact on the story and after a surprisingly difficult boss battle, isn't seen or even mentioned for the rest of the game, save for the end credits. It's especially jarring because she even had a unique music theme (appropriately titled "Spider Dance) playing during the boss battle, and that kind of treatment is normally reserved for characters who play a major role in the story.

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Another thing I will critique is the New Home area (pictured above). This is the final area the child goes through on his/her adventure, and it leads right to the final boss of both endings. The problem? Even I will admit I found this area to be anti-climatic. I mean, it LOOKS beautiful with it's deliberate lack of color to create a sense of loneliness, and I can understand what Toby Fox was going for with this area, but not only are there no puzzles whatsoever, there aren't even any fightable enemies here either. And while one of my favorite themes in the soundtrack starts playing here (the imaginatively named "UNDERTALE"), this area gives you a massive exposition dump from either every monster you have encountered up until this point or a character called Flowey, depending on whether you've met the criteria for the Good Ending or the Bad Ending, respectively. In retrospect, this exposition dump wasn't really needed until you go into Dr. Alphys's basement, which, again, changes the story-telling method from New Home's exposition dump to a method I actually really like, reading log entries scattered around the basement, as well as audio tapes that basically repeat what the exposition dump in New Home told us, only shedding some new light (like how the first human to ever come to the kingdom of monsters died) and in a much more impactful way (at least in my eyes). To be fair, you access Dr. Alphys's basement extremely late in the game (the only reason I'm telling you all here about it is because you should be extremely suspicious of the door Alphys darts into shortly after you meet her).

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But while the main story might not have been told in the best way possible, I will say that one of Undertale's strong points is it's EXTREMELY memorable cast. Every character is unique and even the would-be generic enemies have plenty of life and personality put into them (a few stand-outs being the muscle-bound seahorse Aron and the infamously adorable Greater Dog).

But a small complaint I have is with The Big Six, a.k.a. what I personally like to call the six characters that are both the most important to the story as well as the most popular characters in the game, for varying reasons. They're by far the most beloved part of the game, earning hundreds of fans as well as tons of fanmade artwork (2017, where your game's fans do the advertising for you!). But after half a dozen playthroughs I realized that the only characters the game keeps around after their own side-story has drawn to a close are the the skeleton brothers, the chill, laid-back Sans and the vainglorious and egotistical Great Papyrus (they are both named after fonts, in case you didn't notice).

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if only the Great Papyrus knew he would become
the single most popular character in the game...

My personal favorite character, Dr. Alphys, doesn't get much screen time, especially compared to everyone else due to not showing up until you're roughly 3/4's into the game, and that leads into the second biggest problem, it's not as big a problem as the bizarre encounter with Muffet, but this game is at MOST five hours long. This makes the game EXTREMELY short and while I understand the limits of a one-man development team, a measly five hours is nowhere near enough time to give a natural course for character development and have said character development feel rushed. Alphys's romantic endeavors being the biggest victim of this (seriously, after an adorably awkward but surprisingly minimalistic love confessions to Undyne, BOOM! The Fish/Dragon Power Couple is born just like that!).

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Behold my favorite character in the game,
Dr. Alphys!

And while on the subject of characters, I just wanted to say something about the game's fanbase. You know how I said that Undertale has the second most annoying fanbase ever? Well, back in the beginning of the game's life after release some people refused to play the game because the preexisting fanbase was unbearably annoying. Partly because there are people that simply won't shut up about this game, partly because there are SOME people who love the game too much (namely all the Toriel fans who think she is attractive, despite the fact that Toriel is both an anthropomorphic goat-woman, and the fact that fact that she is literally hundreds, maybe thousands of years old), as well as people (specifically fanfic writers and comic artists) exaggerating Sans's emotional state (if you look at fan-made stuff for Sans they make him seem like a broken shell of a man who's barely holding back tears, while in the actual game he's mostly all fun-and-games, though he does imply he's a nihilist with some of his Bad Ending dialogue) So a word of advice, if you ever not played the game due to the obnoxious fans, or because of people thinking that Toriel is hot, or because of fans making Sans a lot edgier than he is in-game, now would actually the best time to actually play Undertale since the hype for it has died down, and a lot of people who used to be obnoxious about how much they love the game have since mellowed out.

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Truly, the most difficult choice I have ever 
made in my life...

On another note, something I will say positive about the game's story is it manages to make me (and hundreds of other people) feel a wide array of emotions. From laughing at the silliness that is the Great Papyrus' side-arc, to having your heart melted by the insanely heartwarming moments you have with Toriel (even IF a lot of her fans think she's hot...), to feeling the absolute horror that is what awaits inside Dr. Alphys's basement which I will not spoil for you, all the way to getting hit right in the feels once you defeat the Final Boss of the Good Ending. And this is all a good thing, because if a story isn't making feel the emotion that it wants you to feel, the story itself is bad. It's such a shame that most of the story feels so loosely connected due to the way it was told.

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Admit it, this is most adorable moment in
the game!

Now I know this whole time I've been talking about the story and characters, but how good is Undertale's gameplay? Well, your mileage may vary here. Either the gameplay is fun and innovative or it's painfully easy (especially if you played any of the games that inspired Undertale's combat system). You see, while it is very much a RPG, it borrows elements from games such as Touhou and Shin Megami Tensei (that is, dodging increasingly complex attack patterns and negotiating with enemies instead of trying to kill them, respectively), although I myself have never played either because I never heard of either game until after playing through Undertale myself.

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The game is effectively split into two parts, exploring the underground kingdom of monsters and actually battling said monsters. The combat is mostly turn-based, but it brings in a unique little twist. On your opponents turn, your character transforms into a bright red heart and can float around wherever you want as long as you stay in the confines of what is known as the Bullet Board. You use this mechanic to manually dodge attacks yourself. That's right, with enough practice, skill, and hand-eye coordination, you can beat the game without taking a lick of damage. I LOVE this system as it dumps my least favorite part of the RPG genre, having to rely on stats and random chance to dodge attacks.

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The lovable volcano Vulkin shall be our
example for explaining Undertale's combat!

As you can see in the picture above, during your own turn, you have four options. FIGHT, self-explanatory, initiates a timing based minigame to harm opponents. Depending on which ending you are trying to get, you will either spam this button to the ninth dimension and back again (for the Bad Ending) or you will never even touch the FIGHT button (for the Good Ending). ACT is arguably the most important option available to you. Clicking it brings up a list of options you can do to peacefully interact with the enemy in question, with every single enemy in the game (including bosses) having a unique set of options (of course, joke options like Flirt or Pet are shared across several enemies). Next up is ITEM, which, also self-explanatory, lets you use an item that you have currently in your inventory. Some items will simply heal you, while others will end battles early. And finally, and by far the most well known because it's the thing the game got famous for, the MERCY button. Clicking this brings up two options, Spare or Flee. Once you figure out how to successfully convince a monster to not kill you (the cue for this is the letters in their name will turn bright yellow), you can click Spare to end the fight without killing the monster. Keep in mind, you will never get XP and thus never level up, so the game will get slightly more difficult if you are aiming for the Good Ending. As for Flee, it lets you escape SOME battles. For obvious reasons, almost none of the boss battles will let you click this option.

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This is an example of an opponent's turn in action...

Additionally, all of the bosses, save for three (four if you count Napstablook as a boss, but he is more akin to a mini-boss due to how short his battle is) will alter the physics affecting the bright red heart you control when dodging attacks. For example, one boss can remove the heart's ability to float around and forcing the player to jump over attacks to avoid them, turning the game into a Super Mario Bros/Flappy Bird-esque platformer, while another boss gives you a shield but removes the ability to move away from the center of the screen, forcing you to turn the shield around quickly enough to block incoming attacks. It makes the bosses stand out and make them much more challenging (but still fun) than the regular enemies.

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Something that Undertale doesn't do that well, sadly, are the puzzles dotting the monster kingdom you explore while outside of battle. The puzzles, save for one optional piano puzzle where you have to memorize a 8-note-long melody played by a statue in one area and play the exact same melody on the eponymous piano in another area entirely (bound to be difficult to anyone who has a bad memory or simply are musically inclined enough to identify and memorize each note), are really simple and easy. And even then, the one puzzle that's actually difficult is entirely optional and the only thing you get out of it is an item that can be used to make infinite money. Which, while nice, isn't really needed to complete the game.

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And after getting all the gameplay and story stuff out of the way, let's address the graphics. Now, hear me out here. Just making a game deliberately look like a 80's era video game does not make the graphics bad. However, there are some things I love and some things I hate. I LOVE the environments and the full body sprites. I HATE the overworld sprites for characters, however. Why? The overworld sprites are literally scrunched-up versions of the full body sprites, and don't really have any expressiveness to them, save for Sans and the Great Papyrus (the former because you only see his full body sprite once in the entire game, and the Great Papyrus because he's by far the most expressive character in the game regardless of which sprite for him the game is using).

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On the subject of environments, the only bad looking area in the game is the very first one, the Ruins. Ironically, this area has a ton of purple, which is actually my favorite color, but the reason I don't like the look of the Ruins is because of how it over-uses one color (purple), and I would have personally added some other colors to break up the sea of purple that is Ruins. But every area PAST the Ruins looks amazing. Toriel's house looks so cozy and welcoming that I built a replica of it in Minecraft (this was back when I considered Undertale to be perfect in every way and I played Minecraft on a regular basis). Snowdin Town is in a state of never-ending Christmas, which is a dream come true for those of you who celebrate Christmas. but even if you don't it's nice to look at. Waterfall is simply GORGEOUS with it's clever use of bioluminescent plants and shades of blue that thankfully aren't overused. And Hotland uses the perfect blend of oranges and reds to create the feeling of traveling through the heart of a volcano, while throwing in some "patches" of sci-fi technology here and there to remind you that you are in the domain of my second favorite dragon ever (the first being Spyro!).

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And finally, let's address arguably Undertale's strongest point... The music. The game's soundtrack is AMAZING. I know music is extremely subjective, but Undertale has the best music I've heard in a video game in a long time. Heck, the only game that has better music, in my opinion, is Valiant Hearts: The Great War, although I'm biased towards that game because of it's heavy use of piano and the piano is my favorite instrument to listen to. But Undertale also occasionally uses real instruments instead of relying on it's nostalgia-inducing 8-bit chirps constantly. Some of it's songs even use both real instruments AND nostalgia-inducing 8-bit chirps at the same time! But seriously, there isn't a bad song in the soundtrack at all, but then again, music is subjective. Like I remember one time I was babysitting these three kids and I let one of them play the game and they (I'll leave them anonymous) complained that the music was annoying. To be fair, they were roughly 11-years old (I think...) and probably never played an 8-bit game before (and if they have, then sorry for jumping to conclusions).

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With all of this being said, I feel a rescore is in order. It is with a broken heart that I give Undertale, one of the best games I ever played, as well as the one video game I thoroughly believed anyone with a decent computer should play immediately, an 8.5/10. *depressed sigh*

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Now don't expect me to rescore all the games I have reviewed on this blog (that would take about 3 years), but I felt it was necessary to look at Undertale and determine (lol DETERMINATION jokes!) whether the game was as flawless as I once claimed. However! This might not be the last time I rescore a game, if I feel that the score I gave it at the time was too high or too low (although the lowest I've ever rated something was 4/10 lol), I'll play through that game again and rescore it appropriately.

P.S. I guess you could say that the child's gender is unDETERMINED!!!

P.P.S. I just now realized the two characters I mentioned getting almost ruined by the Undertale fanbase are also the characters my good friend Vincent ships together lol.

P.P.P.S. That rant about Dr. Alphys' love life was definitely DRAGON on!

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