“It’s kill or be killed.”
I saw those words at the beginning of Undertale, and something about them won’t go away. Despite my best efforts to distract myself, that phrase stays in my head. It sticks there like a parasite, a little itch that I can’t quite scratch to satisfaction. It’s… Unnerving.
“It’s kill or be killed,” sneers a character in the opening scene, grinning cruelly at the truth of these words. His eyes are black voids, his mouth a crooked slash across his face like it was carved into him. I think he knows something I don’t. I think he’s hoping I’ll find out what it is.
“It’s kill or be killed.” Damn it, I really can’t shake them.
Can I prove him wrong?
Undertale is one of those games that’s been giving critics a lot of trouble by its sheer weirdness. It’s almost impossible to describe and still do it justice, but many feel the need to praise it anyway, because – well, because it’s amazing. But I’m going to try. I’m also going to do what I can to avoid spoilers, so this review might be weirdly coy in places, but I’ll do my best.
So, Undertale. It’s a game that came out in September after nearly three years of development, made almost solely by a chap named Toby Fox and funded by Kickstarter. It needed only five grand to make, but clearly some people saw potential in it because in classic crowdfunding style it made over ten times the amount.
And that’s interesting in itself, because with a perfunctory glance Undertale does look incredibly cheap. The graphics are nothing special, not a bit of it. They’re designed to look like they’d be on the NES, and though there’s the occasional bit of underwhelming design, every now and then they’ll surprise you – and sometimes they’ll surprise you a lot. This is the kind of graphic design where the placement of a single pixel can convey emotion, and Fox manages to utilise this to its best in some scenes. Oh, and there’s a boss fight where… Agh, I don’t want to spoil. Let’s keep it a surprise, yeah?
And that’s kind of the theme of Undertale – it’s always surprising, never boring. Every scene can make you laugh, quiver, snarl, or even cry. Think about that. I’m a pretty emotionally-repressed guy, and this was making me well-up like a fifteen year-old watching a romance movie about terminally ill people. And I felt like that more than once! I had to go and lift some weights afterwards just to affirm my masculinity.
Because Undertale is Well Written. I’ve capitalised those words, because of how true they are. It’s amazing, it’s superb. From a rather innocuous and simplistic start – “humans live above ground, monsters live beneath ground, and you’ve fallen down from one to the other, oh no,” the game gets a thousand times deeper (no pun intended) than you could possibly imagine. This isn’t a set of rooms and caverns clipped together, this is a living, breathing world that shines on every level. It’s got history, personality, small-scale conflict, large-scale conflict, and a cast of characters who really felt like friends to me at the end.
In fact, Undertale has one thing that I haven’t seen this much of in a long time: HEART. And yes, that is kind of a joke to those who’ve played it, but I really do mean that. You can feel the love, the delight, and the spark of creativity that can’t be factory farmed; that can’t be produced by committee or on the whim of a contract. It’s shining with the personality and pride of its creator in a thousand ways, and really gives the impression that somebody wanted to make this.
This is certainly one of those games that could only ever emerge from an indie company or a solo developer, because Undertale also takes the occasional potshot at mainstream gaming. They’re infrequent and subtle, but they always made me grin when I saw them. My favourite moment of this is the tutorial, where the person escorting you asks with complete seriousness if you’re ready to walk across an empty room, all by your own. Yes? Are you sure? Well, just be careful not to hurt yourself.
And you can’t get that kind of self-parody properly with AAA, because the whole house of cards could come tumbling down if you point out where it’s badly put together. Can you imagine any blockbuster title like Call Of Duty or Rise Of The Tomb Raider having the balls to point and laugh at such a common attribute of gaming? I don’t think I can.
So what about gameplay? Well, it’s odd, but I like it. I’m reminded a little of Earthbound (though that might just be the visuals) mixed with the Mario and Luigi series, as it’s a narrative-driven turn-based RPG that gives you chance to avoid enemy attacks with reaction tests. These tests take the form of little bullet-hell sections, where you have to weave a tiny heart-shaped icon around the various objects that are thrown at it. Pull these sections off and you’ll never suffer a scratch. And good fucking luck in the later battles, buster.
But you don’t need to hurt enemies either, not if you don’t want to. You see, the fascinating thing about Undertale is that it’s possible to complete the whole game without killing anybody at all. Every attacker has an exploitable trick that allows you to persuade them to bugger off and leave you alone. For example, earlier today I was attacked by a small dog in a suit of armour (which is about as normal as enemies get in this game. I haven’t even got to the sentient airplane with complex romantic feelings yet).
And I could’ve killed Rover, sure enough. In fact, killing enemies tends to be the easier option by far. But instead I studied him and thought – why should I? I’m sure we can settle this amicably.
And we did, playing a brief game of fetch before I gave him a friendly pat on the head and he went to sleep in my lap. The battle was over, and everybody was happy. Why bother slaughtering your foes when you could bring the olive branch of peace? It’s generally slower than a sword, but it weighs a lot less on your back.
By the way, the life/death choice isn’t just for show. The game’s story varies HUGELY depending on how murderous you’re feeling. And I can only speak for me, but I couldn’t muster a single iota of aggression, even against the most challenging bosses of all.
That’s weird. I didn’t want to hurt any of the members of the monster kingdom, yet I spend time in The Phantom Pain tormenting people for fun. How the hell did it manage that, considering my usual modus operandi in RPGs is to splatter anything that looks at me funny?
It’s probably the aforementioned characterisation. The cast of Undertale are a lovable band of misfits who care about each other deeply, and who’ve all been wounded by their past in some way or another. They’re not evil – they’ve just suffered. And you might be able to make them feel whole again, if you’re really willing to try.
I’m kind of surprised about this, actually. Normally this sort of “power of friendship” thing would make me roll my eyes and stick my fingers down my throat, but Undertale pulls it off by having a strong character focus and understanding when to dial “the feelz” back just enough to keep it in sub-text, rather than rubbing it in the player’s face.
This is actually a very important distinction. A good writer doesn’t have their characters standing around saying how much they love each other. No, he shows his audience how they interact – and we see that love for ourselves.
And that’s kind of infectious to be honest, because they interact with us too, and we grow to love them as much as anyone. My particular favourite was an early figure named Toriel, who has claimed a special place in my flinty heart alongside Dungeons And Dragons, Cadbury’s milk chocolate and the actress in the “Stacy’s Mum” music video – though for very different reasons than any of those.
But what about flaws? Well, I’m pretty hard pressed to think of any major ones, though there are a few small wrinkles. Occasionally the graphics do seem a bit more “lazy NES visuals” than “clever NES visuals,” and there are one or two story beats I didn’t feel entirely on board with. And though boss fights are pretty brief when you’re going aggressive, the pacifist route tends to take a lot longer – perhaps too long in some cases.
But these are tiny flecks of dirt on a big, sparkling diamond, and there’s one glittery facet I haven’t even mentioned yet – the soundtrack.
Oh my god, the soundtrack. A score so diverse, so clever, so catchy and so fundamentally good I immediately went out and bought it afterwards, stuck it on my phone and had my head bobbing up and down like a pigeon for the rest of the day. The music varies between retro 8-bit tunes, dynamic upbeat guitar solos and powerful orchestral pieces – and that’s barely scratching the surface. There’s techno-synth pop, tinkling little music boxes and swinging jazz pieces that wouldn’t sound out of place on a montage in a kid’s cartoon. But it gels together well and certain melodies are repeated at the most poignant second possible, giving a lovely sense of deja vu.
Whilst Undertale does have a few very minor blemishes, I’m hard pressed to think of anything fundamentally wrong with it. Sure, some things it does better than others, but it doesn’t do anything badly, and most of the stuff it tries it manages to do incredibly well.
Perhaps the thing I’m most surprised about is that Undertale made me care – a lot. It made me feel emotional and sad, then made me feel joyful and happy. I think that’s the thing some don’t realise about people like me, people who are cynical to their core. We didn’t used to be like this and we hardly ever enjoy it. We’ve just… Adapted. We took on that attitude from certain experiences and we came to a conclusion early in our lives.
“It’s kill or be killed.”
But I’m not so sure about that mantra, not anymore. Maybe that’s why it’s so hard to get those words out of my head, because they’ve been something I’ve sometimes considered, sometimes believed in, or even delighted in when I was at my most jaded.
But that’s what Undertale made me realise – there’s no law that says it has to be that way. No, we enforce that law. We choose it. And we try to convince others that it’s the case because that way we won’t feel quite so awful for following it too. But, if we really try, we could always aspire to something better. It might be unlikely that we’ll ever manage it for real, but do you really think we should ask for anything less?
“It’s kill or be killed,” sneers a character in the opening scene, grinning cruelly at the truth of these words.
I think he knows something I don’t. And now I want to prove him wrong.
Unique, beautiful and artfully crafted in its every intricacy, Undertale is one of those games I will always hold with me. If you haven’t played it, go and do so right now. If you’ve tried it already, treat yourself to a replay.