The Edward Lear poem, “The Jumblies”, has as its refrain an amusing piece of rhyming folderol:
Far and few, far and few,
Are the lands where the Jumblies live;
Their heads are green, and their hands are blue,
And they went to sea in a Sieve.
This review begins with the Lear quote above because the game under review, Undertale, has in common with “The Jumblies” that it, too, is feel-good nonsense, although it absolutely lacks the artistic merit of Lear’s poetry. And, moreover, ‘far and few, far and few, are the’ games which earn the unanimous scorn of the entire Starlight Megaphone staff–but Undertale has managed so to do. Fans of the misbegotten turdwurk that is Undertale should probably look away now, lest their gentle feel-feels suffer an ouchy boo-boo from the hurty words that are about to follow.
Your humble reviewer would never have played this game were he not required to do so as a result of a Summer Donation Drive challenge, which directives he follows without fail. And, in the past, the aforementioned reviewer has had to trudge through some pretty dreadful tat in delivering upon reader expectations. However, at no point before has he engaged in playing through a game that he has viscerally hated as much as Undertale, a game which no sensible parent would allow a child to play, with its central storyline message that “kidnappers are just misunderstood, and you should befriend rather than fight them to escape”. Yes; it is possible to play through the game multiple times to learn that the story is more complex than this, but at the end of the day, Undertale is a role-playing game, and it must be evaluated as such: on the plausibility of its storyline as presented, and not with a bunch of extra information obtained only after-the-fact via internet searches and repeated playthroughs. If Final Fantasy VII is open to critique for lacking clarity, then Undertale is open to critique for a storyline which is, on the face of it, despicable.
The plot follows a child who falls into an underworld full of monsters. The child is discovered by a butterscotch-obssessed goat-person who immediately attempts to brainwash the child into thinking that the goat-person is her new parent. If the child resists this disgusting behaviour, then the goat-person becomes increasingly intemperate and angry. And, if the child refuses to remain in the care of the goat-person, then the goat-person attempts to use force to prevent the child from returning home. The design of the game at every turn implies, with increasing strenuousness, that the player is wrong to resist, and wrong to fight for escape from, captivity.
Indeed, it is possible to play Undertale entirely through without any actual combat at all, in what is known as a ‘paficist’ playthrough. However, such a playthrough makes no sense in the context of the story. Simply put: children should resist being kidnapped; they should resist people attempting to brainwash them into replacing their parents with their captors; they should resist force, including by the use of force and even deadly force themselves. No one has a moral obligation of any sort to treat a kidnapper with sympathy or mercy, especially a kidnapper of the most vulnerable. Attempting to blur this distinction should fill one with disgust if one actually possesses a justifiable moral centre.
Hence, this reviewer played through the game encountering choices and behaving consistently with what information the game provided, and ignoring any information gained from ‘outside’ the plot of through the game (e.g. through people revealing plot details or instructions not-yet-revealed in the game itself). And it is this point that the (frankly, insane) defenders of Undertale consistently refuse to accept: again and again they splutter than ‘the goat person is actually trying to protect you!’ and ‘it all makes sense when you get to the end of the pacifist run!’, but none of this is evident in the world of the game: there is no way the main character could know it. To play or to read the plot in such a way is to do so with the benefit of hindsight. But games, like real-life experiences, are not genuine at all if played out with the script in hand. Human beings do not know the future, and they do not have an omniscient view of events, and they do not have the ability to act with complete foreknowledge of the conclusions, hence justifying the game on these grounds is fundamentally indefensible.
Setting aside the disgusting implications of the plot, Undertale also seeks to undermine the premises of classic RPG design by rendering combat unnecessary, and by punishing the player for accumulating EXP and LOVE (later revealed to be ‘execution points’ and ‘level of violence’ or something similar). At the end of the game, the player is chided (consistent with the storyline explanation above) for killing so many people to gain EXP and LOVE, quite irrespective of the fact that the player-character is attacked by creatures who explicitly threaten violence, and towards whom pacificism is only a reasonable response if one has information beyond that provided by the game.
All of this is not to say that Undertale is without cleverness, if not ingenuity. The battle system is menu-driven, with a timing based-component followed by a ‘defence round’ in which the player must manoeuvre a small heart away from enemy projectiles in order to avoid damage. The feeling of combat is very similar to that of Mother 3, with a sense of Asteroids in the defence round. The overworld, for its part, seems strongly influenced by the Mother series, and some of the writing is actually quite clever. On the whole, though, the humour is stretched too far and, by the end of the game, the plot ‘twists’ become increasingly obvious, up until the final battle sequence which is quite simply complete nonsense. The premise of Undertale is therefore quite solid, but the details of the plot, and especially its resolution, are convoluted and largely incoherent. Even after beating the game and reading the Wikipedia summary of the plot, this reviewer found it difficult to parse exactly what was going on at the end of the game.
More irritatingly, there are serious design deficiencies with the game itself: the menus are so basic that this reviewer found it necessary to unequip and equip items to switch them back and forth and determine their characteristics and benefits. Old equipment has to be thrown away, because it cannot be sold. Inventory space is extremely limited. And combat seems almost disinterested in adhering to character strength: near the end of multiple battles, this reviewer noticed the player-character doing four or five times normal damage for no particular reason. It appears that many battles are simply designed to last a certain number of rounds, and once that number has been reached, the game is designed to expedite the conclusion. (If only this had been the case with the game itself!)
Aesthetically, as mentioned above, the graphics ape Mother, and the music is not particularly well-written, although it has somehow won awards. Undertale has, after all, been well-received by the mainstream press, which generally falls over itself to laud to the skies any game which resists good sense. And Undertale with its lack of challenge, its message of radical passivism, and its ‘gotcha’ storyline quirks is the perfect game for mainstream game journalists and political extremists in the disguise of gamers, because it allows these groups to point to ex post facto plot details in order to justify their own extreme and backwards view of the real world. “See, I was right all along! It was wrong to fight the goat-person!” the blue-haired journalist crows, whilst pointing at an Undertale Wiki and pinching xis nipples. Hence Undertale is the manifestation of their desire that one day, ex-post-facto details of history will prove them right about all of the frankly insane things that they believe about the real world today: “See! It turns out that I was right about those insane things I said then, and that means I’m right about the insane things I believe now, too! You’ll see!”
No one should play Undertale. It is a game designed to upend a healthful attitude towards reality and to replace it with one based upon speculation about mere possibilities rather than upon evidence from past events. A kidnapper might be trying to protect the target child, yes, that is a remote possibility–but the overwhelming evidence is that kidnappers almost always want to rape and murder the children they kidnap. The message of Undertale is that one should ignore evidence and pursue the most optimistic of possibilities, because that optimism will be rewarded. It is fantasy software for the clinically soft-headed; and, worse, it is a fantasy with implications that its fans seem unable to separate from reality. Champions of this game should be treated as as the dangerous and deranged lunatics that they are, and locked away in high-security mental institutions forever.
To sum up:
Undertale is the worst game that I have ever played;
Its fans are the worst people that I have ever encountered;
And, if I could erase one game from existence,
This would be the game.
Developer: Toby Fox
Publisher: Toby Fox
Platform Reviewed: PlayStation 4
Release Date: 15 September 2015 (PC/Mac, Worldwide)