A few days ago, I was trying to find a new game to play in order to kill time until XCOM 2 was released. I’ve been out of the gaming loop for a while and so was reading about the best games from the past couple years. One title I kept coming back to was Undertale ($9.99 on Steam). I decided to check it out and was absolutely blown away by it.
Before I bought Undertale, I read about a half dozen reviews on it. (Hey, $10 is a big investment for a veterinary student.) Everyone assured me that it was worth the money, but the reviews were very superficial. They all cryptically said that they couldn’t discuss anything more than the broadest aspects of the game; that it needed to be experienced raw. While frustrating to read, after completing Undertale I now wholeheartedly agree with this assessment.
Yet I haven’t felt an incredible urge to write about this game just so I could go over the most superficial aspects of its design. I need to get a lot off my chest, and the only way to do that is to go in-depth about my two playthroughs so far. So for the first time, I’m going to give Undertale its review score early into this review, after the part without spoilers. Then I’m going to discuss my playthroughs in detail.
So what is Undertale? Undertale is modeled after traditional Japanese role-playing games but with a unique twist – it is absolutely possible to beat this game without killing a single enemy. The story is that many years ago, humans and monsters peacefully coexisted on the surface. One day, a great war broke out and the monsters were banished deep underground. There are only two connections between the Underground and the surface. There is a barrier that only humans can exit the Underground from, and a mountain that only humans can enter the Underground through. Every so often, a lone human will fall through this mountain. You play as the seventh human to fall through this barrier, an androgynous child.
An unlikely hero.
You are tasked with traversing the dangerous Underground, reaching the barrier at the end, and returning home. Along the way, you discover more about what happened with the Human-Monster war, learn what the monsters’ lives are like beneath the surface, and face plenty of things who nearly kill you.
Except that the vast majority of these monsters have no intention of hurting you.
I don’t think Froggit entirely understands what he’s even doing.
You see, monsters and humans are built very differently. Monsters are made up mostly of magic – this has two consequences. The first is that nearly everything they do, from crying to flexing their arms, can inadvertently hurt humans. The second is that they are incredibly weak – you’ll learn that not single a human was slain in the Monster – Human war. There are only a few monsters in the game that deliberately try to hurt the protagonist, and even they usually have an understandable reason.
And so Undertale offers you two choices. You can either fight the monsters head-on and kill them, or you can convince them not to fight with some rather…colorful options.
That’s Undertale’s major hook – the unique choice of fighting or sparing every enemy you meet. Ever enemy you kill gains you gold and EXP, which lets you level up. However, sparing enemies only gets you gold, which means if you don’t kill anyone you stay at LV 1 with minimal health, attack, and defense. The way you dodge attacks is also unique. You don’t just sit and let the enemy attack you, each encounter is a “bullet hell” style encounter where you dodge their tears, flexing muscles, or hops around the screen.
But the mechanics of combat are hardly Undertale’s only claim to fame. There are also tons of fleshed out main characters that you can battle or befriend. You can upgrade your weapons and armor (this aspect of the game is pretty minimal, however). The whole game is filled with a great sense of humor. I laughed out loud plenty of times, and even when I didn’t I was usually smiling contentedly – the humor never got obnoxious.
One of my favorite moments from the game.
But the absolute best thing about Undertale is the way it will emotionally devastate you. I’ll get more into that in the spoilery section below, but just know that no matter what you choose in this game, whether you spare or kill enemies, you will need to take an actual step back and pause the game to think about what you’ve done. I promise you that.
So all in all, do I recommend Undertale? The fact is that this game was so unique and surreal at first that I had a hard time getting into it. I was never completely bored – the unique humor and constant bullet-hell segments prevented that. Yet I had a hard time getting sucked in. It wasn’t until I was near the end of my first playthrough (which takes roughly 5 hours) that I was blown away. At that point I restarted the game and enjoyed my second play-through so much more. I know that’s cryptic, and I will get into my reasons below, but just know that this is a game you will no doubt ultimately be glad you played. Yes, the graphics are very simple. Yes, the equipment options are limited. And yes, the game may seem a bit basic if you play it through as a straight fighting game. But after finishing this game, you’ll be re-evaluating who you are as a person. I’ve never had a game affect me like that before.
That ability to make you think, combined with the unique art style, great humor, awesome characters, and near-insane amount of endings, makes this score easy.
Undertale gets my first 10/10 – Essentially Perfect
My Spoiler-Filled Journey Through Undertale
Upon first falling into the Underground’s Ruins, I was greeted by a kindly monster known as Toriel.
Toriel was ridiculously kind to me, she wanted nothing more than to read to me and bake me butterscotch pies. She was also the one to teach me that monsters can be dealt with peacefully. I initially tried to follow her guidelines. In one of my first battles I attacked a Froggit to lower its health; if you do so they will leave the fight when offered. However, I accidentally killed this Froggit and watched its body wither to dust.
After I did this, I noticed that I gained EXP and came closer to gaining a LV. I figured that I would need to keep killing in order to survive. After all, weren’t these monsters trying to attack me? For the rest of my campaign I alternated between killing and sparing monsters. If they seemed to be completely innocent I would spare them. If they seemed at all like they were actually trying to hurt me, or if I was really close to gaining a LV, I would kill them.
Soon I was itching to leave the Ruins and find a way back home. Toriel didn’t exactly feel the same way. She told me that she’d cared for many fallen human children before; each had desired to leave the ruins and had been killed. She wouldn’t let that happen to me. She told me that she would fight me if that was necessary to keep me safe. And so I was forced to battle Toriel.
I understood Toriel’s position. She clearly wasn’t trying to kill me, she let me flee the fight whenever I wanted. And she had seen five other children she cared about die. But I couldn’t resign myself to a lifetime of living in the ruins. It seemed to me that the only choice was to fight her. So fight her I did.
You’ll get back up, right?
Toriel faded to dust, and I was left with the consequence of my decision. As I said, I didn’t blame Toriel for her choices. I thought she was wrong to keep me locked in the Ruins, but she held no malice in her heart. I thought we had each done what we thought was necessary, so I moved on to the world outside.
I soon made friends with a couple of skeletons, Sans & Papyrus. Papyrus was a member of the Royal Guard who wanted to kidnap me to impress his captain, Undyne. Papyrus kept laying puzzles down in front of me to impede my progress; he slowly came to consider me a friend as he became impressed by my ability to overcome his traps. While this was going on, I kept getting attacked by random monsters. My LV slowly rose as I chopped every other one down. After all, these things were attacking me. It was self defense. Even if some of these monsters clearly had lives and loved ones…
Such as this dog couple who were clearly enamored with each other.
…well, they started the fight.
I killed that dog couple and many others. Eventually I fought Papyrus, who despite wanting to be my friend decided he had to capture me. After a long and intense battle, I clearly held the upper hand. He offered this.
You offer me pity?
If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s cockiness. I should have been the one offering him mercy; he was clearly a failure of a soldier who couldn’t even stop a single kid. I came close to just finishing him off, but then I realized he didn’t deserve to die for being cocky. I ultimately accepted his offer for mercy and started hanging out with him; it became clear he was a harmless guy who was thrilled to be my friend.
As I moved onward in my journey, I began to be stalked by Papyrus’ boss, Undyne. She was a tall and imposing soldier clad in armor and carrying a deadly spear. Time after time I barely outran her as she hurled spear after spear my way. It was around this point that my attitude became, “Fuck this shit.”
Seriously. In this game I was…what? A ten year-old? After getting stranded in an absolutely insane world I’d been forced to kill the first person to show me kindness, been attacked by a dozen different kinds of scary monsters, and now a soldier was hurling spears at me. A child. Seriously, fuck these monsters!
By this point in the story I’d learned more about the human-monster war. Humans had attacked first, had killed most of the monsters without losing a single man, and then had permanently sealed the monsters in the darkness. All the monsters wanted was to get back above ground and see the sky once again. I felt bad for them as a species, but I couldn’t get over the fact that I was nearly getting killed every few seconds.
So when Undyne finally cornered me and it was time to fight, I didn’t hold back. She told me that if King Asgore obtained seven human souls, he could shatter the barrier keeping the monsters below ground and free his people. With my no fucks left attitude, all I could hone in on was the fact that King Asgore had murdered multiple children. There was one thing that Undyne said that hit me, though.
“Those two sweet dogs, who always took care of each other…were dead, because of the whims of a single human?”
There wasn’t really anything I could say to that. Yeah, those dogs had attacked me. But man, they really were in love, weren’t they? But still…self defense. Right?
So Undyne attacked and I fought back. As she kept trying to kill me, my fuckless attitude returned and I managed to kill her. But she didn’t go down without a fight.
This isn’t my video. I didn’t throw a single blow as she was dying…
As Undyne slowly faded away, I came to regret my choice to kill her. Yeah, she was trying to murder a kid. But like everyone else I’d fought, I understood her actions. She was trying to save her people, to avenge the ones she’d lost. She hadn’t deserved to die.
I kind of wandered around in a haze after that. Sometimes I killed, sometimes I didn’t. I felt bad about the choices I made, but what did it matter at this point? I just wanted the game to be done and for me to go home. I think this is why I didn’t truly enjoy Undertale during my first playthrough.
It made me hate myself.
The next boss I encountered was a deadly robot called Mettaton. Mettaton had been built by his creator, Alphys, to both entertain the monsters and kill any human it came across. Alphys immediately regretted trying to hurt human; she had quickly tried and failed to deactivate that part of Mettaton’s programming. Alphys promised to help me survive, but Mettaton was the opposite. Mettaton just kept trying to kill me.
He made bomb dogs for crying out loud!
Apathy turned to rage at this point in the game. This wasn’t a monster with feelings and family and dreams. This was a heartless machine who kept trying to kill a kid. When I eventually got the chance, I killed Mettaton without a second thought. The only thing left to do in the game was reach King Asgore, who had killed those children before me. Alphys told me that in order to get home, I would need to kill him and take his soul. With that extra power, I could break through the barrier and return home.
Despite everything I had been through over my journey, despite how many monsters I had killed and how apathetic I was becoming towards their lives, I had no desire to kill Asgore. I still understood why he had killed those kids; he was trying to save his people. And absolutely everyone throughout the game (save for Toriel) spoke about Asgore in the highest regard. He was a man who let his subjects wander around his castle and talk to him whenever they wanted. He dressed up as Santa on Christmas and gave the Underworld’s children presents. He didn’t want power or wealth. The only thing he wanted, the only thing he cared about, was freeing his people.
So I wasn’t looking forward to fighting Asgore, but I was ready to end this game. That all changed when I entered Asgore’s home and this music started playing.
There’s something about this music that just destroys my soul everytime I hear it. It has an air of finality, of hope, of forgiveness. As this music strummed in the background, two things kept happening.
The first is that monsters kept popping up. This time, they didn’t fight me. Instead, they explained Asgore’s story.
It utterly destroyed me.
A long time ago, a human fell into the RUINS. Injured by its fall, the human called out for help. ASRIEL, the king’s son, heard the human’s call. He brought the human back to the castle.
Over time, ASRIEL and the human became like siblings. The King and Queen treated the human child as their own. The underground was full of hope. Then… One day…
The human became very ill. The sick human had only one request. To see the flowers from their village. But there was nothing we could do. The next day. The next day…
The human died.
ASRIEL, wracked with grief, absorbed the human’s SOUL. He transformed into a being with incredible power. With the human SOUL, ASRIEL crossed through the barrier. He carried the human’s body into the sunset. Back to the village of the humans. ASRIEL reached the center of the village. There, he found a bed of golden flowers. He carried the human onto it.
Suddenly, screams rang out. The villagers saw ASRIEL holding the human’s body. They thought that he had killed the child. The humans attacked him with everything they had. He was struck with blow after blow. ASRIEL had the power to destroy them all.
But…ASRIEL did not fight back. Clutching the human… ASRIEL smiled, and walked away. Wounded, ASRIEL stumbled home. He entered the castle and collapsed. His dust spread across the garden.
The kingdom fell into despair. The king and queen had lost two children in one night. The humans had once again taken everything from us. The king decided it was time to end our suffering. Every human who falls down here must die. With enough souls, we can shatter the barrier forever.
It’s not long now.
King ASGORE will let us go. King ASGORE will give us hope. King ASGORE will save us all. You should be smiling, too. Aren’t you excited? Aren’t you happy?
And then, to finish this tale. A Froggit, the first monster I had ever killed, popped up and said,
Just writing this now makes me want to cry. I had killed so many sentient beings in this journey, creatures who were confused and just wanted to see the sky once more. I had done this because they unknowingly threatened me. I thought I’d had no choice. But when Asriel was threatened, he hadn’t killed anyone. Even though he could have killed them all, he chose instead to die and spare their lives.
The second thing that happened during this segment of the game, what transpired in between these monsters popping up and telling me this story, was that I explored Asgore’s house. It was nearly the same house as Toriel’s; it became obvious that these two were married at one point. What I found was a testament to a kind man’s lonely life. His dead child’s room contained toys. He had a “#1 Dad” trophy. He still wore a sweater made by his adopted human child. His kitchen was dirty, his living room unused, the only thing that seemed to give him any solace was gardening. I knew that Asgore would be waiting for me in his garden. But there was one more thing in that house I noticed before I left, one other thing that helped to crush me.
Inside Toriel’s house at the very beginning of the game had been a mirror. When you looked at it, you saw your reflection and a happy, “It’s you!” appeared onscreen. Now, five hours later, there was a similar mirror inside Asgore’s home. This time, the text was different.
I was always this way.
I’d become disgusted with the person I’d become in this game. But it wasn’t this world that had turned me into a killer. I’d always had that capacity inside me.
As I left the house behind and headed towards the garden, Papyrus’ brother Sans stopped me. Despite me killing every other monster I’d come across, he had always guided me and protected me. He’d told me it was because of a promise he’d made to Toriel long ago – to protect any human who exited the ruins. And now, as I prepared to face Asgore, he made one last startling revelation.
EXP didn’t stand for Experience Points and LV didn’t stand for level. They stood for execution points and level of violence. Whenever I killed a monster, I gained execution points that increased my level of violence. Sans told me that the more I killed, the more I could distance myself from the act. This meant that it became easier to kill in the future. I was stunned because that was absolutely true. I’d been devastated when I’d accidentally killed my first Froggit. Now I didn’t bat an eyelash when I turned a monster to dust.
At this point I was devastated. Sans offered some final words before I faced Asgore.
I really did stop and think during that pause Sans gave me. I couldn’t justify my actions and I didn’t want to try anymore. I was ready to end things.
So I strolled into Asgore’s garden. He spoke with nothing but kindness; it was clear he was dreading what would happen next. He apologized but said there was no other way to save his people. We fought.
And I died.
As I sat there and stared at the screen, I realized I was okay with what had happened. I had hurt so many, and my death would allow the remaining monsters to ascend to the surface. Maybe my death was the only way to absolve myself of my sins. But there was one other thing I could do…
I restarted the game and resolved to finish without harming a single soul. I found a way to leave the ruins without harming Toriel. I spared every monster I came across. I ran away from Undyne and saved her when she became injured. Two curious things happened in this playthrough.
The first is that I never got angry. I saw each monster through a new light. They were all struggling to survive and most weren’t trying to hurt me. Even the ones that truly did start a fight thought they were defending themselves against a human, one of the race of beings that imprisoned them in the Underground. Even Mettaton, the murderious robot without a soul, was only trying to kill me because of its programming. More than anything, it just wanted to entertain the Underground’s denizens and make them happy. For a while, I was able to be happy with myself, too. I was doing the right thing. I was making up for the mistakes I’d made before.
The second thing that happened, though, negated those feelings of joy. It became obvious that in the world of Undertale, nothing was ever truly erased. Characters still had fleeting memories that I’d been there before. Toriel thought that I looked like an old friend. Papyrus said I seemed familiar. And most heartbreakingly, an early monster told me that he knew I had only restarted the game to make up for my old sins.
All this reminded me that I was’t good; I wasn’t pure. In my first playthrough of this game, when I had experienced everything for the first time, I had killed so many. That power was inside of me and nothing I ever did could take that knowledge away from me. I have the potential for cruelty.
Ultimately, I was able to beat the game this time. I got a decently good ending (the absolute best ending requires fully completing the game once already). But I can’t shake the knowledge that when thrown into a strange world, it doesn’t take much to get me to kill.
I needed to write this blog to vent. I want to be a good person. I want to give others the benefit of the doubt, to offer mercy instead of fight. Undertale taught me that that is not all I’ll do when given the chance; I’ll also kill. But I guess…even though Undertale taught me that I have the capacity for cruelty, I have the ability to change as well.
Maybe Undertale won’t ever forget the cruel things I did in my first playthrough, but I guess I do need to remind myself at this point that it is just a game. I didn’t cause any damage in the real world, I haven’t actually killed anything. In the end, Undertale did me a great service.
I realize now that I was never a perfect person. I’d always known that, of course no one is 100% kind all of the time. But thanks to Undertale, I faced that realization head on. And now I know that even though I have the capacity for cruelty, I can also learn from my mistakes and be a better person. And like in Undertale, in the real world people don’t forget the pain you caused. But you can also go back and try to make it right.
I have never before had a game make me evaluate the essence of who I am, make me truly ponder if it is ever right to kill. It’s made me deeply consider the Aikido philosophy of all life being sacred. After all, is there anyone out there who is ever truly evil? Doesn’t everyone have some capacity for good in them, some attachment to another person, something that makes their life worth saving?
I mean, I’ve been looking forward to the release of XCOM 2 for months now. It’s a game about killing aliens who have taken over Earth and murdered millions. I used to be so eager to train my soldiers and get more adept at killing these aliens so that I could take Earth back. Now I find myself wondering, “Can’t I just talk to them and solve this peacefully?”
Deep down, I know that strategy will be unsuccessful.
I guess I need to realize that Undertale is just a game. The real world is a lot more complicated that the one in Undertale; you can’t just go to war and try to talk your way out of battle. You can’t just dodge their bullets until they come around with a hug. But Undertale made me truly think about what it means to be a good person.
At the end of the day, I can’t think of any other game that comes anywhere near that kind of accomplishment.