A week or two ago, Toby Fox‘ Undertale more or less exploded into my Twitter feed. One moment, it was business as usual; the next, everyone was talking about cool skeletons, fish women, and dogs that were or weren’t shitty. It was downright intriguing to see, not to mention a little bizarre.
I couldn’t quite figure out just what Undertale was supposed to be from all the talk. All I could reliably pick up from the Twitter chatter were three things: a) Undertale is apparently really good, b) I should be playing it as soon as possible, and c) no seriously, why haven’t I started yet?
And then, just as I was considering whether or not to give in to Twitter peer pressure ‘this one time’, a friend gifted me the actual game. My Achilles heel. And, well. Here we are!
(Spoiler levels: Narrative, KINDA REALLY HIGH. Mechanical, medium to high.)
(Game source: Gift from a friend.)
I boot up Undertale. A small 640×480 window pops up in the center of my monitor, and immediately proceeds to launch into a backstory intro.
In sepia-tone pixel-art stills, Undertale proceeds to spin a story of humans and monsters. They were at peace, and then they were at war. The humans won the war, and banished the monsters underground, sealing them there with a magical barrier. The story is told in NES-style scrolling text, complete with that one particular text-is-appearing sound effect. You know the one, don’t you? If you’ve ever played any old-style (J)RPG, you know what sound I’m talking about.
Cool pixel-art, old-timey design aesthetic, and a slow, melancholic chiptune track to set the mood. And I’m only fifteen seconds into Undertale. My day is looking up.
The history lesson ends with the magic spell and the monster barrier. And then, just like that, Undertale skips forward in time.
“Legends say that those who climb the mountain never return.” I’m treated to a slideshow of a human kid climbing, well, that exact mountain. Good on you, kid! Screw those fear-sowing fairytales!
In a cave in the mountainside, the kid discovered an ominous-looking hole in the ground. They move forward to investigate, when suddenly… they get their foot stuck on a vine, trip, and fall down the hole.
It’s alright, though! Everything’s fine. Shaken but not stirred, the kid looks up to discover… I’m not sure what it is, but it sure looks like an amazing underground wonderland.
And I know, at that moment. Kid here is a curious sort. A giant hole in the ground didn’t deter them. They’re not gonna be happy until they’ve explored every nook and cranny of this new, dazzling subterranean adventure.
And neither will I. Let’s go!
Let’s go!… As soon as I very quickly learn the game controls in this here main menu.
For lack of any other options, I begin the game. Undertale prompts me to “name the fallen human”. I briefly consider going with ‘Jarenth’, but come on. Come on. I am way too risk-averse to climb strange mountains and trip down wonder-holes. Plus, a hero’s name should reflect their adventure. And I think you’ll all agree that only one name can properly crown the kind of hero who starts their quest by tripping on a vine and falling fast-first into the heart of the world.
Hero, I name you Steve! Arise, that we may begin our adventure! Arise, from your… bed of golden flowers? That you landed in, I guess?
I move Steve around their darkness-bordered home. Arrow keys move, as you do. C opens the menu, a nostalgia-inducing white-text-in-black-boxes affair, where I can check Steve’s items (none) and their stats (fairly cringe-inducing).
I walk around the cave. I can tread on the flowers and on the grey parts, but the black areas are walls. For a moment, I appear to be boxed in. But then I notice the grey path leading out the lower right corner, and walk that-a-way.
Hey, a hallway. Hey, a fancy door. Hey, a new room.
Hey, a… a flower. A talking flower.
Pleased to make your acquaintance, Flowey the Flower! Nice to find another friendly face in this otherwise dark, empty cave. Can you maybe, I dunno, tell me what’s going on here?
Suddenly, the screen rapidly flashes, three times. With each flash, all I see is total blackness… and a bright red heart where Steve stands. Then the screen flashes one final time, and the heart is all that remains.
Then, UI appears.
Flowey the Flower explains that the heart I’m looking at is Steve’s soul. It’s small and weak now, but it can grow strong if I gain a lot of ‘LV’.
And what is LV, Flowey asks? Ooh, I know this one! It’s obviously…
While Flowey talks, I move Steve’s heart-soul around with the arrow keys. It’s bounded in by the white lines, but can otherwise move at a decent pace. Fly, little soul, fly!
Flowey explain that in the underground, creatures can share LOVE by passing on ‘friendship pellets’. Ah, how sweet! It’s a good thing I have a major sweet tooth, or this would be way too saccharine for me. And wow, look at that! Flowey is offering to share some of its LOVE with me!
Flowey sends a few slow-moving pellets my way. “Catch them if you can!” I move my soul to intercept one…
Ow! Flowey, that kinda hurt! Are you sure this is what’s… what’s supposed to…
… F… Flowey?
Oh god! Flowey the Flower isn’t nice at all! “In this world,” it sneers, “it’s kill or BE killed!”
Aah! And now Flowey is moving in for the final stroke! What do I do, what do I do, what do I do?
And then, just as suddenly… my health is restored, Flowey’s death pellets are scattered, and Flowey itself is pushed off the screen. In its place, a new creature appears.
Toriel offers to guide me out of the ruins. For a moment, I’m hesitant. What if this is another… But then I realize that a) if she wanted me dead, she’d have left me to Flowey, and b) what choice do I realistically have? As far as I can tell, my only alternative is to sit here and wait for Flowey to show back up.
Toriel guides me to another part of the ruins, which is less gloomy oppressive blackness and more rad colourful pixel art. The sight of this new place fills me with determination!
As we walk, Toriel gives me a brief rundown of the RUINS, her capitalization. ‘My new home’. It’s apparently a place filled with puzzles. Like buttons on the ground, and switches on the walls, and locked doors and spikes and whatnot. Fancy.
Toriel has prepared a few basic puzzles for me to practice on. They’re, er…
Toriel even teaches me to fight! Sorta. See, in a non-Flowey situation, this is actually what the battle screen looks like.
I could fight the Dummy, here. If I wanted to. But Toriel offers an alternate suggestion: instead of fighting, why don’t I just strike up a nice conversation with the Dummy? That’ll give her enough time to come to my rescue.
And so I do! I talk to the Dummy, and then Toriel comes to take it away, and everyone is happy. Yay, non-violence!
In later rooms, I actually run into the occasional random encounter. Like Froggit, the Frog! Here, too, I don’t actually have to fight them. Rather, by taking the right actions, I can reduce or remove the enemy’s will to fight. And then, by showing them some Mercy, I can end the battle without lashing out a single time.
I walk through the ruins, solving puzzles and non-fighting monsters. Toriel goes on ahead, but she hands me a cellphone first. And then calls me on it, every now and again. What’s my favourite flavour, cinnamon or butterscotch? And does that mean I dislike the other flavour? Or are both of them good?
The ruins are, quite frankly, a strange place. I find sad sleeping ghosts, and frogs with friendship issues, and a bake sale run by spiders, for spiders. It’s quite the adventure, and I enjoy myself. But let’s not lose track of my ultimate goal…
No, wait. Toriel’s house is nice, but I kind of want to go home. Go home, you know what I’m saying? I’m in monster land now, but I’m a human being. I can’t stay here. And since I can’t quite climb all the way back up, either…
C’mon, Toriel. ‘Mom’. There’s gotta be another way into the human world. You know something, don’t you? Please help me got home.
It turns out that Toriel does know something. There’s a passageway out of the RUINS in the basement of her house. And… she’s going to destroy it?
‘If you leave the ruins, Asgore, king of the monsters, will kill you. And use your soul to carry out his plan. And I cannot let that happen.’
Toriel tries to stop me, but I persist. I have to get through. And so, she sets an ultimatum: I can go through the door… if I show I’m ‘strong enough to survive’.
I try to talk my way out of fighting Toriel. I beg, I plead, I threaten. But she will not budge. It looks like I have no choice but to actually Fight, for the first time in the game.
It doesn’t feel good. The battle system is a small rhythmic minigame, meaning that I have to time each and every strike. It conveys the sensation of actually striking Toriel. And because Toriel has a lot of hit points and I’m not very strong, I have to hit her over and over. And over. And over. And over…
Until, finally! A good hit.
With her last breath, Toriel warns me to be careful of Asgore, the monster king. And then, she falls over. Her body disappears into the aether, and her heart — her soul — quivers for a moment. Then, it slams into mine, my soul absorbing hers, taking her health and power for myself.
I force-quit the game.
No. No no no, this is not how this thing goes. I know I can talk momma out of fighting. Killing her isn’t right, and that is not the story I’m telling in this review.
One reload later, I find there is actually a way to get past Toriel without fighting. Whew! I’d have felt really shitty if I’d have been forced to kill the only sympathetic character I’ve met so far. And, best of all, nobody will ever know I was once willing to kill her to proceed.
I mean, I’ll know. Obviously.
But beyond that, nobody will ever…
…sorry, I have to go sit down for a moment. I’ll, er. I’ll get back to this adventure in a while, okay?