Undertale, Overrated

Yeah, I said it.

Undertale is a cult favorite and Kickstarter darling from 2015 featuring meme-ready characters, NES graphics, and unique game mechanics. Your character has fallen down a hole into the underworld and now must contend with anxious monsters who need your soul to escape their otherwise eternal confinement. Will you leave a traditional trail of bodies and tears on your way to the exit, or will you embrace the spirit of determination and the power of friendship to spare all that you meet?

The very ending(s) depend on it!

It’s possible that I played Undertale too late. The retro graphics did nothing for me, nor did the retro graphics + modern game twists, as I played LISA back in 2015 already. While I did not know exact plot details, I also knew Undertale had a True Pacifist route that led to the best ending – knowledge which prejudges one’s own behavior in the game. Finally, I had already played games that also shifted in narrative tone and 4th-wall breaking, like Nier: Automata. If Undertale was my first experience with any of these things, maybe I would have been more impressed.

My major issue with Undertale though is that it is… not fun. When fighting enemies, they attack you via 5-6 seconds of Bullet Hell in which you move a red heart around a predefined box. It’s an extremely novel concept, and the things Undertale is able to convey through this mechanism is commendable. But at no point is it fun to do. Doing a True Pacifist run means you must talk to enemies instead of attacking them, which consumes several “turns” which results in you doing multiple Bullet Hell levels for each randomly-encountered enemy. True Pacifist also means you never level up or get more HP, so the game just gets progressively harder. Finally, if you get dangerously low on HP, you have to spend your turn using a healing item instead of talking, which delays the end of the fight and can mean you catch more damage than you healed and otherwise wasted your time.

Did I mention that you need to purchase healing items, using money that you receive from successfully navigating monster neuroses, thus potentially trapping yourself into a losing battle of attrition? Indeed, the only way I was able to complete the game at all was from looking up the solution to a puzzle that gave me an item that sometimes gave me free healing items. Supposedly there is also some armor you can buy to trivialize fights if you die enough times too.

In any case, the Venn Diagram of people who enjoy the plot of Undertale and those who like Bullet Hell games are likely two circles on opposite ends of the Earth.

There were some genuinely funny moments in the game, don’t get me wrong. But all I could really think about while playing was that Undertale did not respect my time. Which seems strange considering the game is like 9 hours long. Or perhaps that is expected when you know that every random encounter represents a possible permanent loss of player power (e.g. healing items or money to purchase more) instead of, you know, your character growing stronger over time. Technically you do find better equipment along the way, but that is really a bare minimum to keep parity with ever-stronger foes when you are stuck with 20 HP and losing a quarter of it each time you touch something.

Ultimately, I am glad I finished Undertale’s True Pacifist route. I understand that there are a myriad of alternative endings, including one which requires you murdering everyone you meet, but I don’t see the point. I sure as shit ain’t spending another 5+ hours on the endeavor when I already disliked combat.

Will do, Flowey. Will do. In fact, it’s already done.

Posted on December 29, 2021, in Review and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Well now, if you do the challenge run you ought to expect it to be more difficult. I would have just killed everything, but I don’t care about getting any particular ending.

    It seems to me like most people who rate RPGs like this don’t really pay that much attention to the actual minute-to-minute gameplay. If they do then I can’t figure out how anyone ever liked any of the Final Fantasies, cause those games have the most boring and tedious gameplay imaginable.


    • I mean, I guess it’s considered a challenge run… but it’s also clearly the intended path. The tutorial implores you not to kill anyone, the Kickstarter material straight-up says “Fighting is wholly unnecessary: negotiate your way out of danger using the unique battle system,” and obviously the best ending is locked behind it.

      If an RPG battle system can’t be fun in of itself, it needs to at least be unobtrusive. You might not be doing much other than pressing Fight a bunch in most Final Fantasy games, but notice that you still make your way through the story (which is presumably why you’re there). There is still some measure of character progression occurring. There is not a sense of getting weaker with every battle – you just might be annoyed at your time being wasted.

      Meanwhile, Undertale has VERY obtrusive combat. You can’t sleep through it, you can’t trivialize it by knowing exactly which Act options to select. It’s not necessarily that I dislike Bullet Hell games either – I’m halfway through Archvale on Game Pass, for example. It’s just the implementation in Undertale, the lack of character progression, and how this otherwise unassuming “power of friendship” game has a jarring “btw, git gud” element to it.


      • I agree that boring and tedious gameplay is not helped by adding a tedious minigame on top. I’m only saying that most RPG fans don’t actually seem to care that much about the quality of the gameplay. Like you say, the story is the reason they are there, the actual experience of playing the game is perhaps just something to be endured to get to the good part. I can’t really figure any other reason than this why someone would rate a game highly where the bulk of playtime is spent autopiloting through hundreds of meaningless random battles or, in the case of undertale, playing hundreds of iterations of a minigame that got old after the tenth time.


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