Hitbox Review: Undertale — Puns can’t remedy shallow characterization

Graphic by Michaeline Collins.

Undertale begins with the player character falling down a hole to the underground, the home of the monsters. The player must find a way to return to the surface. Along the way, they’ll encounter many monsters, some less hostile than others. Whether the player decides to kill or spare the monsters is entirely up to them. It’s possible to complete Undertale without killing anyone. 

The monsters of the Underground are ruled by a monarchy. Undyne, pictured standing on top of a mountain, is the leader of the Royal Guard and serves King Asgore Dreemurr. Screenshot by John Novotny.

Developer: Toby Fox

Artist: Temmie Chang

Initial release date: Sept. 15, 2015

Platforms: PC [played], Mac, Linux, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita and Nintendo Switch

Price: $9.99

 

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Humans versus monsters is a classic role-playing game premise. Undertale asks: “What if humans were the real monsters?” If this twist on the formula sounds familiar, it might be because The Witcher games have also largely been about cruel and greedy humans in comparison to blood-thirsty monsters (graphic content warning). Quick-to-judge humans are the antagonists of Undertale too, except The Witcher games arguably explored the theme better through their excellent writing. The same can’t be said about Undertale. 

Some in-game moments caused the Hitbox reviewer to question if he was in a sleep-deprivation-induced fever dream. Screenshot by John Novotny.

Undertale’s exposition comes from unengaging readable plaques on walls and shallow character dialog. If a character isn’t blatantly leaning into their one-note personalities, they’re cracking unamusing puns. Of course, jokes are very subjective and are going to depend on the player’s sense of humor, but they definitely didn’t land for me. 

When the player is engaged in combat with a monster, their soul, represented by a small red heart in a 2D box, will appear on screen with four options. The player can fight, act, use an item or use mercy to spare the monster. Fighting will activate a timing-based minigame to determine how much damage the player’s attack will do to the enemy.

The “act” action is a non-lethal way to interact with the monster. The player might have the option to pet a dog in a suit of knight’s armor or flex at a bodybuilding seahorse. Once the player has pacified the monster using the “act” option, they can spare them. 

After the player selects and performs their action, it’s the monster’s turn. They’ll almost always attack the player, which begins a shoot ‘em up game inside the heart box. Dozens of patterned projectiles can be fired at the player’s soul at once. The player has to dodge them to avoid taking damage.

The shoot ‘em up combat is pretty challenging. I died multiple times to every boss. Since there aren’t any difficulty modes, this led me to kill almost every monster, even if I empathize with them. Killing is the only way to earn experience and level up, which increases the player’s health and how much damage they can take. This cycle kept me from engaging further in Undertale’s core conceit. Not having difficulty modes is also prohibitive to players who may not be particularly good at shoot ‘em up games, but want to experience the story. 

The player spends a lot of time in the interaction and combat menu, so it’s unfortunate that Undertale’s retro art style is boring to look at. There are areas that look a little more visually appealing, such as the aptly-named town of Snowdin, which is blanketed in snow. However, most of the time the player is going to be looking at some variation of white and black during the combat. 

There is some charm to be found in Undertale, such as this happy dog dangling from a rope, but not much. Screenshot by John Novotny.

On a more positive note, I loved the combat music, which reminded me of the wild battle music from Pokemon games. There’s a surprising variety of genres, such as chiptunes and swing. Anyway, back to the negatives.

I experienced numerous technical issues I encountered playing on PC. Here’s a list:

  • The game launches in a small window. The player must manually set the game to fullscreen by pressing F4 every time they launch it.
  • There is no mouse support. The player must use the arrows, z, x and c keys by default to navigate in-game and in the menus. 
  • I couldn’t use a controller because the character would continue moving after I let go of the analog stick. This didn’t happen in any other game during further testing. 
  • There’s no way to adjust settings after the player saves for the first time and creates a save file.
  • The player can’t exit the game through a menu. They must use the alt+F4 command
  • Occasional crashing to desktop. Fix: disable the Steam overlay.

I appreciate what the two-person development team of Undertale was able to deliver. The simple moral choice of killing or sparing enemies is a great way to emphasize player agency and cause them to question their actions. Why are they killing these creatures? Why does it feel good to do so? 

Examining humanity’s worst tendencies is still a relatively unique proposition for video games, especially when the core gameplay reflects that theme. It’s just difficult to ignore the fact that other games, such as The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, provide a more captivating experience for only a couple of dollars more

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