Sunday, 31 January 2016

Undertale (PC)

Super Adventures is five years old today! Not a huge surprise considering that the site gets a year older at the end of every January, but worth noting I think. Also worth noting is that I've retired the tired worn out rubbish boring old 2015 logo and replaced with it a shiny new 2016 model. Less fire, more curves and pointy bits.

Last year I decided to celebrate by playing a classic Zelda game and a whole lot of Marios, and I've been struggling to think of how I could possibly follow them up. Then I saw that the GameFAQs community had come together to agree on a new Best Game Ever and I realised I had the perfect game to kick off Super Adventures in Gaming - Year Six:

Undertale title screen logo
Developer:Toby Fox|Release Date:2015|Systems:Windows, Mac

This week on Super Adventures I'm having a quick look at the notorious Undertale! I've heard that it's an RPG, probably, but I'm not actually sure. 

One thing I do know about the game (aside from the fact it's a contender for the 'Lowest Resolution Title Screen on Super Adventures' award), is that it's another one of those Kickstarter success stories. It didn't quite make as much as Wasteland 2 or even Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams, but bringing in $51,124 wasn't bad at all considering the goal was $5000. You can bet it's made a lot more than that in the five months since release.

Everyone says to go into the game blind, so I made a special effort to keep myself utterly unspoiled on it. I've heard the terms 'pacifist route', 'genocide route' and 'skeleton date' being thrown around, but I'm fuzzy on the details. So I'm not just pretending to be clueless for this, I really am clueless.

But I can't show the game without showing the game, so I'm sorry if I end up spoiling all the potential jokes and surprises that may (or may not) be at the start. I'm only planning to play the first hour or so though, basically what's covered by the demo I expect, so I with any luck I won't be giving the game away.




Oh it's one of those games that shows the intro right away before letting me get to the options menu. Fortunately the pixels are already as beautifully clear and sharp as they'll ever get, so it's fine.

It doesn't just have an RPG intro though, it has the RPG intro, the one where the monsters and humans fight a war and the monsters are sealed away underground with a magic spell.

Many years later, in 201X, a young child goes roaming around Mt. Ebott. Legends say that it's a bad idea, but either the kid never heard them or he (or she) thinks they're Link.

The kid comes across a huge hole, trips on a root, and falls.

And the kid's dead. BAD END. Always nice to have an opportunity to stitch some screenshots together though.


Plus now I get to visit the option screen! Well the Joystick Config screen anyway. I also get to name the 'fallen human', so I might be stuck here for while. Interesting how it hasn't specified the character's gender. The character in the intro isn't explicitly male or female so I guess it's up to the player to decide. If I had to guess though I'd say they're supposed to be a girl. Or maybe a guy. 

Aha, they're wearing blue so they must be a boy! Then again they've got those pink stripes. 

Anyway it turns out that the kid actually survived the fall without so much as a limp, thanks to the bed of golden flowers growing underneath. Just like when Cloud fell into the church in Final Fantasy VII! Not sure that's actually meant to be a reference though.

I've got direct control of the character now so I can go find a more interesting cave to hang around in, but it seems that those eyes are staying closed.

It’s a triffid! KILL IT WITH FIRE.

I don't know why, but plants creep me out. Especially the ones that talk back to you. I'm sure FLOWEY's a perfectly nice flower when you get to know them though. Plus it reminds me of the one from Alfred Chicken.

Alfred Chicken (SNES)
Mr Pekles, now that was a plant I could trust. He hid inside a wall of cheese and gave me a secret jar of jam.

Okay FLOWEY, I'll hear you out. Show me how the battle system works.

undertale flowey friendliness pellets
Wow, that's very monochrome. I thought the game was going for a Super Nintendo EarthBound kind of aesthetic, but this has gone very ZX Spectrum all of a sudden.

The game has given me a tiny box and inside the box is a heart which represents the kid's SOUL. FLOWEY explains that the SOUL starts off weak, but can grow strong if I gain a lot of LV (LOVE). Basically what I need to do is move the heart to collect the, uh, "friendliness pellets" as they fall through the box.

Okay, I can do that!


BUT THEN.


Undertale Flowey In this world it's kill or be killed
I KNEW IT! Son of a bitch plant tricked me into steering my heart into his attack!

It's weird how the game's given me such a tiny square to move around in during combat. Not that it matters much right now.

Fortunately a kind monster slid onto the screen at the last minute and killed it with fire! So that worked out. Unless she's about to start throwing out "friendliness pellets" of her own.

She's TORIEL, caretaker of the RUINS, and I like the way she talks in colours like that. She claims to pass through here every day to check to see if any idiot humans have gone and fallen through that hole again. Though she doesn't actually say 'idiot'; I get the impression that would be wildly out of character for her.

I’ve found a sparkly save point! Seems that I've got a determination based save system, where the hero can only save at places where they're especially inspired by the scenery. Trouble is that I've only got the one save slot, so if I ever want to replay part of it for whatever reason (like retaking screenshots) I'll have to start again from the beginning.

Oh I just realised that the music's started up and it's very much not a retro chiptune track. It's all mellow and pianoy sounding in fact. Here, have a YouTube link; you can open it up in another tab and add some atmosphere to my screenshots.

Crap, the game's got random encounters! For some reason I expected I'd be running into enemies onto the field, but I took a few steps into a room and now I'm facing off against a froggit in the empty black combat zone. Hmm, I said this looked like a Speccy game before but now I'm thinking that it reminds me more of a BBC Micro game...

Man this combat theme is ridiculously catchy. Maybe pause that Ruins theme music a moment and put this on instead: YouTube link. It almost sounds like it came off a Game Boy Pokémon game (except for when it doesn't).

Anyway Toriel told me that when I'm in a FIGHT I need to... strike up a friendly conversation. So I selected the 'ACT' button and these are the options it's given me. Uh, frogs like compliments right?

Oh, Toriel just slid onto the battle screen and shooed it off. Okay then!

I've played some hand-holding tutorials before but this is ridiculous. Toriel doesn't even trust me to find the path through the spikes by myself; she's treating me like a dumb kid! And she's absolutely right, seeing as in the last 10 minutes along I've deliberately climbed a mountain no one's ever returned from, fallen down a giant obvious hole and then gotten played by a plant. Supervision is exactly what's needed here.

Wait. Tutorial... tutoriel... man I'm slow.


SOON.


Toriel had to run off ahead for something so she left me alone in a room for five minutes. Five seconds later and I'd wandered off to pick up strange candy from a mysterious ancient podium. It's probably fine!

I've also discovered that I have an inventory, but limited inventory space, so I have to be careful with my hoarding.

Man there's a lot of magenta in these catacombs. It's like I'm a NES sprite walking around an old EGA DOS game.

Without Toriel around I have to solve these puzzles by myself, but they've been pretty straightforward so far. Like one room had me pushing rocks a couple of spaces to the right; not a huge test of my brain power.

This room on the other hand is a total mystery to me. Some of these floor tiles will crumble when I step on them, others won't, but there's no way to tell which are which without a map! I guess all I can do is walk out, fall down a few times, and figure out a safe path through trial and error.

Well at least I survived the fall. Now I can walk back out and try again.

The sign says "Please don't step on the leaves," by the way. Oh. OH! I get it now, it's a memory puzzle! Shame my memory's crap.

I've been getting one or two random encounters per room so far and I've been successfully running from them all, but it doesn't seem like I've got any way to avoid this Pac-Man ghost. He's right in the middle of the floor, pretending to sleep, blocking the way out.

The game's given me the option to push him out of the way so I'll give that a try. I'm good at pushing things.

Oh, we're fighting then are we?

I'd rather see if I can figure this out peacefully first though. I don't think I could handle the shame if  Toriel saw my bruised fists covered in ghost blood.

Alright so I won't be choosing 'FIGHT', and 'ITEM' just lets me eat my candy, so that leaves me with 'ACT' and 'MERCY'. Mercy gives me the choice to '* Spare' or '* Flee', but I'm thinking I'll have more luck with one of the actions 'ACT' has given me to use.

Interestingly the '* Compliment' move has disappeared so it seems I get different actions for different monsters. I'll try '* Check' first, see if I can bring up some clues about him.

Right, so now I know he doesn't have a sense of humour and he attacks with bullet hell ghost tears. I guess checking counted as a move so he took his own turn right afterwards.

Okay then, if he's sad I'll try to '* Cheer' him up.

This isn't better! He hit me with his eye worms and now I'm sad.

Cheering seems to have improved Napstablook's mood though, so I guess I'll... check him again? I'm still not sure how to get the friendship victory in fights.

Uh, okay... I'm happy to call that a win then! Didn't get me any XP though.

A few rooms further along I met a helpful NPC who pointed out that what I want to be doing is choosing '* Spare' once their name (and the command) has turned yellow. Yellow text is how I know I've gotten on an enemy's good side and can walk away.

Of course I can run away whenever I want, but winning by showing mercy gets me a little gold, while fleeing gets me nothing. And I need money to buy a jug from the spider bake sale. It's full of healthy life-restoring Spider Cider, made with whole spiders, not just the juice!

I also came across a switch puzzle which had me properly stuck because some of the switches were hidden and I didn't understand the clue at first. I need Toriel back to solve things for me!


EVENTUALLY.


A little further along I ran into Toriel again who brought me to her house in the Ruins. She reveals that she's got a room all set up for me here, and she's making me butterscotch-cinnamon pie, and I can never leave.

She seems like a very caring and lonely person, stuck out here in the Ruins surrounded by nothing but frogs, but I can't stay here with her. I've got a game to explore! A story to play through! Internet memes to understand!

After thoroughly examining every bit of furniture in the house I switched to pestering her about the way out, until she finally decided to go downstairs and destroy it.


OUTSIDE THE EXIT TO THE RUINS.


She doesn't want the kid to leave because if she does then ASGORE will kill them! Every human that comes down here meets the same fate, she's seen it over and over again, and she's not going to let it happen to me.

So I guess I have to fight the nice lady who made me pie now. Damn.

Toriel's got a variety of different attack patterns and they're all bloody hard to dodge. Especially when my Xbox 360 controller's not fully co-operating, I dunno what's up with it, maybe I haven't got the sensitivity set right.

On my turn I keep trying to talk to her, but it's telling me "Ironically, talking does not seem to be the solution to this situation". I tried sparing her as well, even though her name's still white, but that had no effect.

Well that's interesting, now that I'm down to 2HP her attacks seem a little less... accurate than before. I suppose it makes sense that she doesn't want to kill the kid she's desperately trying to save, that'd be kind of counter-productive.

So now I have all the turns in the world to figure this out, but only so many options I can choose from. She did say I had to prove I was strong enough before she'd let me leave; maybe I have to fight this time?

So that's how attacks work. I have to stop the bar in the middle of the meter for maximum damage. The trick will be to get her to low health without finishing her off.

Oh crap, it just did a 200+ damage critical attack and killed her! That totally wasn't my fault! I'm going to quit out and reload. There's a save point outside her house so I won't have to replay much.


OUTSIDE THE EXIT DOOR AGAIN.


Huh? I'm sure that line didn't come up the first time we did this. 78% sure.

100% sure.

So the sneaky game's been secretly saving the actions I taken even between save points. If I were a cynical man I'd wonder if I'd been subtly pushed to accidentally kill Toriel so that the game can teach me that my actions have consequences that linger even after I load my old save game.

Well that explains why I only get the one save slot. Still, it's a bit annoying having the game pretty much tied to me on my PC, so that no one else can have a go until I've finished with it and utterly wiped all trace of my save.


LATER.


Well there, you go. Turns out that sparing Toriel was the right move, I just had to do it over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again.

I feel kind of bad about leaving her alone and worrying about me as I walk off into the dangerous underground, but it a much better outcome than the alternative at least! She gave the hero a hug and sent them on their way, to brave the monsters waiting beyond the door.

Flowey. We meet again, you little git.

Wait, what do you mean you know what I did? I fell down a hole, solved some puzzles, cheered up a ghost and ate pie, that's all I did.


I... whoa. The flower knows.

He reveals that... actually I'm not going to say what he reveals. I don't want to give away more than I have to. There's definitely something going on with this guy, and his dialogue directly refers to decisions you've made, I'll leave it at that.

Anyway, I'm past where the demo ends now, finished with the tutorial, done with the Ruins and finally out onto the overworld!

Oh so there's no Final Fantasy-style overworld then. I guess I'll just be walking over to the right for the whole game then (with the occasional short branching path).

Seems that there's more comedy interludes (and less magenta) out here in the snowy underground, as I'm being continually interrupted by these two skeletal human hunters who like skeleton puns and convenient human-shaped lamps. Can't say their routine's winning me over just yet, but I dunno, maybe they'll grow on me (or go away).


SOON.


Undertale game over screen
And then a few screens later I got wrecked by a random encounter. Turns out these monsters really are out to get me, there's no subversion there. Plus dodging's hard sometimes, especially when I haven't been levelling up and increasing my max health.

The enemies are getting trickier now as well, attacking in pairs, so I have two simultaneous bullet patterns to weave between. The battle system is perhaps more basic than a typical RPG as I don't have magic, elemental attacks, or summons or any of that, but if I'm going for a peaceful outcome then I have to work through my options to figure out what monsters want. There's a bit of a puzzle to it.


SOME PUZZLES LATER.


Here's another way they're getting trickier: by throwing colours into the mix. Blue bullets only hurt if I'm moving, green bullets take some of the hurt away.

The thing is, I don't get any experience for winning this way, so there's no feeling of getting stronger, no stats going up. It reminds me of when I played Evoland a couple of years back and halfway through a dungeon it gave me a message saying:

Suddenly I realised that nothing I'd done up to that point had mattered, I'd just been wasting my time, and it made me want to scream at a wall. Random encounter JRPG battles without a reward feel kind of pointless and unsatisfying.

In Undertale though enemies are characters with their stories playing out during combat, and they're always throwing some new minigame at you, expressing themselves through bullet patterns. Turns out that making cute dogs happy is at least as satisfying as watching numbers go up, and it makes encounters more interesting than just casting Fire 2 on some imps. Plus it helps that the battle music's catchy.

All along the way Papyrus the idiot skeleton has been trying to catch me... with puzzles. Some of them are actual puzzles, some of them are jokes, but I can barely go a couple of screens without running into another one. The game's more interested in making the player smile than trapping them in one place for long though so I can imagine some people finding them almost pointlessly easy.

If you can figure out how to walk over all these X's to turn them to O's without stepping on any of them twice, then you'll have zero trouble with anything else it's been throwing at me.


SEVERAL DOG BATTLES LATER.


Well there's no overworld, but I've found a town! It's got a shop and an inn and a library librarby and everything! It's also filled with NPCs to chat with, so I can now spoil for you that the game has people you can talk to in it.

It's nicer down here than I expected, all snow and trees. Why there's snow and trees in a dark cave underground I've no idea, but I'm not complaining. It's also a bit weird how I'm a NES character sprite in a world full of SNES characters, but then I am an outsider here.

Hey it's an actual proper shop, with weapons and armour and conversation and everything! No selling though, they don't want my junk. Fortunately I can dump anything I don't want in a Resident Evil-style item box to be retrieved elsewhere when needed.

I was going to mention how the game doesn't have items to save up for, so there's nothing driving you to go out and quest for treasure, but now I've learned that it does so I'll shut up. Not that there's much in the way of treasure out there to find and no side-quests to earn extra cash.

Hey I recognise all those dogs from the combat screen! Man this bar would've been really empty right now if I’d chosen to fight back all those times. Or half empty if I'd chosen to fight back half the time...

Now I almost wish I'd started out with a typical JRPG run, killing every threat in self-defence. I mean I definitely prefer this as being the ultimate outcome, but it would've been cool to blaze a trail of righteous destruction through the world the first time, then come back on my next playthrough and see how much more alive it is when I live and let live.

Like if I'd defeated Papyrus in combat earlier I wouldn't have been able to chat with him about his sink now.

The game was definitely made by someone who understands that the joy of an RPG comes from the dumb descriptions that come up when you examine everything. Everything in this world is either set up for a joke or a hint to something else. Like that sock down there covered with Post-it notes is a hint that his housemate Sans is a lazy bastard.


MUCH LATER.


There you go, this screenshot is Undertale all over. I'm just walking down a straight corridor with a friend, just enjoying the rain. Of course it's not actually Undertale all over as I'm not solving puzzles, dodging bullets, navigating mazes or listening to skeleton puns, but I'm making a steady journey rightwards through a place with more atmosphere and heart to it than you'd expect. I think it's pretty deliberate that the game doesn't have a run button; it switches gears on its own terms.

I'm surprised there's no signs on the back wall telling the backstory one line at a time though, the game loves to do that. It's the 16-bit RPG equivalent to audio diaries.


WAY WAY LATER.


Undertale Anime is real
Actually this screenshot is Undertale all over.

Sorry, I'll stop here before I literally ruin everything.


CONCLUSION

Whatever you're expecting Undertale to be, it probably is, as long you're expecting a self-aware emotional comedy bullet hell RPG created by someone from the internet. It's a fun family-friendly fable doused with two teaspoons-full of nightmare fuel.

The game's been compared to EarthBound, but my main memory of that game is being lost and miserable in the giant towns, and that just doesn't happen in this. There's an occasional maze-like dungeon, but Undertale's basically a long walk constantly interrupted by text boxes and fighting. Endless text boxes. Sometimes the path branches off somewhere for a bit and you can always turn around and go back the way you came, but you're pretty much experiencing a linear series of scripted jokes and events (though which jokes and events depends on your choices during combat). Speaking of combat, that's another thing that sets this apart from EarthBound, as becomes a proper action game in fights and it does not mess around. If you're not a fan of twitch gameplay and dodging bullets patterns this is going to get frustrating.

Battle system aside, the game kind of feels like it was made for an RPG Maker contest, but in a good way! In fact it feels like it won the contest and was expanded afterwards, which I guess is kind of what happened seeing as the demo won a couple of thousand people over on Kickstarter. It's got a homemade quality to it, where the author's fingerprints are all over it and he wasn't afraid to let dumb in-jokes slip in. He also wasn't afraid to keep the art simple so he could get the thing made before Beyond Good & Evil 2. It wouldn't have been considered a overly pretty game even back in the 16-bit era, and there's like 3 different art styles fighting each other on screen at once, but the pixel art has got some Pokémon charm to it and more importantly it's expressive. Plus the gameplay wouldn't really work if the visuals weren't so abstract and easy to read.

Humour is subjective and this is a comedy game, so if the wacky skeletons, greater dogs and tsunderplanes don't win you over you're going to have a bad time with it. I mean you could always kill them, but then the next character's going to be just as annoying and the game's pretty much wall to wall text boxes. It's not just about the jokes though, as all the characters are more 3 dimensional than they first appear and there's signs everywhere that something else is going on. Often literally, nailed along the back walls. The world's small enough so that everything in it can fit together like a puzzle by the end, with even throwaway inventory items and background objects developing meaning as the game progresses and you get to know people. Or get to kill them.

When the game's firing on all cylinders the gameplay and storytelling work together in synergy, with the game mechanics themselves being an essential part of the plot. It's practically an RPGs about RPGs, and it loves to play with tropes and subvert expectations. But what makes the magic trick work is the fantastic soundtrack, which starts off as catchy chiptunes and ends up as downright emotionally manipulative, with masterful use of meaningful leitmotifs. The game lures you into caring, then rewards you proportional to your emotional investment.

One issue I had with the game though is that is that if you pick the path of fighting without fighting then you don't get an enemy health bar ticking down to indicate you're making progress. That's fine in regular encounters where it becomes obvious very quickly if you're on the right path, but in boss encounters you can be bashing your head against them for a dozen or more rounds of bullet hell minigames without knowing if you're making progress or just repeating the wrong move and expecting a different result. And those rounds really kicked my ass at times, as I screwed up over and over again, munching through bisicles to stay in the fight. I became very familiar with the game over theme by the end.

Undertale is a moody, goofy, playful, moving, exhausting, stressful game, and I can't say I loved every minute of playing it, but I definitely liked it enough to give it my 'Not Crap' award. It made me smile and that's worth a golden star.


But on the other hand... I played it long enough to get two of the endings and then chat to every character in the game world about what they thought about that, so I'm giving it a prize. There's a cut-off point to 'meh, I thought it was okay' and I'm clearly way past that here. In fact I'm halfway to obsessing over it judging by all those words, so I need to move on before I start drawing Sans fan art or something.

    

Consider it strongly recommended to fans of cult SNES RPGs, bullet hell shooters and internet humour. If you're at the point on the Venn diagram where those intersect, you're in the right place to find the joy in it.


Next time on Super Adventures, I'm playing that game over on the left. You know the one (maybe).

Please feel welcome to leave opinions and feedback below!

15 comments:

  1. Didn't you have a tag for "protagonist falls through a whole" or something?

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    Replies
    1. It's possible, but I don't remember it.

      I did manage to find a few others to tag it with though.

      Delete
  2. I see what you did there, you clever thing.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Oh, and I love the new logo. Happy blog birthday!

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  4. Grew review Ray, interesting game.

    I was gonna ask you to review The Punisher, Aliens vs Predator arcade games on Mame or Zelda Link's Awakening DX, etc but I really hope you review Earthbound. That's it. It's got that zany Japanese humor too. Best game ever.

    Also I'm reading a game design book by Mike Dawson of Darkseed. He doesn't mention the game in his book though.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks for only picking games I've already got on my site, it really does save me a lot of work! Not many people are as considerate when making requests.

      Delete
  5. That fight is too clever for its own good. The flower is a bit of a jerk no matter what you do, so some people have quit the game after they got crap for something the game tricked them into doing.

    When a game pulls that old chestnut of "Press X to continue." *X* "HOW COULD YOU YOU MONSTER", the proper response is a ragequit.

    Yeah, I killed Toriel too. Didn't much mind being pushed, but I was playing the demo and it ends very soon afterwards anyway. Fun fact, in the demo Flowey also writes comments into the manual.

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    Replies
    1. It's probably for the best that I don't have a Steam account, because I'd be doing that kind of thing all the time.

      Reason for refund: "Game wasn't entirely clear about the function or possible consequences of action and didn't follow convention. It thought it was funny to trick me. I think it's funny to get my money back."

      Delete
    2. I didn't think it was THAT manipulative. Sure it kind of leads you down a certain line of thought, but a more stubborn player than me would've gotten the right outcome first time.

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    3. Me neither. But I saw someone who didn't realize that they could go back and spare Toriel, or that sparing her was even an option, and they were not amused.

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  6. Meh. Most definitely NOT a "game of the year", but at least it has a certain originality, compared to the thousand sequels and reboots we get.

    Now what I wonder is, can this game keep feeling original all throughout or does the novelty wear off and you realize that behind the surprise effect it's a very mediocre product?

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    Replies
    1. I found that the game plays with expectations and switches things up all the way through to the end. I wouldn't say it relies on novelty though as it's actually a very well thought out experience that stands up to replays, and may even require one to get the best ending depending on how murder-happy you've been.

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  7. Great game. I cried three times playing it. I came in expecting it to be bad and it surprisingly wasn't. Glad I read your review to convince me to try it.

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