Undertale – Masterpiece or Overrated?

Flowey the flower

Undertale. When one mentions that title, fond memories come to mind, or the thought, “That game again?” Indeed, since its release in 2015, Undertale has become something of a phenomenon in the gaming world. Created by Toby Fox, Undertale is a sprite-based RPG that has the look of an oldschool RPG like Earthbound. The game was so big on PC, it was ported to PS4 two years later. This past September, it was ported over to Nintendo Switch. The game has a very loyal fanbase, with tons of fan art and animations populating the web.

When anything becomes this popular, people will emerge saying the media in question is overrated. Many of these people have never played the game, yet will cringe when anyone mentions it by name. (It is similar to the My Little Pony phenomenon that began in 2010 and continues to this day.) These people who jump in forums to say something negative just because the title is poplar do not contribute anything.

Do not mistake me though. While there are many people who despise popular things just because they are popular, there are  those who legitimately think something is overrated. In Undertale’s case, perhaps some may say it is not as good as people claim, or it got overblown in popularity simply because it has quirky characters. That is the aim of this article: to explore Undertale and see if it is a masterpiece, or greatly exaggerated in quality. Before continuing, it is important to note that one thing cannot be denied: it is an acclaimed title. Every version of the game – PC, PS4, Switch – has a score of 92 on Metacritic. This means that many critics agree the game is well made. What we’ll be looking at is what makes Undertale an experience, and if that experience is a good one, or an overrated one.

To begin, one has to go back to the start of the game.

frisk meets flowey

After the intro and choosing a name for the ‘Fallen Human,’ you are given control of the playable character, whom we later learn is named Frisk. The child moves about on a grassy field, and then you can move Frisk into the next area. In this area, there is another grassy field with a little flower in the center of it. The flower has a face, and greets the main character.

“Howdy! I’m Flowey. Flowey the Flower!” the flower says.

I remember my thoughts as I played this opening sequence. The seemingly friendly flower notices that Frisk is new to the Underground. He explains the battle system on another screen. I notice a little heart, which Flowey explains is my SOUL, “the very culmination of your being!” Flowey then mentions that my SOUL begins weak, but can get stronger with LV. Makes sense, right? Flowey then says that LV stands for “LOVE.” Already, the game is playing with the player’s expectations when it comes to an RPG. “LV” would normally mean “level,” but not in Undertale. The next part is what really kicks the game off.

Flowey states that LOVE is shared through “friendliness pellets,” and proceeds to share some with me. I happily run into these pellets, not knowing the flower’s nefarious plan until they decrease my health to just one percent. Flowey gives a sinister smile and says,

“In this world, it’s kill or BE killed. Why would ANYONE pass up an opportunity like this?!”

At this point, I’m shocked by what’s happening. Interestingly, the dialogue changes if one had decided to avoid the so-called friendliness pellets. It is interesting to consider why someone would run into the pellets, or avoid them. Either way, Flowey surrounds me with pellets and proceeds to kill Frisk. However, he is stopped by another character, whom is called Toriel. Toriel takes Frisk to her home away from danger.

At this point, I’m glad, but am a bit unnerved when Toriel later says, “I’ve also prepared a curriculum for your education.” Wait, what? I can’t stay here lady – I gotta get back home. After requesting how to escape the RUINS, Toriel tries to convince me not to go and goes on ahead to block the exit. However, I have to push forward. Toriel says, “Prove to me you are strong enough to survive”, and thus begins the first boss battle. Because I liked Toriel, I tried to find a away to spare her, because the beauty of this game is that it offers a “Mercy”, button, where you don’t have to kill an opponent. Undertale’s tagline is, “The friendly RPG where nobody has to die.”

Sadly, I did not find a a way to spare Toriel, and ended up killing her. (It didn’t occur to me that I could reset my save file to try again, which is a concept that will be mentioned soon.) After exiting the RUINS, I see Flowey again. I remember my exact thought during this: “Not that thing again.” After Flowey taunts the player, he leaves, and Frisk leaves to the next area. This is where the title screen pops up. This is where the adventure begins.

Simply put, the opening act of Undertale is an engaging way to begin the adventure.

Frisk meets sans

The main goal of Undertale at first is to escape the Underground. However, to escape, Frisk will have to battle King Asgore. You see, as the intro sequence explains, there was a war between monsters and humans. The monsters, led by Asgore, were driven underground. Now there is a barrier, and the only way to break it is with seven human souls. Asgore has six already, so if he gets the soul of Frisk, the monsters will be able to return to the above-ground. It is an interesting dynamic, as monsters are not inherently evil. This dynamic results in a fascinating sequence at the end of the neutral run, which will be addressed soon. But first, one has to mention the characters Frisk runs into along the way.

During the journey, Frisk meets a number of diverse characters, such as the humorous, yet mysterious Sans, Sans’ corny, yet lovable brother Papyrus, the “The heroine that NEVER gives up” Undyne, among others. These characters have diverse personalities, which is thanks to the writing. I couldn’t help but smirk at Papyrus’ dialogue, or be unnerved at Metteton’s love for an entertaining show. Toby Fox is a master of creating likable, well defined characters. One is never tempted to skip the text boxes, because the player always wants to see what they will say next.

Undertale’s cast of characters is unique and diverse.

flowey mercy or fight

So what’s the deal with a game where no one has to die, you might ask. This is where the true beauty lies in Undertale, and is something that makes the player ask philosophical questions. It is almost always easier to kill enemies and opponents than it is to have mercy on them. It often takes passion to look for ways to spare a character. Killing characters has an impact on the story as well, showing how much thought was put into this game. You have a choice: kill or have mercy.

In the battle against Asgore, the player gets extremely close to finishing the king off. As Asgore kneels defeated, he gives his story on why he wants to free monsters. It’s emotional, and at this point, the game gives the player the choice of whether to finish him off, or have mercy. After hearing his story, how could one still be motivated to kill him? I picked the mercy option, and the king was surprised and happy. However, something else kills him, and Flowey emerges. After taunting dialogue, such as Flowey saying he’ll save over my save file so he can kill me multiple times, you battle the final boss of the neutral run, Photoshop Flowey. I want to discuss the aftermath of this fight.

After the souls revolt, Flowey is defeated. We see a picture of him battered and bruised. At this point, the game gives you the option to either kill or have mercy. I’ll tell you, I very much wanted to kill that flower. As opposed to Asgore, whom wasn’t really a bad guy, Flowey was a psychopath. He wanted to kill me at the start of the game, and he tortured and taunted me during this battle with him. I was ready to kill him, but I knew mercy was there as an option. But why would I have mercy on something that has caused me so much pain?

Here’s the thing, if you do decide to kill Flowey, he looks at you with a deranged smile and says, “I knew you had it in you!” before dying. At this point, does the player feel accomplished, or a bit melancholy? Was killing Flowey the right thing?

I decided to go the mercy route. Why? You see, Flowey’s philosophy is that “it’s kill or be killed.” By having mercy on him, I am showing that actually, there is true love and mercy in the world. It doesn’t have to be “kill or be killed.” Here’s something to think about. When first picking the mercy option on Flowey, it doesn’t end the event. You have to keep going to the mercy option. In-between, Flowey will say, “Do you really think I’ve learned anything from this? No”, “I’ll come back,” “I’ll kill you, ” “I’ll kill everyone,” “I’ll kill everyone you love.” During all this, you still have the option to stop pressing mercy, and kill him. The game challenges you as Flowey says these things; are you DETERMINED to be a merciful person? Are you DETERMINED to showcase a philosophy that is the opposite of his? As you press mercy, Flowey becomes angry and questions what the player is doing; he doesn’t understand. I think this is one of the most fascinating encounters in gaming history.

Undertale forces the player to take a stance: have mercy, or kill. Are you willing to have mercy on the worst kind of person, someone whom has wronged you? It’s much easier to finish that person off than have mercy. Are you willing to go the extra mile and take a merciful stance? Are you DETERMINED to do so?

photoshop flowey

Undertale’s story is certainly interesting, but how about its actual gameplay? In order to be critically acclaimed, you must have good gameplay. Undertale’s gameplay is unique in that it avoids the usual RPG format. You control a heart in real-time and avoid enemy fire. It’s fun, and led to some great boss encounters. The battle against Photoshop Flowey is one of the most memorable boss fights in recent history. This is helped by the glorious soundtrack. I think it would be hard for anyone to deny that Undertale has a good soundtrack. From the fan favorite ‘Megalovania,’ to the ominous ‘Another medium,’ a major part of what makes Undertale engaging is its soundtrack. ‘Finale’ and ‘Hopes and Dreams’ are two beautiful final boss themes.

Undertale’s gameplay is fun. The boss encounters are interesting, and the soundtrack greatly enhances the experience.

 

True Final boss

Now we come to what makes Undertale a truly complete experience. After you beat the game the first time around, you can do it again to get the true ending. By going back and having mercy on everyone and completing certain things, you gain access to the true final boss and true ending, the “True Pacifist Route” as it’s called. Here you encounter Flowey again. He absorbs the souls of everyone and transforms into a dark final boss in the vein of Sephiroth from Final Fantasy VII. This battle is a fascinating final encounter. It even says, “It’s the end.”

You see, the battle is reminiscent of the final battle in Earthbound. In Earthbound, you battle Giygas. You can’t beat him conventionally. Instead, you have to “pray.” There is no other way to beat him, except through the power of prayer. In Undertale, you can’t beat Flowey conventionally. Instead, you first have to “save” the souls of those he has consumed. Finally, you have to “save” Flowey himself. Flowey’s backstory is fascinating, and here we have Frisk appealing to Flowey. Flowey, seeing the love all these souls have for Frisk, and his own past memories with the Fallen Human, gives up and breaks the barrier. It’s bittersweet, as Flowey (real name Asriel) stays behind because he will transform into a soulless flower again. At this point, Frisk is given the choice to hug Asriel. It’s an emotional ending.

Sans

However, what happens if instead of having mercy on everyone, you decide to kill everyone in the game? This results in the “Genocide Route,” and Frisk eventually being taken over by Chara, the original Fallen Human. This is intriguing, and features an incredibly memorable battle against Sans. Here’s the really interesting thing: if you do a Genocide run before doing a True Pacifist run, you will lose the Pacifist ending. Instead of getting the happy ending, in the sequence we see red Xs on the characters faces in a portrait, and later Chara laughing at the player. This is brilliant, because it shows that there are consequences for completing a genocide route. You can’t go back and save everyone after killing them. Rather, you have to live with the fact that you decided to engage in the Genocide route, and there’s no going back.

Undertale’s True Pacifist Route is a brilliant final chapter. The game gives you the option: pacifist, or genocide. There is no middle ground here, there is only one final ending, and you have the choice of either having mercy, or killing everyone.

Ending

In conclusion, I have to say that Undertale is a great experience. I would call it a masterpiece – with its engrossing story, unique gameplay, diverse characters, and philosophy. The game is something of a deconstruction of the RPG genre, and comes down to a single question: What is your true DETERMINATION? If one does not experience the game the same way, that is fine. Not everyone will find Undertale to be the unique experience I consider it to be. A little while ago, I played the critically acclaimed game, Journey. Although I knew it to be well-liked, I didn’t get anything out of it. It didn’t mean anything to me. But, it meant a lot to others, and that’s what matters. Undertale is not a game that is loved by everyone, but it does mean something to a lot of people. That is something important to keep in mind.

There are many games out there, but I can say that Undertale is one that will always stick with me as particularly memorable.

 

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