Warning, this review has some serious spoilers about the game mechanics.
I picked up Undertale during the holidays after seeing it appear more and more often on best of year lists. Up to that point I had missed pretty much everything regarding this game other than some background noise about it being a great game and I figured I needed to play it for myself. So it is with absolute zero knowledge of what the game is about that I dived in.
So did I like it? Not at all, I liked part of it but I don’t agree with a lot of the story elements and some of tricks the game uses to tell the story. Is it a bad game? It’s a great game that’s well-crafted and manages to deliver a powerful experience to the player. Something a lot of games aspire to but few manage to.
This leads me to say that Undertale being an experience is probably the best way to describes it. It’s a game about choices and the moral consequences they carry. It’s a game that tries to show you that the characters you’re fighting are more than roadblocks on your path but are actual people with stories and personalities. In essence it’s a game that tries very hard to make you feel that killing and fighting these people is a bad thing that you shouldn’t be doing.
It’s an extremely judgmental game that uses a lot of tricks, misinformation and manipulation of the player to achieve its goals.
Instead of going over the details of how it does so like I usually do, I’ll relate my experience playing the game. Close to the beginning of the game you get to fight goat mom who wants you to stay with her. I couldn’t use the mercy commands right away like I could in the dungeon before so I figured something needed to happen first. My thought was that I needed to weaken her enough and then she’d allow me to use mercy. So I started witling at her health without knowing that there’s a hidden mechanic where if you hit a monster enough time you will eventually one shot whatever remains of their health. So at around 50%, I did a mega crit that killed goat mom and that was it, my game was screwed with no way of going back.
I tried reloading but found out that the game auto-saved at that point. I checked guides to see if I was screwed and found out that yes I was and that even restarting the game wouldn’t save me entirely. So I decided to keep playing and aim for a “middle” ending, resolved to not kill any of the other characters.
Which would have been fine if the game didn’t keep reminding me that I was a bad person all the time because someone died. Even when I ultimately finished the game and restarted a new game, the game kept on reminding me that in a previous life (game) I had done bad stuff.
Another trick the game uses, is to make the characters you encounter caricatures of lonely and sad people with the hope you’ll relate to them. There’s Alphys, the awkward anime fangirl and Papyrus who is way too hype about everything to cover its insecurities just to give two examples. Pretty much every character in the game has its own sad story just to make you feel for them. They didn’t feel real or likable to me, they felt like caricatures, easy storytellers tricks to make me feel for them. Instead of writing smart characters and leave it up to me to decide if I like them or not, the game tells me that I have to like them all.
There’s an argument to be made that whether or not you like Undertale is a matter of taste. It’s a game about showing you that choices have consequences that cannot be undone with a simple reset. It’s a lesson that has merit in itself, I won’t deny that.
But for a game that is about choices, I didn’t feel like I was in control of them. Instead I was railroaded and tricked into making bad ones just so the game could tell me that I’m a bad person and that I should have known better. I hate being manipulated especially when it’s by someone who has an agenda, especially a moral one, and that is exactly what Undertale did.