Thursday, December 31, 2015

Indie-Cember 2: Undertale

Previously on the SDP, I reviewed Freedom Fall, with which I noted similarities to Portal for its simple but deep gameplay, and its simple but deep storytelling. Let's go for two.

  • Publisher/Developer: tobyfox 
  • Lead Designer: Toby Fox 
  • Release: PC, 15 September 2015 
  • Genre: Role-Playing 
  • Players: 1 
Violence in video games is one of those things we take for granted. For most genres, there are conflicts between characters in the stories, and obstacles the player must overcome themselves. And I'm not some stop-having-fun-guy who doesn't want anybody exposed to such fictional harmful acts. Otherwise, I wouldn't have reviewed so many games over the years. But every so often, you stop and think about this sort of thing. We don't treat our real-world problems by blasting away at them or whatever -- at least I hope we don't -- so is there some way this could work in a game? To answer that question, developer and composer Toby Fox has blessed us with Undertale. Undertale bills itself as "The Friendly RPG Where Nobody Has To Die". Let's see how that turned out.

You play as a gender-neutral child who one day fell down a hole and into a world of monsters. There are all kinds of monsters to be found here: some will just want to talk to you, or even help you, but most would rather fight you instead. It is within these random encounters that we see our "combat" system, which is unique among turn-based RPGs. You attack by pressing a button in time with a meter, and you avoid damage by taking control of a heart icon and dodging white objects, as in a bullet-hell shoot-em-up game. Just as there are many varieties of creatures you'll face off against, there are even more types of projectiles you'll have to steer yourself clear of.
You must dodge random objects to defend yourself.
Already this "combat" system should interest you more than the average RPG. But I said "combat" in quotes because you are never forced to fight your enemies. Instead, you can use various other commands to interact with your enemies in other ways. Each enemy has their own pattern of actions to be employed against them, when triggered, lets you spare them instead. Sparing your enemies rewards you with money but not experience points, and as such you won't be able to level up and increase your health if you do so. As such, killing your foes and not killing them provide two different experiences of the same story.

If you want this game to surprise you as much as possible, please disregard the rest of this paragraph. There are also separate endings based on whether you've killed all, some, or none of the monsters you encounter. I'm not too keen on this in theory, since it boils down to a binary moral choice system. I would And I must warn you, that attempting a "genocide" play-through may leave you with some unsettling moments. For example, early on in the game, a goat-mother thing named Toriel takes you in, gives you a room of your own, and even leaves a slice of pie out for you. It's a warm and fuzzy feeling, I tell you what. But then when you try to leave, she becomes a boss fight, and killing her just because I was attempting the "genocide" run made me feel like an awful person. Besides, if you only stick to fighting, you won't get the full taste of the "battle" system, so at least Undertale manages to persuade you to stick to the virtuous path by gameplay mechanics alone.
The game has a quirky sense of humour.
Fortunately, Undertale isn't completely downbeat in tone, as there is plenty of comedy to be had. Much of it relies on misdirection, on setting up a scenario one way and then surprising you with an unexpected outcome. For example, there are plenty of puzzles to keep you occupied in-between battles and text boxes, but the game has a bad habit of setting up some of the more intricate puzzles, only to change its mind and either solve them for you or make them ridiculously easy. Anticlimactic, yes, but I suppose it's part of the humour. I'm reminded of the Earthbound (or Mother, if you are so inclined) games because of their shared quirky nature.

This connection also extends to the graphical style of Undertale, which has a simplistic approach to it, hovering somewhere in the realm of 8-bit. As I've said time and time again, I can live with simplistic artwork, as too much detail to the visuals would distract game designers from other, more important things they could be working on. I wish the soundtrack would make up its mind as to whether it wants to be completely chiptune-based or not, although the songs themselves are properly ambient and/or melodic at the appropriate moments. Also, Undertale isn't terribly long, as I finished my first play-through in two to three hours. But it didn't feel that short, as it gave me enough distinct settings to feel like a grand journey. Besides, as much as I like JRPGs on an aesthetic level, I can't seem to get into them anymore for how tortuously padded and drawn-out they can get. So in the end, I would describe Undertale as the RPGs for people who hate RPGs, but really I'd recommend it to everyone just to show the potential of what video games can be and do.

+ Innovative "battle" system.
+ Many funny and bitersweet moments.
+ Not long, but just the right length for an RPG.

- The fight/act "battle" system is a binary moral-choice structure in disguise.
- The art and music styles are a bit inconsistent.

Control: 5 out of 5
Design: 5 out of 5
Writing: 5 out of 5
Graphics: 4 out of 5
Sound: 4 out of 5
Value: 4 out of 5
The Call: 95% (A)

So, it appears we've reached the end of Indie-Cember 2. Sorry I didn't manage to get out all the reviews I wanted. Apparently the holidays make me less productive than I anticipated beforehand. No seriously, most of my SDP-related productivity was working to update my old James Bond reviews for YouTube. But as for the stuff I didn't get to during Indie-Cember 2, I was thinking, why should I confine them to just one month out of the year? I have my desires and fears for the game industry, so why not bring these smaller titles to your attention throughout the rest of the year? After all, as I like to say, we must be the change we wish to see in the world. In other words,

This is IchigoRyu.

You are the resistance.

Oh, and Happy New Year!

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