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Review: Undertale

Table of Contents

Quick Info

Gore & Brutality Magic Sex Civility Religious Objections
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Additional Notes
This game's soundtrack is available! This game offers Achievements (or similar awards)! Steam Trading Cards are available! This game is also available for Linux!

Summary of major issues
The player's actions govern the way the game progresses more than usual. Thus, you are given the choice of whether or not to harm others, and if you do, the results are permanent.

Additionally, some of the imagery and concepts seen later in the game can be frightening or disturbing. It doesn't help that there are subtle references to religion building up to the game's climax.

Screenshots


Toriel guides the player around a dangerous trap


Fighting the Lesser Dog


This is not going to end well, is it?

General Information

Genre:Turn based RPG / Bullet HellAge Rating:Teenagers (Ages 13+)
License:CommercialQuality Rating:Good
Played on:Martha
Available from: Humble Store, Steam, Undertale.com
Soundtrack:Available as DLC on Steam or from the homepage
Save System:In order to save your game, you need to interact with save points placed throughout the Underground. There's usually one within easy walking distance, so just keep an eye out for them as you progress.

General Notes

When Undertale was released in September 2015, it quickly gained an impressive amount of attention from the gaming community. It's clear that Toby Fox, the game's developer, put an astounding amount of effort and thought into his work. Thanks to its many secrets and hidden surprises, the world of Undertale is full of enimgas and hidden lore.

Even from a gameplay perspective, Undertale doesn't follow the usual rules. It's designed like a traditional turn based RPG, right down to stats, equipment, grid based environment, and random encounters. But that's also where the similarities end. The battles are handled using bullet hell style sequences, and there are special events that only occur under very specific conditions. Different playthroughs will be slightly different experiences, and it's some of the extreme cases that bring in the biggest mysteries.

Unfortunately, this game also touches on some issues that Christian parents may find troubling. For example, while there are several couples in the game, monsterkind doesn't seem to feel that gender is all that important -- or in other words, homosexuality is treated as perfectly normal among the monsters. There are also a number of scenes, rumors, and images that reportedly make parents very uncomfortable. Fan art from the game often doesn't help matters, either.

For the most part, Undertale is considered "family friendly", and I'd agree. However, I'm still placing it in the 13+ age bracket, as there's enough questionable material to warrant a little caution. This is especially true when the player chooses to be malicious, as the game loses its humor and becomes quite dark.

Yet, despite all of these warnings, I would still highly recommend playing this game. While it can go south rather quickly, and I'm not entirely comfortable with giving it the seal of approval, Undertale strongly values kindness and love over everything else. In fact, the only way to get the best possible ending is to be incredibly kind, even going out of your way to befriend and help the monsters who just moments before were trying to kill you.

Lastly, I'm going to keep spoilers to a minimum during this review. This is a game that is best experienced when you don't know what's coming next or how to deal with it. Since there will need to be some spoilers to summarize concerns and issues with the game's content, I've included a bright red spoiler warning before anything major is discussed.

Story Summary

In the world of Undertale, there are two races of sentient beings: humans and monsters. Long ago, there was a terrible war between these races, and in the end the humans were victorious. They managed to drive the surviving monsters underground, where they were sealed away by a magical barrier.

Blaming the war on humans and grieving over their fallen, the monsters developed a plan to break the barrier and return to the surface. To break the barrier, they would collect seven souls from humans that wandered underground. Once they had the souls they needed, the king of monsters, Asgore, would fuse with them, becoming godlike in power. He would then shatter the barrier and overthrow mankind.

Flash forward to the present day, where a child is playing alone on a remote mountain. By accident, they fell through a cave opening into a strange clearing filled with golden flowers. Now trapped with the monsters, they learn an unsettling fact: the monsters have managed to collect six souls so far. Thus, your soul determines the fate of their world.

From here, the story branches into three main paths, depending on how you play.

The Neutral Route
If your journey doesn't meet the conditions for the other routes, then you'll end up on this one. In this route, you manage to get past the king of monsters, leaving the monsters trapped underground and gaining your freedom. Your actions may have changed the underground for the better, or they may have caused it to descend into chaos.


The Pacifist Route
By taking the time to befriend the monsters, even those that don't deserve your mercy, will show the monsters that humans aren't the terrible evil they once believed. There are additional areas to explore in this route, and they'll eventually lead to the redemption of Undertale's main antagonist. Redeeming them will grant everyone the happiest ending where their personal wishes come true, including their wish to return to the surface and live in harmony with mankind once again.


The No Mercy Route
Also known as a Genocide Run, this requires the player to be absolutely heartless by murdering every single monster in the underground. By this I don't just mean those monsters you encounter: you must seek out and slaughter them all. If at you spare a single monster (or just fail to kill everyone in an area) you'll get shoved back onto the Neutral Route and have to start over. This storyline is the most difficult one to complete, and everyone you encounter will try to encourage you to stop and do something else. For many players, this is NOT a fun way to play the game, and many can't take the emotional baggage that comes with it.


Pros

Actions have consequences
One of the main things that makes Undertale stand out is its powerful ability to manipulate the player's emotions. You can't play it like a typical game, because every character has some impact on the world around you. The world becomes brighter and more humorous if you're kind and loving, but it also becomes dark and empty if you're cruel. In short, the world you see reflects how you have affected it.


Characters remember past games
You can reset your game at any time. The twist is that some characters remember what has come before, as if your previous playthroughs were dreams. This can lead to weird conversations where characters remember having been killed by you or vice versa.

Note that some actions will forever scar your game, meaning the only way to undo these actions is to rummage through the file system and manually delete the save files.


Unique battle system
Unlike your typical turn based RPG, Undertale's battles have you play short bullet hell style minigames. Some of these are very fast paced, so your reflexes are going to be tested as the game progresses.


Large amount of humor (or not)
If you're on the Pacifist or Neutral routes, you can come across a lot of funny things. For example, there's a dinosaur that's obsessed with anime, a skeleton that loves to cook pasta, and a plane that has a crush on you (but doesn't want to admit it).

Being evil robs the game of its humor very, very quickly however, and even introduces some horror elements.


Wonderful retro soundtrack
Undertale has an excellent chiptune soundtrack. Each of the major characters has at least one theme song, and what's currently happening determines which version you hear. There's a dramatic version for moments that are tense, while calmer scenes feature quieter variants. The best example are the songs that come in towards the end of the Pacifist route where the player saves the world in an epic final battle.


Steam community features
For those of us that play Undertale via Steam, there is a set of Steam trading cards that can be earned as you play. Since you'll need to play the game through multiple times to see everything, you'll have plenty of opportunities to collect them.


Cons

Many of the jokes don't translate well
Undertale is full of jokes and silly references. But, most of these refer to things from anime or the internet, which is a bit of a problem: if you're not familiar with what's being referenced, the jokes fall flat. For example, if you're familiar with graphic design, you'll know that a few characters are named after popular fonts.

At the same time, since this unintentionally leaves most parents out of the loop, they'll have to judge the game's content without knowing its context. This can lead to problems if they mistake a joke for something malicious, and there are a number of memes from this game that certainly appear evil (or even satanic) to those unfamiliar with their source.


Concerns and Issues

Undertale is crafted to mess with your emotions
Seriously, if you tend to be a sentimental or empathic person, this game can play with your heartstrings in both good and bad ways. Every monster you encounter throughout the game has some need that you can provide for, and doing so usually leaves you with some warm fuzzies. This is especially true with the ending for the Pacifist Route, which will leave you genuinely happy for the game's cast.

On the flip side, doing harm to others is rigged to make you feel guilty about what you've done. There are also some characters that have encountered serious tragedies, and learning about these events will likely make you feel sad for them.

There is one specific mistake that new players can make early on that will really leave you feeling absolutely terrible, and various characters in the game aren't going to let you just forget about it, even after you reset.

In fact, this one mistake is so easily made and so upsetting, that one of the most common ways people have found this review is by asking Google how not to make that mistake! (hint: listen carefully to the froggits near Toriel's home; one of them tells you the answer)


You can flirt with and date monsters
Several of the monsters can be flirted with. This often goes nowhere, though in some cases it can provoke some interesting dialogue. In one case though, this results in you having a chance of "dating" the monster you've flirted with. If you didn't flirt with them, you'll instead have an option to hang out with them. The event is roughly the same either way, though in my opinion it's much more hilarious when it's considered a date. Don't worry parents: everything stays nice and G rated!

There is another situation where you can date a monster, but that's actually a miscommunication and gets quickly resolved.


References to homosexuality
Gender isn't very important to monsters, apparently. There are several of them that have romantic interests in someone of the same gender. This can be used to your advantage at one point -- if you can get a certain pair of monsters to become a couple, they'll stop fighting you and go get some ice cream together. Ultimately, monsters treat homosexuality as a perfectly normal, and even healthy, expression of love. Whether or not you share this opinion determines whether or not this is a problem.


Other sexual references
Aside from the things mentioned above, there are a few other times where adult content is talked about (but, importantly, never shown). One example is a brief conversation that can happen where one of the characters takes a friendly jab at people posting naughty images of them online.


Combat is almost typical for an RPG
Like most RPGs, you can kill a monster in battle. When killed, a monster's graphic will disintegrate, which is pretty typical for an RPG and usually would only count as mild violence. In Undertale however, monsters whimper or cry out when you hurt them, and the more important characters have dramatic death scenes. The latter are usually aimed at making the player feel terrible about taking a life.

One of the more popular characters even appears to bleed if you strike a fatal blow. Common opinion on this is that this is actually ketchup rather than blood (and this really does make sense in context), but you've still murdered someone.


Problematic rumor-mongering
There are several rumors circulating online that make it sound like there's some really bad stuff hidden in this game. The number of secrets that actually are present doesn't help. However, I feel that two of these rumors should be addressed, as they are both misleading and can scare parents.

The first, and more prolific, rumor claims that a hidden character is a fountain of fetish and sexual material. This rumor does have some truth to it, but not quite in the way the rumormongers would like. Long story short, several of the characters in Undertale were created through the game's fundraising campaign. For a price, someone could design a character for the game. One of the characters added through this campaign was an adaption of a character often seen in adult artwork. Both the game's designer and the owner of the character took pains to disassociate the Undertale version from its origins, so there's nothing explicit or even suggestive about the character as they appear in the game.

The second rumor is the result of a real life prank. Chances are, you've heard of the 700 Club. What you may not know is that you can send them topics to discuss, including questions for them to answer. One person decided it would be fun to get them worked up about Undertale, and sent them a carefully worded question. Posing as a concerned parent, they claimed to have found images of a skeleton wearing a blue hoodie on their daughter's phone. When they confronted their daughter about the "demonic" images, their daughter told them there was "nothing wrong with it" because it "came from a video game". This was answered on air (by Pat Robertson, no less), and naturally enough, this caused a lot of concern. It's quite possibly one of the main reasons people are worried about Undertale being satanic or demonic. It's important to remember that this was a set up to make fun of Robertson's religious beliefs, not an actual condemnation of the content seen in Undertale.


Mild swearing
Although Undertale largely tries to stay family friendly, there are a few instances where words like "damn", "hell" and "friggin" slip through in the dialogue. On the flip side, there is a spot in the game where you type out an answer to a question, and inputting any swear word will get you chastised for using bad language.


Players be warned: Major spoilers ahead!

Body horror
Regardless of the path the player takes, they'll encounter some form of body horror towards the end. Some of these creatures are victims of a terrible tragedy, so as horrible as they appear, they aren't evil and deserve sympathy and understanding. They might still inspire some nightmares however, as they are far and away much more disturbing than anything else you'd find in the entire game. Fan art of these characters often deliberately invoke the wrongness about them, sometimes to the point of going into pure nightmare fuel territory.

There is also a "hidden" character that can be seen and learned about if random chance favors your playthrough (or if you edit your save file in just the right way). Like the other examples of body horror, this character appears to be the victim of an accident and is generally seen as a sympathetic character rather than a boogeyman.


Suicide
As mentioned in the above paragraph, some of the characters in the underground have tragic backstories that they are still trying to come to terms with. Depending on how you play, these feelings might not be resolved. As a result, the character may be said to have "disappeared" during the epilogue, and the way it's phrased makes it sound like something serious is being implied. In another case, it's possible that one of the characters will not allow you to spare them. Instead, they choose to take their own life.


What looks like demonic imagery
With the exception of the player, everyone in the game is a monster of some sort. A few of the characters are goat people, and this is understandably leading some people to question if they are supposed to be demonic or not. I would say that with two exceptions, nobody is intended to look like a demon. These two exceptions are the weapons used by Sans and the final boss of the Neutral and Pacifist Runs.

You only fight Sans near the end of a Genocide Run, and thus you'll only see his Gaster Blasters when you've been on a murdering spree. These laser guns are shaped like the skull of a dragon or dragon/goat hybrid, so they definitely look unsettling.

The other boss is clearly intended to resemble some ultimate evil, and it's pretty common for ultimate evils to not only look the part but also transform into a hideous monster at the climax of the game. More on that below.


The Genocide Route has several unique issues
As if requiring the player to murder everything in their path wasn't bad enough, there are a few other things that come up in a Genocide Run that are worth pointing out. Firstly, all of the humor that makes the game worth playing disappears, only to be replaced by macabre overtones and threatening remarks. Once you get far enough, you'll be required to attack a child, the reason being that they have simply gotten in your way. Several shopkeepers abandon their stores in an attempt to flee from your rampage, and this allows the player to steal whatever goods they want (or, optionally, any money left in the till). One of the shopkeepers that doesn't flee from your destructive path just lights a cigarette and resigns themselves to their fate.

Completing a Genocide Run results in the player encountering another human child, named "Chara". This person, if you can call them that, is an extremely malevolent entity that rejoices in murder. You're given the option of selling your soul to them, and if you refuse, they'll just destroy you where you stand. Either choice permanently scars your game, ensuring that you'll never get a happy ending again. The only way to undo this damage is to manually delete the game's files from your computer (uninstalling does not work).


A rather dark religious reference
The final boss of the Neutral and Pacifist Runs is named Asirel Dreemurr. During the ending of the Pacifist Run, he assumes a form that resembles an image depicted in the game's lore as the "angel of death". It's important to note that he's technically a little kid, so his grandiose appearance, the ridiculously named attacks he uses, and the title he gives himself ("the Absolute God of Hyperdeath") point more to a little boy's idea of "cool" than to a truly evil origin.

However, it seems that the creator of Undertale chose the name as a deliberate reference. The name "Asirel" sounds an awful lot like "Azrael", which is the name of the Angel of Death in folklore based on the Abrahamic religions. Note that I said this is a folklore character; most Christian denominations do not consider him to be part of their Biblical canon, and both Judaism and Islam are reported to be divided over his status. Regardless, when he does appear, Azrael basically functions as a religious version of the Grim Reaper, taking souls from the dying to God. While Azrael isn't considered evil (he is considered to be an Archangel after all), it's a rather dark reference.

Also, while the names are pronounced the same, the spelling difference is likely for another, more obvious reason: an anagram of Asriel Dreemurr is serial murderer, which fits the context of the final battle.

As for explaining his name within the story itself, Asriel's father, King Asgore, is really bad at coming up with names. Probably the biggest examples of this are the two places he's lived, known as "Home" and "New Home". Likewise, "Asriel" is just the names of his parents (Asgore and Toriel) mashed together.


Some additional notes about Undertale fanart
Normally, I wouldn't be mentioning artwork made by fans of a game or series. After all, none of this is made by the people that developed the game, nor is it part of the game itself. But, with Undertale it's a little bit of a different story, and I can see it making parents very uncomfortable with the game as a whole. Remember that this game's artwork is made up of very cartoonish sprites; the more detailed images are even in black and white. Fan art for the game, by contrast, is often in full color and drawn with a lot of detail.

As I've mentioned elsewhere on this page, there are three different stories that can play out. Which one you get is determined largely by how you play the game. Despite this, artwork featuring Sans often show him as he appears in the Genocide route (or more specifically, as he appears when he's about to execute you). This means that he's frequently shown to be scary, evil, or otherwise very violent. By contrast, his normal attitude in the game is that of the main comic relief character, as he's constantly coming up with puns or otherwise being rather silly. His serious side only shows up when he's confronting you about how many monsters you've deliberately murdered.

The other thing to watch out for is that the amalgamates -- the monsters suffering from an extremely tragic form of body horror -- are usually made to look much, much more disturbing in fan art. This might be the result of people trying to create detailed artwork with limited information to base it on, but it also seems like many people are trying to make things as grotesque as possible. One image that comes to mind depicts the remains of the player character's shirt dangling from the maw of a zombie-like abomination, which is FAR different than the monster appears in the game itself.

Ultimately, there's a lot of very disturbing fan art for Undertale out there. Please don't judge the game on whatever nightmares some of the fans have come up with.