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July 27, 2016

I Enjoy Undertale, But...

I strongly believe that one should always experience something by themselves in order to have their own opinion of it. As a reviewer, my task is to discuss games, but on most occasions I actually recommend the games I am playing – because most of them are actually good, despite my criticisms and nitpicks, whether it’s a small aspect of the gameplay I didn’t like or a part of the story that irked me (think of how Muramasa: The Demon Blade promised strong female characters only for the main two female characters to turn out not so strong). On the opposite end, there’s these games that everyone recommends, that everyone says are amazing. The hype surrounding these games is real, and it’s enormous. In case the title didn’t clue you in, I’m going to talk about Undertale.

Recently, in the hopes of expanding my gaming horizons, I opened myself a Steam account. I sincerely hope I can add Steam games to my list of things to review in the near future. In fact, with the third year on this blog having just end and a fourth one starting, I believe that this Steam account will open new gates for me. However, I couldn’t resist the temptation and bought Undertale.

Now, here’s the issue; I know quite a bit about the game and its story. I don't know everything, but I knew enough to have some idea of what to expect. I’ll do my best not to spoil much of it here, but constant exposure to the game and its fans, saying lines from any of the characters, and eventually reading about it on TVTropes out of curiosity, means that there was little surprise left for me. And I went into the game, fully aware of that. Many will say that watching/reading about it, and actually playing it, are completely different experiences, and I will wholeheartedly agree on that. Thus, in order to bring up my point, here is what was my first experience with this game.

Spoilers will start now, so reader beware. (Scroll down)

I killed Toriel.


Now, understand that, with my knowledge of the game, I was well aware of the multiple “paths” you can choose. Neutral, if you kill some but keep most alive; Pacifist if you kill none, which can become True Pacifist if you achieve some additional things; and No Mercy, which some dub Genocide despite Toby Fox being against the term. I was also well aware of all the consequences my choices had in the long run. This is a game where “actions have consequences” is a fully absorbed moral, and as a result the whole game changes either in minuscule or drastic ways depending on what you do (including Sans’ final words to the player changing depending on who you kill and who you don’t). You always have a choice; there is always a puzzle for you to solve when you don’t want to kill an opponent, and bosses have the more complex puzzles and often force you to think outside the box… despite what appears to be a lack of information on how to Spare many characters. Same goes when you want to spare a character but cannot find how, or your actions seem so inconsequential that you quickly change your strategy, deeming your previous one ineffective even if it’s actually the correct one. (As an example of a particularly devilish puzzle, the fight against Undyne where the only viable tactic is to run away as soon as possible until a point in the game is reached.)

That’s what happened to me with Toriel. You can attack as long as you don’t kill, even if you’re on Pacifist mode the game sort of gives you that option, but the only true way to win against her is to constantly attempt to Spare her. Even though the first few times, it seemed to have no effect whatsoever; and that’s what I did here, because it was my first time playing and I didn’t yet have the Undertale Pacifist mindset. So as a result, I went with something I know: Pokémon. To catch a Pokémon more easily, you deplete its HP without making it faint. I went in, thinking that Undertale had a more complex version of this, where an opponent was more inclined to listen if slightly weakened. The game treats this as a demonstration of violence nonetheless, though it has little to no result in most fights; in Toriel’s case, it was different.

I kept trying to attack her, get her HP below half; then perhaps she would accept to stop attacking me. I did realize that, once I was at 1 HP, her attacks were purposely avoiding my soul, my weak point; but repeatedly using Spare still didn’t seem to give any results. So I attacked some more. She was close to half her health… I made an attack that wound up critical every single time I tried – because I reloaded my save file a LOT before that fight. That was the point: To show that depleting an enemy’s health won’t have any effect when you’re trying to spare someone; either that or it makes your situation worse. I would keep on killing Toriel, accidentally, because the Spare button didn’t seem to be doing anything. Oh, what a mistake that was. I had to resort to an online guide to figure out what I was doing wrong.

Long story short, I still didn’t have that habit of trying everything except attacking in order to spare every opponent – and thus I kept making the same mistakes.

I’m not pro-killing Toriel. I’m a guy who kills in video games by force of habit, like just about everyone who touches this game for the first time. You’d make a case that not all gamers are natural pacifists outside of games, and I’d believe you. But I am, so the Pacifist route seemed to me like a given. I knew you could go through every fight without ever killing, so Toriel was always a mistake. Never a willful decision. I did end up sparing her successfully and could continue my playthrough, meeting Sans and everyone else.

The whole game rests on the choices you make, and as soon as you hear about the multiple paths you already have an idea of what you want to do. As for me, the choice became evident; Neutral/Pacifist, then True Pacifist. No interest in doing No Mercy. For once that an RPG allows me to not kill anyone, I was gonna carry through with it. Besides, like I said, I know almost everything about No Mercy, up to and including the final boss fights. And despite the insistence of some that I should also experience No Mercy to get the full story… No, I don’t want to. I know the full story, and many other games already let me kill everything on my way, with more challenge than Undertale (since apparently No Mercy becomes a boring venture as you become way too strong against enemies for them to remain a danger). No Mercy shoves it in the player’s face not only that killing is wrong, that these horrible actions have even greater consequences, but also that a quest for strength alone is pointless if you don’t think about the opponents you defeat. It’s funny how I’m writing this text to get my mind off my long review of Pokémon White, which explores a similar theme with Cheren, the rival who’s bent on becoming stronger but never thinks twice on what to do after he’s acquired that strength.

So I decided, and it’s final, that I don’t feel the need to explore No Mercy. I couldn’t care less what Flowey thinks of me, that I’m a chicken who’ll only watch videos of it. This game may be fantastic, Flowey is still just pieces of data, and I can choose who I want to listen to in this game; namely, everyone except Flowey. This is one of the rare games where I don’t want to achieve 100% completion. Not because I can’t; I certainly could if I were to put the effort into it, like I do for even longer games where 100% completion takes hundreds of hours of gameplay; but I grew attached to the characters, and I just can’t see myself killing them.

Willingly, anyway; I’m sure any further Neutral, Pacifist or True Pacifist playthroughs will see me accidentally killing one monster or another, but never willingly. Even if I CAN choose to stray off the No Mercy path in late-game, it’s too painful to watch from the start. I wouldn’t enjoy it, and I play games to have fun. I like the emotions a game’s story can bring me, but I don’t like feeling like an asshole as I play.

That’s me, only me. The success of Undertale is that you can choose what you want to do. Want to have “100%” completion and do Neutral, Pacifist, True Pacifist, No Mercy and Pacifist again? Go ahead, but be aware of the consequences. Do what you want. Want to do only Genocide? Have fun killing. Want to Let’s Play the game? Be wary of everyone who’ll be telling you what to do.

Don’t listen to them. Seriously though, this is a game that welcomes this kind of free exploration between the paths, a game to experience the way you want. And I can’t understand why some Undertale fans just can’t grasp that concept. Your favorite order of paths to play this game won’t be the same as someone else’s. Everyone’s free to make their own decisions here, so don’t force someone else to play the game the way you played it.

Some Let’s Players showcase the first time they play the game. I’ve heard stories of infighting in the comments section, every viewer having an idea of what the LPer should – nay, MUST do. Christ, that has to be one of the most heated arguments in gaming these days. The interest of Undertale is to discover how it’s played, how every fight has its little special actions you can do, and what these actions lead to. Discovery is what makes this game unique, and nobody has the correct answer on how to play this game to the fullest.

Playing only Pacifist, like I do? You’ll miss on major parts of the plot. No Mercy? If you carry through to the very end, your next playthroughs will be tainted forever (even if you uninstall and reinstall the game; there are ways to undo that but I’m not enough of a computer buff to explain them). Neutral, over and over again, by sparing some bosses and killing others, almost at random, to see what Sans’ final words will be? Enjoy that. I made my decision and I stand by it.

I killed Toriel; if I had been Let’s Playing this, one third of the people would have told me that I’m a monster, another third would have told me to continue on my way, and the last third would be made of different opinions on how to approach Neutral playthroughs. That’s how divided people are. What’s worse is how everyone is so willing to spoil large parts of the game when, really, Undertale should be experienced blindly – something that is practically impossible now as any point of criticism on the game will contain a spoiler. Long story short, I’m not surprised that there are Let’s Players out there who outright refuse to showcase themselves playing this game, with how toxic the discussions can get among the viewers.

Live and let live, I guess that’s what I’m trying to say here. You love this game? Love it all you want. But accept that some people play the game differently than you do. I really enjoy my experience with Undertale so far, thouh I do have a few points of criticism about it; but in the end, what irks me is really the fans who can’t realize that there are other ways to play aside from theirs.

There are other things, of course; controlling a (mostly) mute character means that everyone’s talking to you, but you hardly if ever talk back to them, and for a game that promotes a form of socialization with the NPCs, it’s a bit of an oversight – then again, it would be near-impossible to program, or it would take a lot of time. I can barely imagine how long it took Toby Fox to program everything Papyrus says when you call him, since his lines changes on every single screen where you can contact him. Same goes for the little bits of text that change when you start a new save file after beating it, from Flowey’s comments at the beginning to the little things NPCs say to indicate they recognize you, to Sans’ final words changing.

Also while the battle system is unique (who ever thought of mixing Bullet Hell and RPGs that way before? And which game has ever had so many options to defeat an opponent through kindness?), it can get a little grating at times, especially in how some attacks are extremely hard to avoid, and it’s sometimes impossible to avoid taking damage. Even then you’re not always told what you can do – and sometimes remembering which colors do what on the Bullet Hell box isn’t always a good indication. I would say the game often takes too long to show a change when you’re trying to spare a boss and the fight's internal time counts turn per turn how often you've tried the Spare button… but that’s just me. In the end, I still enjoy it. But I have to enjoy it my way.

That’s all I really had to say about Undertale. I will probably never review it – everyone already has. I will probably never Let’s Play it – for everyone who will read this article and take my request to heart, there’s at least 10 more who don’t follow the advice and pester LPers with how they should be playing. Besides there are many other games I’d want to LP first. I might reference it sometimes and grow my fanbase out of it; I think I already made a few Undertale jokes this year. This Friday I’ll post Part 1 of my review of Pokémon White, which also discusses heavy subjects based on what we’ve taken for granted all these years in Pokémon. It’s that little edge of deconstruction that I love about games today. See you there.


Added note, post-completing Pacifist and True Pacifist: Completing a Pacifist route leads to a fight against Asgore that is exactly the opposite of Toriel’s, when taking into consideration my Pokémon metaphor. To spare Toriel, I thought I first had to weaken her, the same way I weaken a Pokémon to have higher chances of capturing it. Because at that moment, the player is yet unaware of the thousands of curveballs the game will toss at them in regards to regular RPG actions. Asgore, on the other hand, makes sure there is nothing you can do to spare him, leaving the only option to be to fight him. I felt so sorry killing Toriel, after a whole game spent sparing people, I didn’t want to kill Asgore. However, in normal Pacifist Route, Asgore’s HP has to be depleted slowly but surely (and it can’t go below 1, something the player never finds out about until they finally “defeat” him; plus, on the Pacifist route your stats are extremely low, so your only chances at survival against Asgore are to equip the weapon and armor you find before you battle him, and to stock up on healing items). In other words, Asgore is the closest to a normal RPG fight in the whole game, forcing you to play against him like you would in a normal RPG, and you, so close to the end of the adventure, after spending the whole game sparing people, not wanting to attack him even though it becomes the only option. Brilliant.

I will say this, as my (possibly) final words on Undertale; I’ve seen the endings I wanted to see in-game. These characters are too happy the way they are now. I’m determined to keep it that way. (Or, perhaps, reset and do Pacifist/True Pacifist again. Enough RPGs out there allow me to kill already.)