How Undertale ruins Dragon Age (2)
The opening period
The PS3 version of inquisition is a mess, but it weaknesses are so much more than that. I have heard on many occasions from fans of the game that, “The game gets good, but it takes a few hours to get there.”
I find this inexcusable. There is no reason I should be thrust into the role of yet another brand-new character with yet another case of amnesia in the middle of yet another good vs. evil struggle with political implications, be given a vague idea of what’s going on and then, quite out of nowhere, be treated as if I am acting commander of an armed force and nation rebuilding effort.
As erstwhile leader, then we are sent out into the Hinterlands to, among other things:
- Collect ten units of ram’s meat
- Collect countless shards of something
- Set up three watch towers
- Defeat a band of wolves
- Defeat bandits
- Defeat rogue mages
- Complete multiple fetch quests marked with exclamation points on the map
- Set up six campsites
- Collect multiples of several herbs for the apothecary
- Collect resources for the requisitions officer
- Visit dozens of landmark sites and plant banners
- Close multiple Fade rifts in each area by defeating multiple rounds of spawning monsters and then holding the goddamn X button for a few seconds
Notice a pattern? The words, “collect” and “multiple” appear over and over. I thought this was a sprawling, epic RPG, but it seems to have ripped its primary gameplay straight out of Diablo’s fiery a-hole. Within minutes I was bored to tears.
A brief, skippable cut scene precedes an androgynous, mute character awakening in a strange world. Visually simple, with almost exclusively flat colors and simplistic design, we are able to move through the initial area quickly. The strangeness of this world, along with the words of one of the most amazing tutorial characters in history, give the player a feeling of being a lost child as we progress through an alien world and solve simple puzzles to get a feel for what’s coming next.
Our task is laid out simply before us: Get home. The primary impediment is laid out simply before us: We cannot leave because some entity wants to keep us in this place.
Initially, I found Undertale’s simple style dull and uninspiring. I would go as far as to say I still completely loathe the protagonist’s sprite design. Though I appreciate its androgynous nature, its sleepy face looks like half the jaw is missing on one side and its spindly neck doesn’t seem suitable to hold up its enormous head. The character ostensibly is human.
Before anyone gets upset that I’m using the term “it” please note I’m using it in context of the sprite design, not the character.
However, the initial “meh” period of Undertale wears off in only a few minutes, as opposed to Dragon Age’s hours.
Battles are so intensely boring I found myself watching Game Grumps or Jordan Underneath on my PC while simply holding the R2 button until the combat sounds stopped. Skills and spells are mapped to a handful of other buttons, meaning the primary strategy for most fights is to quickly spam all of your skills, melee until cooldown ends, then repeat until the battle is over.
Additionally, enemies’ difficulty level is not clearly announced in any way. The starting area, the Hinterlands, saw me no-look slaying numerous baddies, then wandering only a few seconds’ walk north to close yet another rift and being one-shot-killed by the enemies inside: Enemies which, by the by, look exactly like the ones I was mopping up moments before.
Also, why is a bear significantly more powerful than demons?
Speaking of rifts, closing rifts means defeating two or three rounds of spawned demons before pressing a contextual command.
There is no excuse for this process to be so banal. Essentially it boils down to, “Hey, just kill more monsters like you’ve already been doing, only more, right here.” This was a perfect opportunity for mini-boss fights with rift bosses unique to each area, but here we are slaying the usual suspects instead.
Combat in Mass Effect also was kind of watered-down shooter-style, but at least it felt somewhat strategic sometimes. This is dull.
I cannot say a whole lot about Undertale’s combat without spoiling it, but each and every random battle requires attention and strategy unique to that fight. For example, fighting the monster named Aaron challenges the player to dodge thematic attacks by moving a small heart around a game board. On defense, the player is unable to counterattack – though, like most aspects of Undertale, there are interesting exceptions to this rule – and while some players may complain about this, I ask you to think about this.
Could you counterattack in Final Fantasy 7? Dragon Quest? Generally, no.
Now, let’s say you encountered Aaron along with another enemy, Tsunderplane for example. Aaron’s attacks will not be the same as they were when you fought him alone, and neither will Tsunderplane’s. They will attack you in tandem, which is almost unheard of in RPGs.
There is so much personality and custom strategy in each fight that simply describing them all would take hours, if not days. Entire character arcs take place mid-battle as part of the game’s mechanics. It’s the most immersive and interesting RPG combat system ever, period.
From the outset, our guide character in Inquisition is a woman whom we met at the end of Dragon Age 2, for whom we have almost zero context and backstory. As the initial quest progresses, we are introduced to a checklist of RPG cliches who will become part of the quest.
- Cullen, the templar who sees things from a soldier point of view
- Solas, the wise elf mage
- The returning Varric, a self-confident, wise-cracking dwarf
- Chancellor I-Can’t-Remember-His-Name, the angry political figure who may as well wear a sign around his neck that reads, “You’re supposed to dislike me greatly”
- Lelianna, a mysterious spy-type
- Josephine, a social butterfly who serves as the Inquisition’s ambassador
- Loading Screen, with whom we’ll spend a massive chunk of our time
And so on. We’re placed into these characters’ world with so little preparation and story that they feel paper-thin and meaningless. My feeling is the game wants to draw heavily on the previous entries’ lore, but starting us with a new amnesiac in this period of the world’s progression left me feeling like I was playing someone else’s story.
One question that arose I formatted that list above is, “Why does the Inquisition need an ambassador? Is it a nation state? Does it control territory?” It doesn’t seem to have borders, or a standing army to speak of despite having requisitions officers and Cullen in command of a handful of soldiers. The characters’ roles in this inquisition are greatly dampened by having no idea what an inquisition does in this context.
And I refuse to learn all the details by reading codex entries. Mass Effect’s mission through all three games was clear without extra reading, even if it existed in the game. I was commander Shepherd, protecting the galaxy against a terrifying alien threat.
In inquisition, my mission is to close the breach. Clear enough, but is that why Inquisitions have historically existed? There have been breaches before? That is not clear at the outset.
In short? The characterization is better than almost any game in the history of the art form. Every single character in this game has at least two definable traits, with most having entire personality matrices, hopes and dreams that are exposed through combat mechanics.
The game subverts character expectation entirely when your guide character, a sentient flower named Flowey…
You know what? Spoilers there, so let’s pull back. The characters are simply more original and interesting than anything Dragon Age has ever managed.
And this is from a person who even enjoyed Dragon Age 2.
Undertale’s incredible depth, heartfelt storytelling and beautiful characters has changed my perspective on roleplaying games. The shift in my mindset became most apparent at a specific point early on in my playtime with Inquisition.
Early in the game, as I scouted the Hinterlands to complete a number of scattershot objectives, I I came across a collection of templars locked in combat with a collection of rebel mages.
Before I thought about what to do, my NPC compatriots charged into the fray and began killing both sides. I placed my controller on the floor and wondered aloud, “Why didn’t I have at least a chance to stop the fighting? Or to pick a side? Why did we just kill everybody? Aren’t we the good guys?”
And this is how Undertale ruined me on RPGs, maybe forever.
Undertale is the most beautiful, heart-wrenching experience I have had since watching Aerith die in 1997. This is a genuine game changer, full of excellent, interesting music and puzzles, character interaction and world-building that is simple but awe-inspiring. It also boasts one of the most terrifying final bosses in gaming history, and even this cosmic horror show of a being isn’t without redemptive features.
Dragon Age shows its age by clinging tightly to established tropes and techniques.
Undertale is the future, but I hope there is never a sequel. I believe it stands alone perfectly as it is.
To Toby Fox, who designed this game, thank you for showing me and others such a wide, beautiful world.
Also to Toby Fox, damn you for raising my standards.