August 13, 2015
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How can one even write about the soundtrack to Undertale? One of the greater games of this generation, everything unique about it comes from creator and composer Toby Fox. Responsible for the music for the cult-classic webcomic/web-cartoon Homestuck, Toby Fox has always had an interest in the music of the Earthbound series. Using the soundfont from the Nintendo classic, he’s produced a tribute album of Earthbound (“Earthbound 2012 – I Miss You”). He also created/composed “The Halloween Hack”, a completely different game made out of the original. Thus, now we have Undertale. I’m not going to beat around the bush; this was a hard review to write. The album is 101 tracks long, ranging between 30 second ditties to 6 minute powerhouses. It’s a barrage of artistic brilliance and demands your attention and care… and Temmie. It demands your Temmie.
Where do I start? One of the defining features of Undertale are the unique battle themes it associates with certain characters and enemies. It’s a staple of most RPGs, yes, but Undertale ups it up a notch by making a motif around… motifs. Callbacks, if you will. “Ghost Fight” is one of the first fight themes heard in the game. It is a riff on the musical stylings of both Earthbound and the obscure French classic OFF. The dissonant, shrill vocals of a female-voice are straight from the character Venus’ song from Earthbound. The eerily grooving bass-line harkens to the rambling madness of the regular battle theme “Peper Steak” in OFF. “Dummy” is like a dark reprise of “Ghost Fight”, taking place during a battle with a belligerent training dummy. It is more electronic and synth heavy, but, it still uses the previous inspirations. Out of all the battle themes, “Dummy” happens to be the one that just sticks to me. It’s infectiously catchy, with a ghoulishly hard-hitting acid-synth that drives the piece straight into your earlobes. You’d never think it until you really listened, but the equally fun “Spider Dance” is stealthy reprise of “Ghost Fight”. It uses a different set of samples (there’s none of the vocal stylings of the magnificent Venus here), instead going for a bouncy, childlike rhythm that makes you want to clap along with the (attacking!) spiders. The elements from the previous song are more clear if you listen to the end of each section. It doesn’t include EVERYTHING from “Ghost Fight”, but it’s subtly there. The reoccurring track acts as somewhat of a de-facto “mini-boss” theme. It’s a simple, charming touch that I adore.
On the subject of “motifs”, this doesn’t just extend to a few of the boss tracks. Nearly every song in Undertale references or samples from another song. This isn’t just something like the odd note or two; locations and battles that are thematically similar tie themselves together through the music. “Ruins” gets referenced in “Waterfall”, using a slower and melancholy arrangement of the former. Both of these tracks are hauntingly gorgeous, and resonate whenever they reappear. “CORE” samples from both “Death by Glamour” (“~Ooooh yeaaaah…~”) and “Another Medium”. Together, the three of these form some of the most spectacularly show-stopping songs on the soundtrack.
If it hasn’t come to light already; the reason why the Undertale soundtrack is so hard to talk about is that so much of it makes use of the motif. I could write paragraphs after paragraphs explaining how this leads into that, and dissect the meanings behind each of the usages. I’m here to review the music of Undertale. I am NOT here to talk about the game itself. I think it does Toby Fox a great disservice refraining from gushing about how the soundtrack tells as much about the characters as the game. I’ll leave it at this. Game soundtracks can use motifs, and many do, but rarely does a composer layer the music with subtext. Endless, endless subtext. That is the key to Undertale. Underneath all the layers, there more this world than what you are seeing or hearing.
Another key thing that I love about this soundtrack is the varied mix of style. We can go from the lonely piano of “Snowy” right into the chiptuney-madness of “Nyeh Heh Heh”, a prime candidate for one of the most memorable character themes in modern history. “Thundersnail”, a fast-paced synth piece that feels straight of out the 80’s can co-exist with “Wrong Enemy!”, another 8-bit track that makes a sudden segway into 50’s swing. It’s so all over the place that it manages to develop an identity through the madness. Cohesion isn’t necessary to develop a singular sound: Toby Fox knows exactly what he wanted out of Undertale. The closest the album comes to consistency is a recurring mixture of chips and synthetic orchestral samples in certain songs. No better does this come together into one of the albums greatest showstoppers. “ASGORE” is a powerhouse of emotions. I’m preventing myself from discussing spoiler-heavy tracks, yet this song still provides an emotional resonance even without context. It begins with a sample of “Bergentrückung” before exploding into a triumphant blast of strings. Then, the moment of awe is thrown away for an even sped-up reprise of an earlier track, “Heartache”. If that’s any sign, it underlines a revelation that will throw the listener into a gut punch. Never has speed portrayed such a sense of loathing in am instrumental song.
So, now for the ultimate question: What does this album do wrong? Two things kept me from writing this review closer to around when Toby Fox released the game. One: Figuring out how to structure the review. Two: Figuring out a negative. A genuine, bona-fida negative. I don’t believe that anything as a whole is perfect. I might comment on something as “perfect”, but I’m exaggerating. No matter the reviewer, we’ll press hard on things that we love and stretch to find things that we don’t like. I like my final paragraph to include my negative. The one thing that stuck out for me that proves my belief about perfection. Even in my Ducktales review, I managed to talk about a lesser piece of mixing I found in one of the songs. Here? Toby Fox should have looped some of the songs on the official soundtrack release. Some, like the likeable, memorable regular battle theme (an achievement in itself, as most RPG standard themes can grow repetitive) “Enemy Approaching” is only over 50 seconds long. If you’re like me, you have a finger over your phone just waiting to hit the replay button. That’s it. That’s all I have. I don’t know whether I’ve failed as a critic, or I’ve found the edge to the critiquing universe. Maybe, just maybe, it’s a matter of it being a soundtrack tailored to my exact tastes. Could that be something that’s considered a negative flaw? Maybe it’s insistence on varying styles and revisiting recognizable themes won’t appeal to certain people. Maybe one would want the cohesion. Undertale isn’t for everyone. It doesn’t play it safe and stick to a popular style. Which, I would then argue, is exactly why the soundtrack stands as a piece of art. Art is recognized not for what it is, nor for what it does for the audience. Art is recognized for having something more than the surface value.
Regardless if you think Undertale has the greatest soundtrack of the year, or even the decade, it’s impossible to deny what it’s done. Using a multitude of carefully curated and welcoming inspirations, Toby Fox has crafted what many rightfully consider his masterpiece. The motifs he has lovingly composed flow in and out of the tracks like a charming friend going through a daily change. Maybe some days he’s a little goofy. A little sad. A little scary. Maybe he’s even balls-to-the-walls insane. I almost want to keep writing. To write that huge essay about how the games music is like one giant spider web of influences and thematic touches. Go give Undertale a listen. Do you have anything better to do?
Do you agree with the review and score? Let us know in the comments below!
Posted on January 5, 2016 by Chris Hayman. Last modified on January 13, 2016.