Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late[st] Review
Accessible and stylish fighting
If there were a GOTY award for the longest, most ridiculous name for a game, Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late[st] would probably win it if you weren't counting those dating simulator games on Steam. The game comes from veteran beat 'em up developers French Bread (or, as they're simply known in France - baguette), responsible for the Melty Blood series. Arc Systems Works, who most will know for their BlazBlue and Guilty Gear series - not to mention the newly launched Dragon Ball FighterZ - are also in the mix. So, right off the bat, you've got some serious heavy-weights of the fighting genre. But is it a match made in heaven?
Funnily enough, this version of Under Night is the third version release of the game. The original was released in the arcade way back in 2013, then came the PS3 version in 2015, which led to the PS4 release this year. The setup is classic beat 'em up. You pick one of 20 characters and battle through arcade and other modes.
Unlike more recent games like Street Fighter that have gone for the 2.5D look, Under Night is decidedly 2D. And it shows. You could have told me this game was for the PlayStation and I wouldn't have batted an eyelid. Now, graphics aren't the be all and end all of games, especially fighters. I really like the character designs (though they tended to fall into cliché/cleavage valleys), but that's par the course in anime.
The characters I gravitated towards fit my preferred playstyle: quick, close combat. Playable characters fall into two camps - close-range and long-range. Hyde and Linne fall into the former, and are both equipped with bladed weapons. They are, perhaps, the protagonists of the series. The two are quick; Hyde has good projectile and anti-air attacks, as well as combos. Akatsuki and Enkidu were my brawlers of choice. The former is lightning quick and can pull off some insane combos; the latter is no slouch and can hit like a train.
Other characters that excel at a more mid- to long-range approach are Hilda and Byakuya. Hilda can conjure lances of darkness from a void that can prove unpredictable; Byakuya controls levitating blades and has an arachnid-inspired move set. Each character has their own style of play, but the basic skills and methods you learn for each character are applicable to the whole roster. This lets you settle in to each character's weird and wonderful playstyles and weapons easily and enjoyably.
The "tent poles" of 2D fighters remain but they are suffocated in game-specific terms that can require a glance at the glossary to decipher. It's not a "super combo meter", it's an EXS (pronounced "excess") bar. You can have up to three charges. Your regular super combos cost one charge and can be chained together to increase damage and combos, much like Street Fighter EX Alpha's design. Carrying on the with Street Fighter comparison, you also have a more damaging special move, costing three bars - your ultimate attack.
Each character also has their guard bar, which can only sustain a set amount of damage before breaking. It can be recharged too, by attacking. With a tap of a button, you can also enter a "super charged" state, known as removing you "Viel", that makes pulling off more powerful moves easier (sometimes with the press of a button). And you don't get KO'd at the end of a round, you get a screen displaying "Vanishment Void". So, yeah, it gets... convoluted to say the least.
This lexiconic obfuscation is almost counter-intuitive, because Under Night is one of the most accessible fighting games I've played. We've all been there. You've trained to death with that one character and you can breeze through CPU opponents like a warm knife explosion in a butter factory. But then your toddler relative will pick up the second player pad and mash the buttons, turning into a little "Rain Man" and destroying you through sheer, child-like unpredictability.
You can take that route in Under Night, and you'll probably not fair too badly. Chaining combos can become easy (and a lot of fun). The face buttons correspond to light, medium, heavy, and heavier attacks. These can each be chained together fluidly. The circle button (when you don't have an EXS charge) functions as a more powerful special attack. If you use the same directional input+button with a charged bar, you get a super attack, making the moves easier to employ in combos.
The chainable nature of combos/special attacks/super attacks offers a lot of player freedom, which I love in fighting games. If you're seriously into this genre, then you look for what does the most damage, and have a habit of sticking with a certain combination of moves. However, with Under Night, you have room for experimentation to figure out new combos in the heat of battle. Finding that ridiculous set of moves or recognising that perfect opening when you think all is lost is extremely satisfying.
Another big step towards accessibility is the fact that there is an (almost) universal move set for every character. You can pick a character at random and know that an input will produce a special attack (but not necessarily what that attack will do). The best way to describe it is like…Slavic or Romance languages, in that they all share a "root". If you know French, then it'll be easier to pick up Spanish, Italian and Portuguese. Street Fighter employs it to a lesser degree, which is why I find it much easier to comfortably play with multiple characters in those games, as opposed to Tekken and Dead or Alive (yes, there are a lot fewer moves in those games) .
What also attracts me to Under Night is its speed. It's one of the most aggressive fighters I've played in recent memory. You cannot sit back. You must get stuck in the fight. It's a sword strapped to the hood of a Ferrari launched into the sun. Fights end in the blink of an eye and, at higher levels of play, turn into hyper fencing matches. When you start creeping up the echelons of competitive play (in any fighting game), you're always looking for that one move that launches you into a combo to shave off a good chunk of health. Those same principles apply here.
At its core, Under Night is what you expect; however, it does follow in the footsteps of anime-inspired/visual novel fighters, much like its developer's back catalogue. For those hailing from the western fighting school of games like Tekken, Street Fighter, Dead or Alive, etc., story content rarely goes further than an intro/outro cutscene and a bio. In Under Night, the split is decidedly larger. There is a whole "mode" dedicated to each character. And you have to unlock each character by going through another's story. The actual thought that went into the game's lore and terminology has its heart in the right place, and I wouldn't mind seeing the concept as an anime or manga accompanying the game, but...
The visual novel within a fighting game holds absolutely nothing me. Don't get me wrong, I watch anime, I read, I have nothing against the written word. It's just all so static I can't be bothered trawling through every character. Upon first seeing the mode, I got a little excited, believing it would have digestible chunks of story in between more interesting battle mechanics akin to Street Fighter Alpha 3's world tour mode. Nope. Just static screens.
And therein lies one of Under Night's biggest flaws—lack of content. When you load the game for the first time, you'll get a little overwhelmed by just how many options are available: arcade, time attack, survival—but none of the modes offer a new way to play the game. It all boils down to a series of battles. "But games were fine like that back in the day!" you cry. Yes, and that why it was "back in the day". What those games also provided was a better difficulty level.
I'm not virtuoso at Under Night. I'm familiar with more "twitchier" fighting games and love them. The problem arises when first I hopped into arcade mode on standard difficulty (3/5) and easily cleared it with only a couple of retries. I then upped the difficulty to maximum, and after a few run throughs where I had to continue once or twice, I could competently breeze past the stages.
I think a higher difficulty setting is really required to get a player prepped for the online side of Under Night. I was hoping for a mode similar to Tekken 5 and up, where there was a continual battle mode. I understand the latter game used "ghost data" from players, but its difficulty exceeded that of its hardest setting through normal play.
So, when you eventually find the CPU no challenge, it's only natural to head to Under Night's online versus mode. Despite being told the game was connecting to PS3 users, it took either several minutes to locate an opponent (who was often the same opponent with vastly more experience) or it failed to find a match at all. Because the franchise is not well known in the West, I feel the online audience may feature only the more hardcore players. When I eventually connected, it was after I had increased several parameters to their maximum, including connection quality and opponent ranking.
The next issue, once I had found a battle, was that the previous screen before starting did not display the connection quality. Connection quality is paramount in an online beat 'em up (and in any game, really), so matches became a bit of a dice roll as to how quickly I could move and fight. In the end, it became extremely frustrating. I do hope it improves in the future, through minor tweaks or an increase in players going online, because its online component is where Under Night has the most potential.
Another component to the online portion of the game is the ranking system. Simply put, you gain points for participating/winning/losing battles. If you are both around the same level, a defeat or victory will not shift the points into the positives too greatly. If you defeat a vastly more "experienced" opponent, then you will gain more points. While it is an interesting idea, and it could push strong players to battle each other, I have a feeling more experienced players will shy away from lower level fights.
What has also become more prevalent in fighting games is the ability to customise your character. I still recall the days of owning a special card for Tekken 5, which you could print off at the arcade. You'd insert it into the arcade machine, and it would allow you to spend the battle points you earned to customise your character and then take them with you. Since then, it's grown.
In Under Night, you gain points for clearing arcade and other modes, as well as battling online. I was quite excited to see what I could spend my points on, but was left really underwhelmed. You can customise your "plate" and "icon" that house your name when fighting another player, but they amount to colour changes or feature one of the characters. Actual character customisation is nothing more than a palette swap. In the end, you accrue all these points and there's nothing worth spending them on.
Under Night's UI elements are rather bare bones, which can often lead to confusion—as counterintuitive as that sounds. You'll mostly be navigating rather bland menus that will then explode with information. If you open the game's practice menu you are assaulted by terms and selectable options. These often require a look at the glossary to define. However, once you dig through them, it's the sheer number of options that make it one of the best training tools I've encountered in a beat 'em up.
Under Night has a combo practices system that reminds me of Street Fighter EX Alpha 1+2, where the computer will hold your hand through custom combos to get the most out of your skills. You can even slow down the game speed to perfect tricky routines and work on your own. This makes mastering combat a cinch. I wish more games implemented it.
Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late[st] has the core fighting mechanics of its own style down to tee, but is hindered by rather lacklustre presentation and modes, which are its biggest hurdles to becoming great. With a few improvements, it could be an entertaining staple in the competitive scene. As it stands, Under Night is left brushing its fingers against greatness.