Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late Review
Sony PlayStation 3
“Great. Another 2D fighter. Oh look, it’s anime-based! How original. Excuse me while I fire up Persona 4 Arena instead.“ Whilst these are likely to be your first impressions of the ludicrously titled Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late, it would be unfair to write it off as yet another over-the-top hat being thrown into an already packed arena. Under Night does actually have a few cards up its oversized sleeve to play against the competition, and whilst the end result isn’t going to cause many ripples through the genre, it’s a solid effort from the makers of Melty Blood.
Like most fighters, if you came for the story you’ll be disappointed. Actually, “disappointed” may be the wrong word - “confused” would be more accurate. There’s something about immortal warriors fighting during a Hollow Night - whatever that is - and various characters are aligned against other characters, whilst some are siblings but may also be enemies…and if you can penetrate the narrative any further than this, you’re doing a better job than us. Still, you don’t buy a fighting game for the plot, just like you don’t buy a Call of Duty game for a subtle, introspective take on warfare.
The underlying core of Under Night is its Grind Grid (GRD) system, a meter which judges how aggressive you’re being, and rewards you for taking the fight to your opponent whilst simultaneously depleting the meter of players who back off. That isn’t to say defensive players have no place here since blocking will also increase your meter, but the focus is clearly on getting fighters stuck into the thick of things - especially when compared to the Street Fighter series which can often allow fights to become almost too cagey. When you fill your GRD meter, you’re granted a boost to your attack power as well as opening up the Chain Shift moveset each character has, which lets you utilise a special move (EXS) gauge to really go to town on your opponent.
So how does Under Night play? Surprisingly well. In fact, it’s one of the more instantly accessible fighters of recent years, but has a lot of depth beneath the initially simple exterior of its basic control layout. A four-button system offers a gradual learning curve, whilst the combos utilise standard thumbstick quarter-, half- and three-quarter rolls combined with button presses without getting into hand-cramping Mortal Kombat territory. Better still, control mapping allows for double and even triple button assignation to the bumpers and triggers to ease players of all skill levels in. The attacks are dynamic too, letting you flit from light to heavy hits smoothly whilst maintaining your combo, and also incorporating this same flexibility in the air for aerial attacks. Combat overall is fast and frenetic but ultimately satisfying, with a true sense of control over your character.
At sixteen characters, the roster may be shorter than its peers but the variety of attacks and weapons each character utilises makes up for the deficit. You won’t find unsubtle re-skins here, and whilst some of the characters are a little blander than others, their fighting styles differ wildly. What will be immediately apparent is how balanced the entire system feels, although the single-player campaign felt - at least to us - ridiculously simple. We were able to progress to the final boss unhindered by the use of Continues on multiple playthroughs, simply by utilising the heavy attack three-hit combo. It felt like a nostalgic, if unwelcome, throwback to the port of the first Street Fighter game, where you could sail through the entire game on the back of a sweeping kick. PvP is very much the only way to go here for any sort of challenge. Fortunately, online multiplayer is a stable affair, with very little lag noticed during matches. There are ranked and unranked matches on offer, as well as a replay option. The fact that the title is more niche means that lobbies aren’t anywhere near as populous as others in the genre, but we still managed to find sparring partners without too much trouble. Outside of the PvP arena, there are modes aplenty to choose from too, including standard Arcade, Versus and Training staples through to Survival and a couple of Attack variants. It’s a well-stacked menu of options that will keep all but the most demanding player busy.
The visuals are appealing, if not outstanding. Animations are flashy without being overlong, especially on the combo front, and the collision detection is exquisite. However the backgrounds are pure window-dressing: inoffensive but bland. They serve to make the colourful character sprites more dazzling, but it would have been nice to see a bit more atmosphere from the backdrops. Overall, the look and feel of the Persona and BlazBlue series compares more favourably, but the combos are pleasingly distracting and the animation and handling of the characters is so good that the roughness of the sprites can be easily overlooked. The less said about the in-game text the better, though, since at times it seems like someone took a book of badly translated adjectives and threw it at the screen. Audio is exactly as you’d expect for this type of game: a mix of Japanese-tinged arcade electronica which is short on earworms, but also doesn’t outstay its welcome, with special mention going to the title track.
All told, Under Night is a reliable, enjoyable effort, especially for newcomers. It doesn’t stray too much from the genre’s roots, and the niche nature of the franchise will mean that it probably won’t get the recognition it deserves, especially when you consider the combination of its accessibility and overall balance. If you scratch below the surface of the over-the-top anime style though, you’ll find the makings of a cult classic - and PS3 fighting connoisseurs could do far worse one than adding it to their collection.