But dig a little deeper and you’ll find a game with a clash of styles that works better than you may imagine.
At the outset I should acknowledge the comments I got from a workmate who, unaware of this game, saw the title on his friends list and thought I was engaging in something a little more, shall we say, ‘adult’. That was an interesting conversation to have on a Monday morning.
Anyway, I went into Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late (UNIEL for short) knowing very little about it. I recall chancing across a trailer many moons ago, probably after hearing the name or abbreviation on some form of fighting game website. So I was aware UNIEL (much quicker to type!) was from the people who made Melty Blood, a game I had played, and enjoyed, long enough ago to forget most of what I knew about it. I think seeing Arc System Works’ name pop up evoked expectations of games they had made, so was somewhat expecting a fast fighter with a wealth of movement options coupled with countless universal systems.
So upon diving in, the first thing to note was a lack of a tutorial mode. Whilst I would not suggest every fighting game should have a mode to teach the basics of the genre (although this would not necessarily be remiss but that’s a whole other discussion) an explanation of the key systems would certainly be welcomed. Whilst this is a criticism of Under Night it is certainly not the sole offender in this regard.
As such, mostly due to my bullheadedness to not look anything up before I had first played the game, my first run through of arcade mode was a mildly confusing affair. The presentation was pleasing, with lots of small sized flavour text (that you have zero chance of reading in one go) in different parts of the screen throughout the introductions. During the fight the information is clear and the combo counter features a quickly depleting bar to represent how long you have to hit your opponent again to continue your battering. However there is a bar and timer at the bottom of the screen, in addition to the usual health and super meters, that is unique to the game and by the time the final boss lay defeated (SNK boss syndrome is thankfully not present here) I was none the wiser as to what it did. It definitely did something, and certain actions unquestionably had an effect upon it, but what it was actually for was still a mystery. More on this later.
The sprites and animation are beautiful, and whilst the backgrounds are a little dull I found this focused the attention to the bout at hand. The combos I was inventing seemed to be free flowing with plenty of room for experimentation, and by the end I had a crappy little bread and butter combo that was passable for the mode and difficulty. Arcade mode doubles as the story mode, which is told through static images and text. There is a lot of background to the story, but a lot goes unexplained and without outside reading I wasn’t completely certain as to what was going on. Although at the end of the day a fighting game story is an (often unnecessary) excuse for characters A and B to hit each other until one of them falls down too many times to get back up.
I was enjoying the game (spoiler) but perversely aware of depths I had yet to delve. Some quick research on the internet later and I was up to speed. As noted above there is the unique bar at the bottom of the screen and its manipulation is an important factor to consider in every round. The Grind Grid (GRD for short) system is a tug-of-war-esque indicator as to the current flow of the fight. Actions such as approaching your opponent, doing damage, and successful blocking increase your portion while backing away from your foe, taking damage, and having throws escaped decrease it. The timer part of GRD goes round once every 17 seconds and whoever has the bigger bar when the timer is up enters a ‘Vorpal’ state meaning they receive a damage boost and a couple of extra options until the timer goes round again. The first is access to a move that can be used as a one-time animation cancel to continue combos that could not ordinarily be extended, grants a boost to the super gauge, and immediately ends the Vorpal state. Initial thoughts would conclude this seems unbalanced, however as GRD can be increased via blocking it can benefit someone who is being constantly pressured as well, given that the other option is free access to an alpha counter type move, which normally costs half of the super bar.
A couple of other universal systems flesh out the game, most of which are executed via a dedicated button, noted as D (the attack buttons being A, B, and C). Holding away from the opponent and pressing D brings up a shield which can be used to decrease the recovery from blocking attacks and further increase the GRD gain from blocking – however shielding incorrectly, i.e. using a high shield and getting his low, inflicts a severe penalty of not being able to use any abilities on the D button for a period of time. Pressing towards and D results in the ‘assault’, which is a low hop towards the opponent, with the distance changing depending on how far apart the combatants are. This gives swift access to air attacks, and can also be used mid-air to change jump arcs. Due to the speed of assault, the damage done is reduced and if your attack is blocked you lose a portion of your GRD bar. Holding D by itself performs a charging animation where you increase the GRD gauge at the cost of super meter and being vulnerable. It is worth noting that there are no air dashes (outside of assault), and ground attacks cannot be blocked whilst in the air, making being airborne a very offensive and risky manoeuvre.
The consequence of these systems gives a more grounded game, with footsies and pokes taking a greater importance leading to a slower, thoughtful approach to combat when not rushing down. A number of characters have a poke that reaches at least half the screen, with the rest having special moves or other ways of getting close to compensate. Whilst the action is considered, the combos are certainly influenced by anime fighters with a simple chain system providing pleasingly flashy combos. These can be achieved with little practice, and it is worth noting that the game is fairly light in terms of execution requirements meaning newcomers can jump straight in and look good doing so. However, there is the scale for anyone wanting to eke out every last point of damage to find combos that require more precise timing at the harder end of the scale.
The 16 characters are distinct from each other, if not all memorable, and include a couple of guests. The first being from Melty Blood with the other being Akatsuki from Akatsuki Blitzkampf, and I must admit to grinning stupidly when he turned up in the attract sequence. Within the roster are a couple of all-rounders, who naturally lack any standout strengths, and the rest of the cast having tools that gear towards their intended gameplan. As an example, UNIEL features probably the slowest character (outside of using assault) to ever grace a fighting game in the form of its grappler Waldstein. He is so big he takes up about a quarter of the screen and the claws at the end of his lengthy arms (he’d be about a foot taller if he put them straight down) are bigger than a couple of the other fighters. Unlike grapplers in most other fighting games, Waldstein has had no movement options taken away however the range of his forward dash can only be described as pathetic. This is counteracted by the range of his normals, with a few that result in a throw of some sort. Due to this Waldstein attempts to zone the opponent with his attacks and mix them up with throws if they get too close. A perfect example of this is one command normal that starts as a blockable close range throw, which if blocked or whiffed is followed by a powerful, yet very slow, overhead attack that reaches roughly three quarters of the screen.
A number of modes fill the package, although nothing is new: the aforementioned arcade mode, time and score attacks, a survival mode, local versus, and training, which deserves a mention for its reset options. Most fighting games will reset the fighters to the round starting position, but Under Night allows this to be changed to either corner, with either character placed in the corner.
The online side of things seems lacking, being limited to player or ranked match however in my experience UNIEL features excellent netcode, and I fought against people with a not perfect connection (that is, rated 2 or 3 on a scale of 0-4) with seemingly no detriment to the gameplay.
Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late is a solid stylish fighting game, providing a feel to the action it can call its own. Whilst certainly one for fans of the genre, given the considered pace and simple execution the game is welcoming to newcomers. It is a shame that I can’t shake the feeling that Under Night will be largely forgotten or ignored in favour of more popular titles. I would like to be proven wrong.