Better Exe:Late than never
The fighting game frenzy may not be quite as strong as it was in its heyday during the mid-1990’s, but 2016 has witnessed something of a renaissance for the one-on-one brawler genre. With Street Fighter V and The King of Fighters XIV on full display at this week’s EVO tournament in Las Vegas, Nevada, you’d almost be forgiven if you thought you’d somehow managed to tumble into some weird spatial rift and emerged in an alternate reality, where the arcades were still going strong and the “quarters up” mantra was still the law of the land. While Capcom and SNK’s big name offerings have managed to hog the limelight in recent months, we’ve seen a barrage of lesser known, but no less hard-hitting fighters land on a variety of platforms. From the racy rumble that was Nitroplus Blasterz: Heroines Infinite Duel on consoles to BlazBlue: Chronophantasma Extend and Melty Blood: Actress Again Current Code on Steam, the fighting game faithful have had plenty of reason to dust of their joysticks and step into the arena.
Now, French Bread, the Japanese game developer best known for their work on the Melty Blood series, has returned to bring Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late to Steam, allowing PC-bound pugilists to finally get their hands on one of the genre’s most criminally overlooked hidden gems. Originally released on the PlayStation 3 last year, the game is an updated port of 2012’s Under Night In-Birth, bringing numerous tweaks to the original game’s formula while adding a handful of new combatants to the roster for players to master. The end result is a fast and frenetic fighting title that delivers an experience that ultimately feels more refined than the studio’s previous releases, providing an excellent blend of off-the-wall characters and simple to pick up, yet difficult to master gameplay that’s sure to please even the most jaded joystick junkies.
The story of Under Night In-Birth is about what you’d expect from a French Bread-developed fighter. It’s chock full of shadowy sects, secretive organizations bound to uphold order, and an array of colorful characters with ridiculous names and even more ridiculous hairstyles. The story centers around two rival groups, Yatō and Licht Kreis, who are working to prevent a paranormal event known as the Hollow Night, in which creatures called Voids to appear and feed on the essence of Japan’s hapless citizenry. The story isn’t bad per se, but newcomers will likely want to dive into the series’ lore via other means, because the way the plot is presented through the game’s story sequences quickly devolves into a weighty word salad of serious sounding names and strange, pseudo-scientific happenings with little consideration for the reader’s familiarity with the universe.
What Under Night In-Birth lacks in a coherent story it makes up for with a fighting system that’s absolutely rock-solid. The game sports tight, responsive controls, and bouts that are fast and furious, featuring the requisite air-dashes, combo strings, and flashy specials you’d expect from a game crafted by the team responsible for Melty Blood. Each of the game’s 16 playable characters has a wide array of unique moves as well, with most characters being able to execute some form of projectile in order to zone the opposition.
However, you likely won’t want to hang back much thanks to the game’s most noteworthy feature, the Grind Grid. This meter, which displays in the center of the the screen, gradually increasing and decreasing depending on what actions you perform during a match. Players gain GRD blocks by approaching their opponent, dashing, shielding, or blocking your opponents attacks. However, walking away from your enemy or taking damage will make the GRD meter fall. Every 17 seconds, the player with more accumulated GRD blocks will enter a “Vorpal” state, allowing them to dish out more damage and perform a Chain Shift, which can be used to cancel an attack or fill your EXS gauge, which acts as a super meter, which you use to execute the game’s flashiest and most devastating attacks.
Overall, the GRD mechanic adds a welcome layer of depth to the title, effectively punishing players who turtle too much or play too recklessly. Knowing a bungled block or failed feign can be the tipping point that gives your opponent a mountain of EXS is a pretty good incentive to pay attention to what you’re doing. And heated bouts can even feel like something of a tug-of-war as two players attempt to outsmart one another for the payout during the next Vorpal phase.
In addition to the aforementioned arcade mode, Under Night In-Birth also features a handful of other game types to keep you busy including a Score Attack, Time Attack, and Survival Mode, each of which offers currency that can be spent on in the game’s Customization Mode shop where you can purchase trinkets to customize your online avatar, unlock concept art, and other goodies. While these modes serve as little more as distraction from the game’s main course won’t likely keep you coming back for more, it’s still fun to unlock bonus items and test your mettle against droves of CPU-controlled opponents. The game also offers a handy Training Mode where you can come to grips with each of the characters’ wealth of special attacks and hard-hitting combos.
Of course, a fighting game is only as good as it’s network code, and here Under Night In-Birth mostly delivers. During our time with the game, most matches played pretty smoothly, with only a handle of bouts suffering from considerable lag and freezes. While the matchmaking itself is pretty spartan, allowing you to only choose between searches for ranked and casual matches with no lobbies to speak of, finding opponents was a breeze and it generally only took a few seconds to find an opponent. If the community continues to grow this could well be one fighter that keeps players busy for months to come.
Overall, Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late is an immensely satisfying fighter that no fan of the genre should miss. The game’s smart and refined system offers adds a welcome layer of strategy to its sturdy fighting framework. If you’re a fan of Blazblue, Melty Blood, and other anime-style fighters, you’ll certainly find plenty of enjoyment to be had with French Bread’s latest fighter. So grab a friend and an extra controller and get ready for one hell of a throw-down, because Under Night In-Birth delivers the goods.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: PC (Reviewed); Publisher: Arc System Works ; Developer: French Bread ; Players: 1-2 ; Released: July 12, 2016
Full Disclosure: This Review was made possible by a review copy provided by the publisher.