If you are an avid fighting game fan, chances are good that you’ve come across the Melty Blood series at some point in time. Originally created as a collaboration between doujin circles Type Moon and French Bread, and set in the same universe as visual novel Tsukihime, the fighting series started off on PC before getting adapted for the arcade and PS2. Unfortunately for English fans, none of the games in the Melty Blood series or the other Type Moon franchises it has ties with have been given official translations and releases here, leaving it to be experienced by those who chose to import. It was uncertain if French Bread’s next fighting series Under Night In-Birth would suffer the same fate, but thankfully Aksys Games has stepped in to publish the PlayStation 3 version, Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late. Don’t let that mouthful of a title turn you off, as despite the familiar anime look this is a fighting game with its own nuances that is genuinely fun to play.
What most gamers who boot up Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late will notice right from the beginning is that the fighting mechanics are fairly simply to pick up, but not easy to master. Unlike in many of the other series out there, the game’s Arcade mode doesn’t feature an overpowered end boss that can easily destroy you with insane Super moves if you don’t block perfectly and counter at just the right time. Instead, as you play through the ten levels of Arcade mode with each character you fight various members taken directly from the 16 playable fighters. I like this approach, as it allows you to get a sneak peek of the types of moves you’ll be learning with each character as you play through Arcade mode. Compared to series like BlazBlue, Under Night In-Birth is much more focused on the ground game and utilizing equal amounts of offense and defense. The setup initially appears familiar, as every fighter has the ability to dash forward, jump into the air, and perform different combos and special moves that revolve around utilizing weak, medium, or strong attacks. At the bottom of the screen is the EXs gauge, which you can think of as the Super move gauge from other fighters. It runs from 0 to 200, and once you gain over 100 you can pull off Special moves by entering the right commands. EX can be gained by taking or dealing damage, similar to most fighting games.
These basics are fairly easy to pick up, and because there’s no insane end boss I found myself able to complete the Arcade mode on my first try on the default difficulty. It is possible to raise or lower the difficulty in the Options menu should you decide that you need a bit more practice or more of a challenge, which is a nice feature. But even though I was able to pick up the basics of movement and execute specials fairly easily, it took several days of practice to get a feel for the mechanics that really set Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late apart. The game uses what is known as the Grind Grid system, which can be thought of as a tug of war that plays out during the match. There are grids on each side, and in the center is a circle of progress that fills up every 17 seconds. Players gain grids by moving forward, successfully landing attacks, or successfully defending. You can also hold the X button to go into Concentration mode and steal additional grids from the opponent, but doing so will leave you completely defenseless and open to take damage. When the circle of progress fills up, whichever player has the most amount of grids enters what is called GRD Vorpal and will deal 10% more damage until the circle of progress reaches completion again. What initially ends up seemingly like a minor mechanic adds a greater degree of strategy to the fights than initially expected and lets players potentially put more emphasis on offense than defense. It makes each move important, and while you can still beat the AI in the lower difficulties by button mashing, doing well online requires careful defending and then tactical offense based around the Vorpal state.
Other mechanics that you’ll want to get used to are Veil Off and Chain Shifts. Veil Off is a state that can be triggered when you have 100 or more EXs by pressing all three attack buttons simultaneously (X, Square, and Triangle). This triggers a shockwave that blasts your opponent backwards, and puts you in a state where you can pull off Special moves and Infinite Worths for a limited period of time without a specific EXs requirement (with each successful special move taking a sliver of the meter away). Infinite Worths are what Under Night uses to refer to as a Super Move for each character, and there are two types. The normal Infinite Worth can only be triggered at 200 EXs or in Veil Off mode, while the Infinite Worth EXs requires that you only have 30% health remaining in addition to the normal Infinite Worth requirements. These types of Super Moves aren’t quite one hit kills a la Guilty Gear, but they do deal a significant amount of damage and could potentially turn the favor of a match if utilized properly. The other major system is Chain Shift, which essentially acts as Under Night’s version of a Roman Cancel. This can only be performed in Vorpal state and is triggered by quickly tapping X twice. Chain Shifts allow the player to cancel their current combo and trigger a new one while temporarily freezing the opponents actions for a few quick frames, allowing for longer combos. During a Chain Shift the player also gains additional EXs, which can be useful as well.
Those are all of the major mechanics, but there are other nuances that made me really like the fighting mechanics in Under Night. It’s possible to break free of throws by entering a counter input at the right time, and also recover from a staggered state to defend against some of the character’s insane combos. Everything feels fairly balanced, and while there are certain fighters on the roster that do a ridiculous amount of damage compared to others, having the ability to break free of combos and plan defensively and offensively provides players the chance to be good with any character provided they practice enough. After running through the Arcade mode with every member on the roster I still find myself gravitating towards the heavy hitters like Gordeau and Waldstein whose ranged attacks are pretty far reaching, but just about everyone had a move set that I enjoyed figuring out. Fights in this game are very fluid and play out a bit slower than some of the franticness of other fighters I’ve played recently, and the tactical nature of the Grind Grid system makes this one genuinely fun to play. One word of warning though, French Bread hasn’t included a Tutorial of any kind in-game, so if you want to properly figure out some of the less obvious nuances of the fighting system it would be best to read the manual or head to YouTube to watch some experienced players showcase how to properly use them.
I spent the majority of my time with Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late’s Arcade mode, which has players going through ten stages with each character. It might not be as in-depth as some of the other series out there that have visual novel style story scenes and branching paths, but it was still fun to see what motivations each character had for fighting. The story revolves around a phenomenon known as the Hollow Night, where shadowlike creatures called Voids descend upon affected areas to feed on a power called Existence (EXs). Under special circumstances a person who has been attacked by a Void can become an In-Birth, which places them into a limbo state between life and death but allows them to maintain their humanity to an extent. The majority of the characters belong to one of three factions (Amnesia, Paradox, or Licht Kreis) with each one having ties to the other and different motivations. There are also loners and two guest characters in the form of Sion Eltnam Atlasia from Melty Blood and Akatsuki from Akatsuki Blitzkampf whose routes poke fun at the fact that they are cameos and sometimes break the fourth wall. Under Night’s story comes off feeling a bit disjointed at times and like a lot of fighters, it is mostly just an excuse for the cast to beat each other up.
Aside from the Arcade Mode, there is a separate versus mode that lets players take on the AI, a versus mode for offline multiplayer, Training, Time Attack, Score Attack, and Survival. Training is mainly meant to practice each character’s combos and can be useful for getting a feel for mechanics like Chain Shift, but as I said before it isn’t a tutorial that will tell you specifically how each system works. Time Attack has the player trying to get through ten stages as quickly as possible, while Score Attack has you trying to amass as many points as possible through the same amount of fights. Survival should be self-explanatory, as you have one life and have to get through as many rounds as you can. Playing each mode earns the player credits, which can be used to purchase artwork in the gallery, color swaps for all of the characters, and different badges that will be shown when playing online. The online functionality is split between unranked player matches and ranked matches, and the net code is fantastic as I noticed no major lag when playing against players from different locations. It’s worth noting that at the time of this review the game hasn’t officially launched in North America just yet so the community seems a bit small, as I couldn’t find any ranked matches and there were only three to four unranked lobbies available at a time, but hope that Under Birth can generate a stable community because of how fun and nuanced the fighting is. The player base it does have right now all seems very good though, as I got destroyed in the majority of the matches I played for the purpose of this review. French Bread has thrown in a useful Replay mode though, which allows you to save an entire match and re-watch it later to try and learn from your mistakes or successes.
As I mentioned previously, Under Night boasts an anime aesthetic but it has a very sharp and clean look that is easy on the eyes. Compared to Aksys’ other recent 2D fighter Arcana Heart 3: LOVE MAX!!!!! the sprites look much more detailed and high resolution, and the movement flows perfectly with no noticeable dips in animation quality. Each of the 16 characters has a distinctive look, and I have the feeling that players may choose who to run through the game with first based on some of the designs. The only criticism I have with the graphics is the backgrounds, as some of them appear to be using pseudo 3D and they aren’t up to the same quality as the character sprites. It’s not bad enough to cause a distraction from the actual fighting, but I often felt like the backgrounds weren’t consistent in their quality. As for the audio, all of the voice acting remains in Japanese and French Bread was able to utilize a fairly wide range of Japanese voice acting talent for Under Night. Anime fans will likely recognize some of the voices from a variety of different series, which I always find fun when playing fighting games of this type. I also like the music quite a bit as it flows nicely with how each of the rounds play out and the tempos consistently amped me up as I was practicing and trying to nail the perfect combo.
Don’t let the name scare you away, as Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late is a polished and fun to play 2D fighting game that has some tactical mechanics that set it apart. The base gameplay will likely feel familiar, but the Grind Grid and Chain Shift systems make it feel different and encourage players to really think out each move as they play. I’m happy that North American gamers finally have the chance to experience a French Bread fighter through an official release, and while the single player content might not be quite as in-depth as series that offer branching stories and lengthier Arcade Modes there is still plenty here to keep you coming back for more. I’ve found myself wanting to fire it up on a regular basis and continue to perfect my play, and hopefully once it comes out it can be supported by a decent player base. Give this one your support, as it’s not always common to find a fluid 2D fighter that is accessible to newcomers while providing enough nuances for the hardcore genre fanatics.