Review: Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late[st]

An Inexperienced View

I’ve never made it a secret that I love a good story in my video games. In fact, aside from my addiction to rhythm games, I prefer and actively seek out story-heavy titles. As such, there are a few genres that I don’t often find myself dabbling in. Most notably, games with a competitive focus.

The massive “battle royale” fad led by PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds has completely passed me by due to lack of interest. I’ve owned Team Fortress 2 since 2008 and, according to Steam, have only played it for four hours. The thing is, it’s not that I don’t recognize these as fun or entertaining games in their own right – it’s that I’d rather spend my time diving into an RPG or visual novel.

As such, I guess you could consider this intro a forewarning for the review to follow, as today’s title is a fighting game – a genre that I’m not highly experienced in. In fact, I’ve had others approach me and ask why I’d even bother to review a fighting game, knowing my penchant for story focus and the lack thereof in the genre.

I’d give two reasons. One, I believe there’s merit to a review of a fighting game from someone with inexperience. The genre is notable for being seen as inpenetrable to many, with a number of games having a rather high skill wall and a community that has already poured hundreds of hours into learning the ins and outs of the game. Providing a review from the viewpoint of a relative newcomer may help others that are new to the scene as well see if a particular game is worth trying out for their first shot at a fighter.

Second, there’s a surprising amount of fighting games today that make some attempt at a story. It’s not always great, mind you, but both fighting games I’ve reviewed in the past – Dengeki Bunko Fighting Climax and Nitroplus Blasterz: Heroines Infinite Duel – contained some kind of semblance of a story. The same goes for the game we’re looking at today as well.

Developed by Ecole Software and French Bread, and published in the US by Aksys Games, Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late[st] was released on February 9th, 2018. We were provided code for the European release, published by PQube.

Ringing Hollow

Under Night‘s story focuses on a phenomenon the game calls the “Hollow Night,” which appears in parts of Japan. Within the Hollow Night, creatures called Voids come into existence to feed upon a power called “EXS” within certain people. Should a person come into contact with a Void and survive, they can gain the ability to control this power.

The plot follows various characters involved with the Hollow Night phenomenon, from survivors of Void encounters (known in-game as “In-Births”) to members of organizations attempting to defend against or control Voids.

I really hope I’m telling this synopsis correctly, because Under Night‘s story is often confusing, especially if you’re only playing through the standard Arcade Mode of the game. Each character has their own background, agenda, and relationships with other characters, which initially go completely unexplained. The story snippets in each character’s path of Arcade Mode are often filled with in-universe jargon (such as the many terms I mentioned above) without definition, leaving you to try and use context clues to figure out what’s going on.

Luckily, there’s a new mode included with this release of Under Night, known as Chronicle Mode. Selecting this gives you access to a number of different story scenerios featuring the game’s characters, and acts much like a prologue to each character’s Arcade Mode story. Reading through this helped to define much of the in-universe jargon and give a bit more depth to each character and their relation to the Hollow Night.

There’s no fighting in this mode – every story here is handled like a visual novel, just lots and lots of text. It’s easily skippable for those just here for the fighting action. Unfortunately, story lovers may want to skip it too, as many of the stories here are tedious and outright boring. There’s often waaaay too much exposition, making the plots a struggle to sit through. Capping it off is an impressive amount of typos, with some stories having one in nearly every text box.

Work Your Way Up

Under Night is a three-button fighter at it’s most basic – you get a weak, medium, and heavy attack assigned to each button, with the ability to combo between them. There is a fourth button, mapped by default to ‘X’ on the PS4, which is used for various special moves. You also get your standard meter you fill up for special moves (here called the EXS Gauge) and a unique meter called the GRD Gauge…more on this one later.

Other fighters I’ve reviewed in the past have been very fast-paced, bombastic affairs with screen-filling effects and multiple summoned characters on the field at the time. I went in expecting the same thing here, only to be surprised to be confronted with a much more methodical and tactical-feeling system. Finding success in this game hinges heavily on reading your opponent and setting yourself up for the right combo at the right time, and you’re given a number of tools to do so.

Many of your available tactics revolve around the aformentioned GRD Gauge. You earn points in this gauge by essentially doing things conducive to winning a match (landing an attack, recovering from one, blocking successfully, etc)…but you can also lose points by doing the opposite. There are six “blocks” in each side of the gauge you can fill, which can be used for various movement skills and a few special attacks.

However, whoever has the most GRD once a constantly running timer on the gauge ends enters what the game calls “Vorpal” state, which increases your damage output and allows you to make use of “Chain Shift” – a special attack cancel that also refills your EXS gauge. With how powerful entering Vorpal is, more intense matches can often feel like a tug of war on the GRD gauge, forcing you to really think about how to attack and defend against each character and player.

Not that I really gained much skill at any of that, being a fresh-faced player. Much of what I learned about these systems comes from what is easily the greatest feature of this game in my opinion – a full tutorial mode. Way too many fighters just thrust new players into the ring and force them to figure things out. Some may offer training modes, giving you the chance to try to figure out some combos and special moves against a basic AI. No fighter I’ve ever played in my life, though, comes close to what Under Night offers.

The training mode offers hundreds of instructions, hints, and tips, divided into various courses ranging from pure beginner to expert. Going through these courses gives you a chance to learn and try out everything from basic attack inputs to the aforementioned Chain Shifting and even further. Hell, I ran across a Twitter post from someone with years of experience in this game discovering a new part of the system he never even knew existed through this tutorial mode. I will shout this to the ends of the Earth: this is how you get more new players into competitive fighting games.

Two Faces

In general, the visual presentation of Under Night is bright, colorful and fairly attractive overall. Each of the characters during battle are distinctly designed and animate well, but the battle environments can be hit-or-miss. Some stages are nicely detailed and offer interesting environments, while others can be just straight-up dull. To be fair, though, there’s very little chance anyone playing will actually be paying attention to the environment.

The character designs during dialogue moments, though, are lacking. The designs of many of the sprites here seem rough, and are often lacking in emotion. Each character has one stance that never changes, and only three or four expressions they rotate between depending on the dialogue. The art stills you unlock at the end of each character’s arcade route are often just as rough. Really, the character designs here just aren’t doing much for me.

The game also has a surprisingly extensive soundtrack. Music isn’t something I imagine gets much attention in fighting games, but what we have here in Under Night is decently impressive. Most of the tracks are what you’d expect for this style of game – loud, powerful, and very electric guitar driven – but there’s also a number of synth-driven tracks and even a few calmer piano-focused pieces (mostly for the story modes).

Under Night also contains voice acting in the original Japanese, with full voicing during dialogue in Arcade Mode, as well as the entire Chronicle Mode. The acting…well…it exists. There’s not much I really have to say about it – the performances get their job done, but none of them particularly stood out, and I ended up skipping most of the voices after playing through a couple of the stories in Chronicle Mode.

A Continuing Journey

Through a combination of tutorial mode giving me confidence with the controls, as well as the more tactical feel of the combat in general, Under Night is the first fighting game I’ve reviewed that I can see myself going back to regularly. I was utterly destroyed in pretty much every multiplayer match I played, but it never felt like the fault of the game, but rather the lack of my own skills. The game offers up all the tools you need to learn the various systems in play and train with them, and I look forward to diving in further and putting in some hours of practice.

Yes, the story is very much lacking, but as I mentioned in the beginning, most don’t seek out fighting games for their story-telling abilities. If you’re going in with pure focus on the gameplay, what you’ll find here is an excellent fighter that can be very welcoming to newcomers to the genre. Veteran or not, I highly recommend giving this title a shot.

~ Final Score: 8/10 ~

Review copy provided by PQube for PS4. Screenshots taken by reviewer.