You'd be forgiven for being under the impression that Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late – the clear forerunner for 2015's most pointlessly long video game title – is nothing more than another uninspired 2D anime fighting game. It certainly gives off an initial "I should probably be playing BlazBlue instead" vibe. Developer French Bread has, however, built a reputation around producing pedigree licensed fighters (including Melty Blood and Dengeki Bunko Fighting Climax), and is striking boldly outside of its comfort zone for the first time in almost a decade with an original IP. Thankfully, it may just have hit a home run.
Under Night makes some rather intriguing decisions, including brilliant little nuances within combat that become apparent and meaningful quickly, spicing up the standard fighting game formula just enough to feel like a fully fledged unique experience – kicking, punching, and oversized swords with a helping of oversized hair aside, that is.
Those that have ever seen a fighting game in their lives are likely to be familiar with the EX bars adorning the bottom left and right hand sides of the screen, bringing devastating moves to the table in exchange for a chunk of that tasty meter goodness. The bar in the centre – the Grind Grid – is a newer addition, though, and it's the key to Under Night's core gameplay mechanic.
Blocks on the Grind Grid are gained and conceded as players advance and retreat on the battlefield. Aggressive play, taunting, successful blocking, and taking the fight to the enemy without giving up any ground are instantly made into a priority as competitors scramble to possess more of the Grind Grid than their enemy before the timer runs out, with the winner taking away a hefty attack boost called a vorpal buff.
Vorpal buffs are used to heavily tip the tide, enabling the wielder a choice between filling up their EX bar, blocking an oncoming onslaught without reprise, or cancelling any recovery frames in between attacks for a short period. That little blue aura enables a hearty prize of either offence, defence, or the ability to capitalise on openings. Characters lack the obscene air dashes of their peers, too. What results is a tactical brawl that's heavily reliant on smart play, spacing, and attacking in well timed, focused bursts in order to gain an advantage, rather than combos and slower, more passive styles.
The bar for entry is much lower for fresh faces, with a moderately friendly learning curve. Within an hour or two you'll feel comfortable utilising the Grind Grid to great effect, flourishing taunts in conjunction with punishing combos in the last few seconds of a cycle to grab hold of the buff and propel yourself onwards to victory.
The 16 strong cast of characters is lovingly designed and characterised, ranging wildly in both appearance and play style. From school girls to your friendly neighbourhood gigantic mecha-grandpa, there's enough here to give everybody one or two choices to root for. One or two options stand out from the pack as slightly more interesting, such as Carmine, who crystallises and shoots off his own blood as makeshift projectiles and weaponry, giving up health for damage output. Often fights involving him end up with puddles of blood littering the stage, leaving gruesome options for when things begin to get really sticky. That, or you could just play as mecha-grandpa. Do it.
Game mode options are exactly what one would expect from a fighter, with the obligatory arcade mode, a handful of versus options (including online battling, to alleviate any fears), survival, various score attack modes, and a hub to practice in. It's good; it works. It just feels like it's missing a trick. A more involving campaign or imaginative options for miscellaneous game types would have gone a long way to provide a little more meat and a lot more variety, and the fact that it isn't there is certainly missed.
Despite this omission, there's certainly just enough to keep you occupied, even if at times it is an excuse to enjoy the brilliant soundtrack. Melodic epics and J-Pop themed opening pieces ring, building every encounter into a leviathan face-off heavily reminiscent of practically every battle anime in existence. There are no English voices, though – sorry, chaps.
Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late (still too much of a mouthful) bills itself as a "Visual Novel and Fighting Game", which leads to only one discernible conclusion: convoluted plot! In classic arcade fighting form, multiple completions of arcade mode will offer snippets of story to both satiate and confuse in equal measure. Shadow creatures known as Voids have invaded the world and feed on the sheer existence of everyday folk through some trans-dimensional rift. Those who can perceive Voids, survive their attacks, and ultimately fight against them are known as In-Births – so most of our playable roster, basically. In-Births give up their humanity, becoming some pseudo-ghost thing. Add in ancient Japanese clan politics and rivalries, and you've got a recipe for headaches. It doesn't really matter, though, because for every concession that it makes in terms of story clarity and game mode breadth, it makes up for with tight gameplay.
Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late achieves an ease of entry to allow newer players to experience and immerse themselves in traditional 2D fighting action, without sacrificing depth in the higher tiers of gameplay. But more importantly, it's all overwhelmingly satisfying to play. French Bread understands fighting games exceptionally well, that much is very clear – and it's managed to put pressure on all of the right spots.