From the earliest moment, there’s no mistaking Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late(st) as anything other than a product of Japan.
The front-end positively screams coin-op, with eye-catching attract screens and audio effects that immediately transport you back twenty years to darkened rooms, sticky carpets and stand-up cabinets. The in-game experience is chock-full of impenetrable exposition while the visual aesthetic is one of the most beautiful examples of anime we’ve seen in a video game.
And if you didn’t get Japan from all that, just look at the title.
Under Night In-Birth is a visual novel and 2D fighting game, originally released by Sega in 2012 as an arcade title, and then on PlayStation 3 in Japan in 2014, titled Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late. This latest iteration of the title – co-developed by Ecole Software and French-Bread, known for the Melty Blood series – releases on PS4, PS3 and Vita.
Punchy-kicky games live or die by the fighting experience, but many have incredible swooping storylines. Every character has a backstory, and each individual tale intertwines in a glorious, mesmerising, confusing whole. Fighters of Japanese origin – at least in their Western translations – tend to have the most convoluted, confusing stories of them all. In this, at least UNIB:EL(s) (honestly, I’m not writing the whole thing every time) upholds this fine tradition, being as impenetrable and confusing as any.
To really understand the story you’ll need to pay attention – we refer our honourable leaders to the ‘visual novel’ element of the game. Each character’s story is told through many, many lines of text between each bout. If you want to understand what’s going on, you’ll need to resist the urge to skip, skip, and skip again your way through chapters-worth of text. Or maybe that’s your thing – so check out Chronicle mode which does away with the fighting all together.
Skipping the action would be a shame, because for all EXE:Late(st)’s storytelling aspirations, this is a fighting game that earns its stripes the hard way.
Fighting games require one of two distinct, separate skill sets. The first is nothing more that superhuman levels of split-second timing; the very best players can hit an individual frame within an animation to pull off the perfect counter or reversal. There’s a zen-like focus that no other genre can match, no matter how intense that experience might feel.
Alternatively, close your eyes and button mash.
Here at Any Button Gaming we generally employ a personality-free and slightly creepy drone to test our video game fighters. We call it The Kryu. Think Top Gear’s The Stig, but with ridiculously spiky hair and dead, dead eyes. Unfortunately, The Kryu is out for retooling, so you have… me. Cue frantic button mashing.
Actually, we had a lot of fun with Under Night In-Birth. With The Kryu unavailable, we have simple asks from our fighting games; a moderately accessible control scheme, beefy effects, a plethora of health and power meters, and eye-searing impressive visuals that look incredibly impressive to bystanders, even if they are triggered by accident 90% of the time.
U-N-In-Birth doesn’t disappoint. The visuals are glorious. Each blow lands meatily. The light-medium-heavy-special button layout is as simple as we could hope for, and the additional power meter doo-dad is the Grind Grid. Rewarding momentum in a fight – the Grind Grid fills when your character moves forward, lands blows and makes successful blocks. Keep your grid more filled than that of your opponent, and your fighter will enter a Vorpal State. Cue more damage, special abilities and longer combos.
There’s a range of characters to choose from, and though we haven’t worked through them all there’s impressive diversity. Favourite so far is Wagner who’s not as underdressed as your usual waifu, and sports an implausibly small shield with which to defend herself. There’s the usual complement of precision fighters, brawlers and grapplers to choose from.
Eventually, we realised that button-mashing was less than this game deserved, and we delved deep into the tutorial mode. And we mean deep. This is one of the most comprehensive of such modes around and although we’ll never consider ourselves to be masters of the genre, we did uncover some pleasing depth that will get fighter aficionados excited.
Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late(st) might be an almost unknown title outside the clique of true dyed-in-the-wool fighter fans, but we thoroughly enjoyed the time we spent with the game. We will never get our heads around the story and we’ll never get to grips with every nuance of each exquisitely-rendered character, but that didn’t matter to us. We became screaming, howling, twirling anime heroes, and that was enough for us. (If you are looking for a true fighter fan’s take on the game, you could do worse than hit up Ash over at Cultured Vultures. That man is a fighter titan. Though I did once take a VF5 bout off him at EGX. I’m still living off that moment.)
If you’re looking for a beat ’em up that’s less run of the mill, then you could do a lot worse – and far less obscure – than Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late(st).
And that’s the last time I’ll ever have to write that mouthful of a title.
Grab Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late(st) (dammit!) from the Store for £44.99 / $49.99 USD / €44.99.
Release Date: 9 February 2017 on PS4 (version tested) PS3 and Vita.
Platforms: PS4, PS3, Vita.