Developer: Soft-Circle French Bread/Ecole Software
Publisher: Aksys Games
Release Date:February 24, 2015
ESRB: T for Teen
If there is one thing that developer French Bread is pretty much unrivaled at, it is their ridiculous "Engrish" names for their video games. I thought their most recent iteration of the classic, albeit obscure, PC anime fighter with Melty Blood: Actress Again Current Code was in a class of its own. But, oh no, I think they have finally one-upped themselves with their own spiritual successor called Under Night In-Birth Exe: Late in more ways than one. Extremely unfortunate naming aside, however, French Bread is known to make a different flavor of fighting games, even among seemingly similar anime-influenced ilk, and Under Night In-Birth Exe: Late is no exception.
To my surprise, Under Night In-Birth Exe: Late is one of the most approachable fighters I have played in quite some time. Not quite Divekick simple, of course, but among â€œanimeâ€ fighters which tend to have a few too many base level systems to really be able to do anything without learning them (I“m looking at you Guilty Gear Xrd-SIGN- ), you can have fun right from the get-go just by mashing buttons. Most moves link together fairly easily and there is also a basic auto-combo (a la Persona 4 Arena Ultimax) you can execute just by mashing the square button, or A in more general input terms, for every character.
As if to not turn off hardcore fighting game fans, just because it is easy to pick up and play it most certainly doesn“t mean it is easy to master. There is plenty of depth to both the character/system mechanics that you can—and should—learn. Each of the 16 characters play very differently with plenty of subtle nuances to their playstyles. For instance, main character Hyde can modify his thrown projectiles skills into an explosive burst at any time, Vatista has many charge/held-based inputs to her attacks; and lastly, the confusing Melty Blood cameo character, Eltnum, has both a bullet meter and a Gears of War styled active-reload mechanic.
Despite me being someone who plays a lot of "anime" fighting games, Under Night In-Birth Exe: Late actually has more similarities to more traditional releases in the genre than you'd expect. For example, most character don't have air-backdashes (except Seth), and can't block most attacks in the air, bringing a sort of Street Fighter IV mindset to fights with anti-airs. Also, special meter carries from round to round, similar to various King of Fighters titles. Yet, fights aren't even as defense-focused as Street Fighter IV, or as meter management strict as King of Fighters XIII, as it brings its own distinct flair to its fast & fun offensive-focused gameplay flow.
Those who dig deeper into the systems will probably notice the Grind Grid gauge (shown as "GRD" in-game) specifically. Basically, how it works is that—based on how well you play (in particular, playing offensively and landing hits/combos, or blocking smartly)—the meter at the bottom center screen will shift toward one player's side or another. If the GRD meter is in your favor you can essentially cash-in by using Chain Shift to get a varying amount of extra special meter or to use it to significantly increase your combo potential to cancel move animations (kind of like Guilty Gear's Xrd -SIGN-'s Roman Cancel). It's actually a fairly cool system in practice that highly rewards offensive play and more skilled players will constantly keep an eye on it because of its tug-of-war mentality.
To the game“s own detriment, however, there aren't really any tools to help people learn these specific nuances because of a complete lack of tutorials/challenge modes. While it is approachable in the sense that there is immediate accessibility to the enjoyable gameplay (and flow and button combinations are pretty easy), most players will probably not naturally understand how systems Grind Grid, Viel Off, Concentration, Chain Shift, and several others work without looking them up. Other than that, the title does have general mode staples you'd expect, such as: Arcade, VS, Network, Survival, Score/Time Attack, Training, and unlockable character outfits and gallery images. Most modes are inoffensive in their execution, even if I wish the online play had a tighter netcode and a bit more than very basic lobbies and ranked matches for something I'd like to make my next go-to fighter.
With Arcade Mode in particular, there is some semblance of a story in Under-Night In-Birth despite how there isn“t too much to write home about. It mostly has short visual novel-styled scenes with a bunch technobabble like â€œHollow Nightâ€, â€In-Birthâ€, "Autonomic Nerve", and tons of faction names tossed about to try to disguise it from being some pretty typical anime storytelling overall. Still, I admit, I probably would not mind seeing more of it if certain parts of it were more fleshed out. Ok, to be more honest, I really just want to see the character, Eltnum, be in another story mode where she can make more hilariously blunt (and 4th wall breaking) quips about fighting games and the character designs of the primary cast.
Speaking of that, to address the elephant in the room, Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late has some really generic character designs. Don't get me wrong, it is definitely a great-looking 2D fighter in motion in the technical sense, and it does hold its own with its really clean, saturated visual color palette (though, something like Skullgirls has better animations). But... it's really easy to blur your eyes and feel like you have seen pretty much every character in it elsewhere. What I actually find more impressive than the visuals is the soundtrack. I may be a sucker for strong, catchy guitar riffs (which the soundtrack is full of), but removed from that context the character theme songs are still quite memorable and varied throughout. The Japanese dub is fairly well-done too, even if, well, it's only Japanese (but after Guilty Gear Xrd -SIGN-'s questionable English dub, that probably isn't the worst thing).
A lot of fighting games tend to feel like they are missing something pretty substantial with their first iterations on console. Such problems can range from a really small character roster, mechanics that don't feel quite fleshed out yet, or it just lacking in general content. Yet, the first console release for Under Night In-Birth Exe: Late doesn't really feel like it has any of those huge shortcomings. Sure, the netcode could be a bit better. Sure, I wish there were tutorial/challenge modes. But, aside from that, it gets pretty much everything else right with its very polished, deep, and surprisingly approachable gameplay that is just a lot of fun to play. Generic anime character designs aside, I think developer French Bread has proven that there is truly another 2D "anime" fighter on the block that is very much worth the attention of fighting game fans, and surprisingly, it is not made by Arc System Works.
+ Very easy to learn gameplay and really responsive controls
+ Surprising amount of depth to both the hugely different characters
and the overall system mechanics
+ Vibrant 2D art style
+ Really catchy soundtrack
- No tutorial or challenge modes whatsoever to learn specific combos or system mechanics
- Netcode could be a bit better
Overall Score: 8.0 (out of 10)
Under Night In-Birth Exe: Late makes for a strong first console debut. With its surprisingly approachable, deep, and outright enjoyable gameplay mechanics, it may be just enough to have most people forget how silly the actual title to the game is.
Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable PS3 code provided by the publisher.