12th Feb2018

‘Under Night In-Birth: Exe Late[st]‘ Review (PS4)

by Matthew Smail

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There is no shortage of two-dimensional fighting games on the PlayStation 4, so it might seem like an odd decision to revitalise this relatively niche effort that was first launched on arcade cabinets back in 2012, before making the way to PlayStation 3. Under Night In-Birth: Exe Late[st] is the ridiculously named complete edition of a game that originally just omitted the Late and [st] elements which were introduced with each new version. If anything, I am perhaps most curious about what will be added to the title for the PlayStation 5 version, but no doubt we’ll be discussing that at the time.

For now, suffice it to say that Under Night In-Birth: Exe Late[st] is a much better two-dimensional fighting game than you might expect it to be and it even includes more than just a lick of story content, with the common description for the game suggesting a hybrid of fighting game and graphic novel. I’m in full agreement with that synopsis, because Under Night In-Birth: Exe Late[st] features an appropriately lavish (for a Manga) tale about a phenomenon known as the Hollow Night – a mysterious fog that envelops regions and fills them with creatures known as Voids. Only certain people can see Voids (which appears to anger them) on occasion resulting in either permanent insanity or transformation into what the game calls In-Birth’s.

It’s weird. It’s crazy. It’s delivered across perhaps ten times as much dialogue as it actually needs to be, yet it never really reaches a conclusion. It’s Manga, plain and simple. The visual aspect of the graphic novel is delivered in on screen text, usually in the form a conversation between two or more characters. The models used on screen are basic and largely immobile, so the game does lack some of the lavish backdrops, animation and supporting artwork that dedicated graphic novels will often layer in, but what it doesn’t lack is a real, credible fighting game.

With an opening menu of no less than sixteen numbered options, players have access to a bewildering array of story, arcade, versus, time attack and other modes, as well as a tutorial that features over 100 individual lessons about how to play the game, some of which you’ll very likely need. You see, whilst Under Night In-Birth: Exe Late[st] is much more accessible than games like BlazBlue and Guilty Gear, it still features some deep and complex fighting mechanics that could be unusual to the average Street Fighter player that might pick up a pad with friends once every few months.

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The system used here is based on light, medium and heavy attacks, whilst the fourth button relates to a mechanic known as the Grind Grid. The Grind Grid is kind of a push and pull mechanic that rewards technical play whether it be both offensive or defensive, whilst at the same time, punishing anything that would usually be regarded as either cheap or overly defensive, such as retreating constantly. Whilst I was daunted by all of the gauges and acronyms at first, Under Night In-Birth: Exe Late[st] is a game that you are better off just diving into.

Delightfully, it’s the kind of game that can make an amateur feel relatively skillful, thanks to another unique technical feature that you’ll be unlikely to understand at first (and you’ll never need to anyway.) That feature revolves around the fact that attacks can be chained in a particular way both up and down in terms of strength, whilst it’s also possible to cancel attacks immediately for a weaker/faster one. This means that combos flow fairly naturally despite relatively little demand on the player, whilst few attacks (or strings) result in a committed that can’t be backed out of.

I’m not a fighting game expert, but I am competent enough when I apply myself, so Under Night In-Birth: Exe Late[st] presented me with an almost perfect proposition. It is very easy to pick up and learn at a basic level (and the default difficulty is relatively easy for a solo player) but it has a real, genuine mid and late game proposition for those who want it. It may look a little bit like a tarted up game from several years ago (which I suppose it is) but it has a fighting engine that is still relevant and fun to engage with even now.

I wouldn’t place too much stock in the visual novel aspect, if I’m honest. Think of Under Night In-Birth: Exe Late[st] as a fighting game that comes with the rare benefit of having a plot that is deep and interesting enough that it can at least be called as much. The combat is the real meat on the bones here, so with twenty fairly distinct (and entirely quirky) characters to choose from and a great fighting engine, the value proposition is not bad. I don’t think Under Night In-Birth: Exe Late[st] really stacks up against games like Dragon Ball FighterZ directly, but then again it is a slightly lower cost release that is certainly worth paying attention to.

***½  3.5/5

Under Night In-Birth: Exe Late[st] is available now on the PS4 from PQube.

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