Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late[cl-r] is the third iteration of the indie visual novel/2D-Fighter from developer French Bread which was first released in Japanese arcades all the way back in 2012. An [st] update in 2017 added four new characters, a bunch of new modes and gameplay tweaks for console versions, and this latest iteration adds yet another new fighter, Londrekia, fresh moves for the entire cast of twenty-one playable characters and – according to the developers – over a thousand tweaks and balances to combat.
It may look like a pretty niche anime fighter with a style that certainly owes plenty to publisher ArcSystemWorks very own Blazblue series but, if you’ve got even the slightest bit of grounding in mainstream titles like Street Fighter and if you can pull off a Hadouken, Tatsumaki Senpukyaku or Shoryuken, you’ve got all the experience necessary to jump into the frantic action here and have an absolute blast.
There are just three attack buttons to familiarize yourself with in Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late[cl-r], with light, medium and heavy attacks set to Y, X and A respectively. B acts as the Universal Mechanic button, which may sound scary but actually just combines with a forward push to allow you to air-dash or, if held in, lets your character enter their Concentrate state, which we’ll talk a little more about in a bit. This is a fast-paced, flashy fighter that’s all about taking the initiative, going on the offensive and smashing your opponent with special moves and combos; one that manages to balance instant gratification for the newbie with a staggering amount of depth for seasoned pugilists.
At the heart of Under Night’s combat system is the GRD (Grind Grid). Set at the bottom middle of the screen, the GRD fills up for each player as they go on the offensive. Attacking, moving forward, successfully blocking your opponent and controlling the arena will see your side of the GRD fill, whilst playing defensively will see it drop right back down again. At the centre of the GRD is a little circular timer which makes a full rotation every 16.5 seconds; whoever has the most juice in their GRD gauge when this rotation completes enters Vorpal State, granting them a temporary 10% damage buff.
It’s a super-simple system that takes no time to get your head around and infuses every round with a constant tug-of-war dynamic, with combatants constantly looking to force the issue in order to ensure they stay ahead on the GRD and get that little boost that can turn the tide of battles. It’s not over-powered – you could, in theory, pretty much ignore the GRD and still do well, especially if you’re playing on lower difficulty settings or against a friend of equal competence – but, for a seasoned fighter, it’s a useful tool that can help you dominate matches or bounce back from a tough situation when you really need to.
Sat alongside and feeding directly into the GRD is the game’s EXS system – your super meter, essentially. In Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late[cl-r], your super meter is split into two chunks which are filled up gradually during a round (and carried over between rounds if unused) by both attacking and being attacked. Fill up one chunk of your EXS and you can unleash an enhanced version of any of your character’s special attacks. Fill up two chunks and those enhanced attacks become even stronger.
There are a few more clever wrinkles to this, however. If you have a completely full EXS bar and less than 30% of your health remaining, you can press all three attack buttons and the Universal Mechanic button at the same time to unleash an especially damaging Infinite Worth EXS move to help you get back into the fight. You can also choose to feed your accumulated GRD into your EXS meter – known as Chain Shift – or use the aforementioned Concentrate mechanic to drain your EXS meter in order to build your GRD at a faster pace. These are the surface level systems, there are various Veil states and other wrinkles here and there to get into but, if you’ve got your head around what we’ve mentioned above, you’ll find yourself more than capable of holding your own in the game’s arcade mode.
Sound complicated? It’s really not, and if you’re having any problems whatsoever Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late[cl-r] just happens to have the most comprehensive training and tutorial set-up we’ve ever seen in a fighting game. Seriously, every single aspect of the action here – from the most basic and universal fighting game standards such where your health bar is located or how to perform a quarter circle on your thumbstick, right up to the most in-depth, advanced techniques such fuzzy guards, tech frames, whiff attacks and the like – are all explained clearly and in great detail. There are tens of hours worth of challenges to pit yourself against here, and newcomers can continue to jump straight into bouts in arcade mode and have a great time while dipping in and out of these hugely-detailed training modes to gradually get to grips with the real depth that’s going on just below that welcoming surface.
And there really is a ton of depth here – this latest addition to the series got announced during the EVO 2019 Grand Finals for a reason – but it’s depth that can be approached gradually, with advanced techniques tucked neatly behind a wealth of systems that make the fighting action instantly addictive and gratifying for anyone who jumps in and gives it a chance. Besides the fact the basic foundations of combat are built on hugely recognisable movesets, you’ve also got the likes of the Reverse Beat system of combining your attacks which makes it ridiculously easy to put together flashy and effective combos.
Reverse Beat allows you to string all of your normal attacks together in any order you wish. Where most fighting games will allow you to chain light, medium and heavy attacks together in that order exclusively, here you can mix them up any way you want – as long as you only use each type of attack once. So, heavy can be followed by light then medium, or medium to light then heavy, for example. All normal moves can also cancel into each other – a system known as Passing Link – and all these things combine to instantly enable you to get stuck right in and go on the offensive, building that GRD gauge up filling the screen with carnage in no time. It’s gloriously accessible stuff that hides almost endless depth for those who want to go there.
Alongside the instantly approachable nature of the combat, the cast of twenty-one characters prove to be a much more diverse and satisfying bunch of combatants than their rather run-of-the mill anime aesthetics may at first suggest. There are plenty of strong choices for new players here; we stuck with Hyde initially – if you’ve ever mained Street Fighter with Ryu or Ken you’ll feel right at home with his moveset – but Akatsuki, Enkidu, Linne and newcomer Londrekia all felt instantly familiar and easy to get to grips with.
Away from the fighting side of things – which sees you compete in the traditional arcade, versus, score, time attack and survival modes – Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late[cl-r] is also known for its visual novel element and here that comes in the form of Chronicles, a twenty-two part story mode which acts as an in-depth prologue to the events of the arcade mode – introducing you to the world, its characters and their motivations for becoming embroiled in the combat that takes places during the titular Under Night.
If you’re a fan of this stuff – or like some background to your fighters – then you’ve got a full ten hours worth of story to plough through here. Presentation-wise, it’s pretty standard stuff; the characters all look good but there’s very little in the way of animation and, if you’re going into Chronicles expecting it to take breathers for fighting action, be aware this is strictly a novel portion of the game and, as such, is a 100% combat-free zone. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but for those who dig it there’s a ton of single-player content in Chronicles and, sat alongside the other modes we’ve mentioned, it makes for a comprehensive package with plenty to do for the solo player.
Which, as it turns out, is a lucky thing, because during our time with Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late[cl-r] we didn’t manage to find a single match in online mode. Whether we chose ranked or unranked or created a room and sat waiting, we had zero joy in finding an opponent to test our mettle against and were, perhaps more worryingly, constantly jettisoned out of the network mode due to connectivity issues. We may have somewhat unlucky here, as players over on the game’s Reddit are reporting that they have been playing online without much of a problem, but there are certainly some issues that need ironing out to make things smoother in this department – judging by our own experiences, at least.
In terms of this Switch port, in both docked and handheld Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late[cl-r] looks fantastic and performs flawlessly. The cast of characters here may look like rejects from Blazblue, but they’re beautifully detailed, with every move they pull of sumptuously animated. Arena backgrounds are perhaps a little on the dry side but special attacks are gloriously OTT and, overall, this a great looking fighter that didn’t drop a single frame during our time with it.