FEATURE: "Under Night In-Birth EXE: Late" Review

Mechanically, French Bread's latest offering is one of the best, most enjoyable fighting games in years

Not all 2D fighting games are created equal. Ultra Street Fighter IV purports to be all about controlling space and making calculated, strategic decisions. Guilty Gear Xrd puts offense first, giving players loads of freedom in how they move and attack, creating fast-paced and frantic gaming experiences. Somewhere between these dueling ideas rests Under Night In-Birth EXE: Late (what a name!), the latest fighter from Melty Blood developer French Bread.


Taking place in a fantastical, stylized version of modern-day Japan, UNIEL tells the story of Hyde Kido, an anime boy who meets an anime girl named Linne. Anime things happen to him and he receives anime powers, which he then uses to go on anime adventures and fight anime people, many of whom are from mysterious anime organizations. Of course, the actual story is a bit more detailed than that, but it ultimately amounts to the same thing: UNIEL’s story is a means to an end, a colorful backdrop setting up the wonderful fighting action of the real gameplay.


And that’s okay! Fighting games have never had the most original or interesting stories, and they don’t necessarily need to move mountains in order to be fun. No, the shining star of UNIEL is the aforementioned gameplay, intelligent design choices, and intricate system mechanics that make for a wholly new and unique fighting experience.

 


In most “anime” fighters, all of the wild and crazy characters are given great big heaps of wild and crazy moves, and the universal system mechanics are loaded with even more tools to push the envelop on just how many different things players can do. UNIEL scales this back quite a bit, for the better. There are only four buttons to worry about, and special moves are all performed with the most basic of command inputs, making things much more accessible for beginners and veterans alike. Attacks take up the A, B, and C buttons, representing light, medium, and heavy strengths. The fourth button, abbreviated D, is not an attack, but controls a wide array of other functions in-game.


Movement is similarly simplified or restricted. All characters can walk, run, and jump, but only a handful can double-jump, and only one is able to airdash backwards. Airdashing, an anime fighting game staple, is all but eliminated in general, replaced by a mechanic called “Assault”, performed by pressing forward and the D button at the same time. Assault is meant to be an aggressive movement (obviously, look at the name!) and will cause a character to jump forward in a small arc. You can attack out of assault, of course, and doing so is often one of the fastest and easiest ways to land a hit and start a combo.



All other movement options (rolls, flight, etc.) are character-specific and often part of that character’s distinct “Force Function”, another universal mechanic that allows characters to do something fun and unique by pressing B and C at the same time. These can be anything from dodges and parries to powerful charge attacks or other interesting movement options.


If this sounds like a lot to remember, it can be, but the beauty of UNIEL is how fun and enjoyable it can be with only a very basic understanding of the system mechanics. See, even though the potential for relentless offense exists, the game is much more about playing smart and controlling space on the screen. Most of the cast members possess huge, far-reaching attacks that can convert into powerful combos from almost anywhere on screen, and using these ranges and proper spacing to your advantage is hugely important.


Combos are surprisingly easy to pull off, and require far less mechanical skill than games like the aforementioned Street Fighter or, especially, Guilty Gear. You can always learn harder combos to squeeze out the absolute highest damage possible, but learning basic bread and butter options is refreshingly simple and won't take hours of training. There’s also an “auto-combo” route available for complete neophytes: press A repeatedly and you’ll do a preset combo that ends with a super attack if you have enough super meter.

 


Now, with such a simple concept, a fighting game can run the risk of being shallow or boring. Thankfully, UNIEL brings a few other treats to the party that keep things interesting, and foremost among them is the Grind Grid (GRD) system. Basically, GRD is a tug-of-war between the two fighters for a unique resource that is independent of the actual super meter. Various actions (too numerous to list here) add to and subtract from a player’s GRD supply, and every 17 seconds the player with the most GRD is rewarded with a special Vorpal State. Once in Vorpal, a character gains a 10% attack bonus and is able to utilize Chain Shift, possibly the most important mechanic in the game.


OK, so what’s Chain Shift? Well, it’s kind of like a Yellow Roman Cancel from Guilty Gear Xrd, but then not really. Chain Shifting, done by pressing D twice rapidly, freezes the entire screen for a moment, grants bonus super meter based on how much GRD had been stocked, and returns the character using it to a neutral state. You can use it to slow down the action for a moment; create new, powerful combos; or even remove the risk from certain attacks or actions. It’s an interesting mechanic, and you’ll want to be winning the struggle for the GRD in order to gain access to it and all the other Vorpal State benefits as often as possible!


 

Old-school players will be relieved to know that UNIEL doesn’t really have anything in the way of comeback mechanics. The closest things come is with Veil Off, a mode achieved by pressing A+B+C at the same time with more than 100 super meter stocked. Veil Off creates a small, invincible shockwave (which doubles as a universal reversal attack), and puts characters into a slightly powered up state. Super moves can be used a little more freely, and there’s a slight damage increase, but players will still need to fight just as intelligently after using Veil Off. It’s definitely no X-Factor.


Of course, all the interesting mechanics and solid gameplay in the world would lose plenty of steam without a great cast of fighters, and despite its relatively small size of 16 playable characters, UNIEL has one of the most solid and varied rosters in recent memory.


Protagonist Hyde is your typical “shotoclone” character, but with a twist all his own. He has fireballs and invincible flying uppercuts, but is spiced up with the ability to detonate his projectiles into small explosions, and he can summon pillars of dark energy up from the ground. His companion/mentor Linne is another fireball/uppercut specialist, but she trades careful zoning in for a relentless rushdown strategy, using her nimble frame and dual blades to overwhelm opponents with ferociously fast attacks.



Characters typically cleave close to established archetypes seen in other games, but possess plenty of unique moves and attributes to keep them distinct and fun. Seth, a mysterious assassin, is a speedster like Linne but is gifted with more movement options than any character in the game: he’s the lone character able to airdash backwards, and he can fast fall from midair to quickly shift to a grounded assault. He also has access to special counter moves and “on-a-timer” projectiles that help confuse and cripple opponents.


If ninja aren’t your thing there’s always Yuzuriha, a high school samurai girl who controls huge portions of the screen with her Iai-influenced fighting style and uses flash-step teleports and a unique stance mechanic to bring the fight to her enemies. But maybe projectiles are more your thing: give Vatista or Hilda a chance. Vatista is an ancient gothic lolita with a variety of special attacks that take the form of different projectiles, from lasers and fireballs to stationary, airborne mines, while the voluptuous Hilda attacks from a variety of different angles with magical shadow blades. They throw so many different missiles your way it can be terrifying to even consider taking a step.


Can’t forget Carmine, a homicidal, gothic hemomancer who uses his blood to create traps and fill the screen with blood-blades and spikes before going on the offensive and dealing crazy damage before setting up more traps and doing it all again. The catch? Every special move drains his health down until he’s hurt himself more than the opponent ever had a chance to.



Like Persona? Monsters? Orie and Chaos (the worst character in the game and my fighter of choice) both come with supernatural helpers. Orie’s is a magical warrior that’s more of a supplement to her deadly rapier attacks, while Chaos’ lizard Azhi forms the very core of his strategy. Lose your lizard, and you stand a good chance of losing the game.


There are even two “crossover” characters from older, more obscure fighting titles. Eltnum is an updated, slightly changed version of Sion Eltnam Atlasia, the main character of Melty Blood. She fights with a gun and whip and hits like a truck. The other is Akatsuki, a karate fighter who hails from Akatsuki Blitzkampf, a much less widely known doujin-fighter developed by SUBTLE STYLE.

 

UNIEL's console version also comes with two brand-new characters which were unavailable in the game’s arcade release. They are Nanase, a spunky schoolgirl in a short skirt who uses wind magic to augment her attacks with a big ol’ sword, and Byakuya, a terrifying young man who hunts down his prey with eight floating blades and cuts off their escape with special web traps before delivering the killing blow.


When discussing this game’s cast, though, it’s impossible to ignore THE BIG THREE; three top-tier characters who lord like tyrants above all the others. Gordeau, the stylish and overwhelmingly powerful GRIM REAPER; Waldstein, a monster of a grappler with enormous punches that cover most of the screen; and Merkava, a 10-foot-tall Evangelion with stretchy Dhalsim-esque limbs, are far-and-away considered the best characters in the game. They are the mark by which every other character’s strength and tournament viability is measured, and they are never to be looked down upon.


These three characters’ dominance is one of UNIEL's most glaring flaws. Their nearly-overpowered strength creates a tremendous imbalance between the cast, but it’s very important to note that they are beatable, and playing as one of them does not automatically guarantee a win. Even the lowly Chaos can topple the mighty Gordeau if he fights with the right mix of intelligence and daring.

 


So yes, the game is technically pretty imbalanced. About half of the cast could be considered “tournament viable” while the other half is decidedly “in the garbage heap”, but UNIEL still has enough systems and solid mechanics in place that a better player with a worse character can still come out on top. I’ve beaten plenty of Waldsteins and other monsters during sessions with my local fighting game scene, and I play the worst character in the game. There’s also a certain bit of fun to be had in the challenge of winning with “bad” characters. Not many things match that feeling of triumphing over impossible odds. That said, I've lost to Gordeau plenty of times.


If balance is UNIEL’s primary flaw, its secondary one is a severe lack of things to do when there’s no human competition around. Different modes of play are practically nonexistant, with only Arcade/Story, Time Attack, Score Attack, Survival, and Training readily available offline. Story mode can be an interesting one-time romp if you want to see your favorite characters interact with each other in short, visual-novel style cutscenes, but there’s no reason to do it again after you’ve beaten the game with every character. All other modes are the same boring sort of “fight this series of enemies until you lose or win” fare with no rewards other than in-game currency you can use to unlock new costume colors or gallery images. They’re boring and you’ll rarely feel like doing them since you can get plenty of currency by playing VS matches anyway.


Online gameplay is an option, of course, but it’s hard to comment on right now since the game has yet to see a real international release. Options for matches are bare-bones: you can fight Ranked matches to climb the leaderboards or Player matches that have no real consequence. In my personal experience, it's been difficult to find opponents, though I'm told by others there's a lively online scene if you're willing to track it down. As with most fighting game netcode, good connections will mean “playable at best” matches, while bad connections mean you’ll be ripping your hair out and smashing your expensive arcade stick thanks to lag. In more than 100 online games I've seen everything from near-offline speed to miserable, unplayable, game-freezing "fun".



These two shortcomings do little to detract from the overall beauty of Under Night In-Birth EXE: Late as a fighting game, however. With a marvelously well-designed system of mechanics and strong, spacing-oriented gameplay that encourages intelligent decisions as well as the occasional bold gamble, it’s one of the best, most pure fighting games to come out in quite some time. Factor in beautiful hand-drawn graphics and an exciting, diverse, and accessible cast of characters and UNIEL makes for a game that’s not to be missed by fans of fighting games and anime alike.



REVIEW ROUNDUP

+ Fantastic, fast-paced, spacing oriented gameplay. The action is easy to grasp, hard to master. Exactly what a fighting game should be

+ Wildly diverse cast, with a character to fit every playstyle. Everyone looks pretty cool, too

+ Gorgeous, high-res, hand-drawn sprites keep the 2D dream alive

+/- Netplay can be either great or horrible. It all depends on both players' connections

+/- Gordeau, Merkava, and Waldstein are significantly overpowered, but don't render the rest of the cast entirely impotent. All but a few characters are perfectly viable in a competitive setting

It's not a huge deal, but the single-player modes are very lacking. Story is fun once, and other than Training, the others have little purpose

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