There Can Be Only One
HIGH Perfecting the deceptively complex ‘simple combo’.
LOW Trying to figure a way around Waldstein’s incredible range.
WTF The meta-character who spends her story scenes complaining about the developers.
If the fundamentals are there, what basis remains on which fighting games can be judged? It seems silly to talk about the story and the characters, since narrative is, at best, tertiary to the experience. Even graphics are secondary – so long as the sprites accurately convey the characters’ hitboxes, does it really matter what everything looks like? I’ve played satisfying fighting games about stick figures. Once it’s been established that the controls are tight and functional, and that the various characters are well-balanced, is there much else that can be said?
Maybe not, but by gum, I’ll make the attempt.
Set in present-day Tokyo, Under Night concerns a group of sword-wielders – some with magic powers, some who are unnatural abominations, some who are just decent at fencing – who fight duels with one another on their way to face off with the final boss of an evil organization whose goals I was never 100% clear on. The basic arcade gameplay takes players through a 10-match journey that’s surprisingly robust from a narrative standpoint, since each character has five dialogue scenes and an ending CG detailing their experiences on the titular evening.
EXE‘s real meat is in the PVP gameplay of course, and here it excels. The devs do a great job of getting even completely inexperienced players ready for online duels by offering one of the most comprehensive and welcoming tutorials I’ve ever encountered.
Even better, the four-button fighting system is almost deceptively accessible by being built on the idea that as long as players don’t repeat a button press or special move, they can chain attacks together almost infinitely. Once they’ve wrapped their heads around that, all players have to do is pick a likely-looking character and start learning the ins and outs of their movelist. The game has players covered here, offering a set of training challenges for each character that are well-suited for both getting their general feel and for practicing nightmarishly complex 50-move combos in a low-pressure environment.
I tried out three different fighters – the main character Hyde, grinning psychopath Carmine, and bizarre The Fury-looking Merkava. Each one demanded a completely different approach to gameplay, allowing me to see meaningful fluctuations in character speed, power, and range. I did considerably better with the more traditional fighters than I did the floppy-armed living shadow creature, but with a little more practice I could see any of the characters being a viable choice – they certainly functioned well enough when I was playing against other people.
While the characters are interestingly designed, they and the backgrounds aren’t particularly high-resolution. It doesn’t affect the gameplay in the slightest, but players looking at the way modern fighting games have raised cell-shading to an artform may find themselves underwhelmed with the strictly 2D look here.
Decades into playing them, I still remain solidly mediocre when it comes to fighting games. I have enough experience with the genre to recognize quality when I see it, however. Under Night In-Birth EXE: Late[st], despite having a preposterous title, is simple to pick up, but deep enough to deserve dozens of hours of study. While dated, the art design is top-notch, and a few of the stories which I was primed to scoff at proved surprisingly interesting. I may never have the reflexes to excel at something like Under Night, but I can appreciate developers doing excellent work.
Disclosures: This game is developed by French Break and published by Arc System Works. It is currently available on PS4 and PC. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PS4. Approximately 5 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. 2 hours of play were spent in multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated T and contains Language, Mild Suggestive Themes, and Violence . It gets violent, naturally, but beyond that, it’s pretty dark stuff. There are monsters that devour souls, S&M-themed villains, plenty of reveal outfits, swearing, and a couple who pretend to be brother and sister but are actually lovers that happen to also be interdimensional demon spiders. Keep the younger kids away, maybe?
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: I played most of the game on mute and noticed no significant issues. All dialogue is subtitled and all direction is presented in text. It’s fully accessible.
Remappable Controls: Yes, this game offers fully remappable controls.