Strangers In the Night/Exchanging Punches

HIGH Fast, furious action. Intuitive commands.

LOW Incredibly drawn-out visual novel sections.

WTF Why is Mika so awesome — but also so annoying?

Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late [cl-r] is truly bizarre.  From its in-depth, yet extremely convoluted storyline to its genre-blending 2D fighting game/visual novel design, everything about it feels strange and experimental.  Under all the weirdness lurks a rock-solid fighter with sharp visuals, frenetic action, and a combo system that is complex, yet easy to learn.  Fighting fans looking for something a bit “out there” will find a lot to love.

Once a month, parts of Japan are affected by something called the Hollow Night.  On this night a rift opens between worlds, and monsters known as Voids come through.  Most people can’t detect them as they attempt to feed,  but those with access to EXS power are able to not only detect them, but fight back.  Unfortunately, those with EXS are especially yummy to the Voids, but if someone survives a Void assault they can become an In-Birth, which is… bad for some reason? 

Ok, I’m losing the thread but let me just say that there’s a lot of lore here, and it’s Kingdom Hearts-level bonkers.  Under Night is indeed a fighter, but its visual novel portions are lengthy — they range from several minutes up to an hour long.  There are over twenty of these story interludes, and it’s frankly… they’re exhausting. 

While many of the characters are likable (or at least relatable) and I was interested in learning more about them, there is So. Much. Dialogue.  Simple plot advances can take up to ten minutes to resolve, and that’s with hammering on the text-advance button to speed things along.  Serious editing and pacing changes would make the visual novel portions of Under Night more enjoyable and comprehensible.

Fortunately, Under Night‘s fighting component is approachable and welcoming for players of every skill level.

A comprehensive tutorial system explains every type of move, counter, cancel, and special in a clear way, breaking down game elements by level of difficulty/complexity and giving players the chance to practice the button and stick combos required to execute them.  I tried both the standard joycons and a Pro controller, and discovered most moves are fairly easy to do either way, although I had a great deal of difficulty with some of the advanced combos and cancels. Fortunately, they’re not required to have success in the single-player story mode, where I was able to finish many characters’ individual quests. 

The story mode is comprised of single matches against a series of foes interspersed with dialogue-heavy cutscenes that explain specific rivalries and the overarching narrative for each character.  These scenes are generally more enjoyable than the visual novel counterparts, and don’t overstay their welcome.

The fighting should seem immediately familiar to anyone who’s ever played a Street Fighter-style title.  Each character is armed with a unique weapon and each attack button provides a different level of strength, and can also change its direction and its animations. It’s a cool touch.  

Structurally, Under Night relies heavily on a “dial-a-combo” system where button presses can extend combos depending on the timing. Spamming the same button over and over ends a combo, so mixing up attacks is essential, especially against more skilled opponents. 

After building up enough energy, characters have access to screen-filling super moves that can utterly destroy their foes.  Intriguingly, even more powerful specials are unlocked when the power gauge is filled and the player’s health is low, which allows the possibility of a major comeback.  While many fighting games are strategic in a way, I was really impressed with the element of risk vs reward on display here. It felt cerebral, and I dug it!

I was able to play online, but the matchmaking was a bit spotty.  I’m not sure if that’s because there weren’t many players on when I had time to connect, or if it was due to internet issues.  When I did connect there was a great deal of lag at some points, but the game seemed to buffer moves and animations so I didn’t feel like it greatly affected the outcome.

Overall, Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late [cl-r] is a great fighting game with a verbose and tiresome visual novel added in.  The combat is enjoyable, there’s tons to unlock, and there are numerous characters to master. Some of the chatter might be a chore to get through, but getting to the meat on these bones is worth the effort.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Disclosures: This game is developed by Arc System Works, FRENCH-BREAD and published by Aksys Games. It is currently available on the PS4, PC, and Switch. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the Switch. Approximately 12 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed with multiple characters. 1 hour of play was spent in multiplayer modes.

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated T, and contains Language, Mild Blood, Mild Suggestive Themes, and Violence. The official ESRB description reads as follows: This is a one-on-one fighting game in which players can select from a variety of characters to battle through a storyline in futuristic Japan. Characters use swords, punches, kicks, and mystical attacks to deplete opponents’ life meters. Battles are highlighted by frequent impact sounds, cries of pain, and light effects. One character is depicted with a blood-like substance covering his arms and hands. The game contains some suggestive material: female characters in revealing outfits (e.g., deep cleavage); a still image of characters in bed (fully clothed) in a somewhat suggestive position; dialogue stating, “I should probably have a sexier catchphrase. Talking like an S&M queen is really hard.” The words “sh*t” and “a*shole” appear in the dialogue.

Colorblind Modes:  There are no colorblind modes available in the options.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers:  All storyline dialogue is fully subtitled.  In-game taunts and introductions are not subtitled, but do not affect a player’s understanding of the story.  All other audio cues have an accompanying visual component.  There are no subtitle font/color options, nor is there an option to resize subtitle text.  This game is fully accessible.  

Remappable Controls: Yes, this game offers fully remappable controls.

Jeff Ortloff
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