Sometimes I’m surprised that certain games make it to the western market, but what really shocks me is the fact that they tend to keep their often ridiculously long Japanese titles. Take French Bread and Ecole Software’s absurdly named, Under Night In-Birth EXE:Late. Seriously, what is that about? It’s long, it’s cumbersome and by God, it doesn’t make a lick of sense. Why didn’t they just call it, Under Night? It’s not like anyone is going to think that they’re getting a copy of the arcade original rather than the updated EXE:Late upgrade. Heck, they could have changed the name altogether – ‘Super Awesome 2D Anime Fighter’ has a nice ring to it – the hardcore would be aware of the change, and with a cool new title, they might have managed to drag in a handul of additional punters. It’s madness.
In fairness, this whole naming thing probably annoyed me more than it should have, but I tell you what, stupid name or not, it really didn’t matter once I started playing the actual game. Under Night (as it will be referred to for the remainder of this review) is an absolutely fantastic 2D brawler with some genuinely ground-breaking fundamental mechanics, gorgeous visuals, an eclectic cast of characters and some of the best core gameplay this side of BlazBlue. It is lacking in terms of content and is devoid of many of the bells and whistles that 2D fight fans have come to expect from a full priced retail release (no English dub?), but despite these issues, and yes, despite that stupid name, Under Night stands as one of the finest fighters released in the last 12 months and proof positive that the PS3 is still alive and kicking.
Despite the lack of a decent campaign mode to keep single player fans happy (you really will struggle if you don’t enjoy online/couch competition), Under Night provides more than enough meat on the bones for those looking to approach this game from a more technical, competitive standpoint. The fast-paced gameplay is actually rather forgiving for newbies with enough in the way of visual pyrotechnics to keep button bashers entertained in the short-term, but like many fighters of its ilk, it’ll be those that commit that will invariably get the most from the experience. Yes, some of the characters do adhere a little too closely to Japanese anime cliché (there is big hair and swords aplenty here), but there is certainly more than enough variety in the 16 strong roster to imbue the gameplay with a sense of versatility while adding plenty of longevity for those eager to learn the finer points of each fighter. Many of the characters will feel immediately recognisable to those who have spent any time with 2D fighters in the past, but with oddities such as Carmine, Waldstein and Merkava available, there is certainly a learning curve for those looking to try out an array of unique tactical approaches to battle.
While the story is fun albeit, like the aesthetic design, bursting at the seams with cliché, it’s the gameplay that ultimately keeps Under Night feeling both fresh and exciting. The core combat might not provide anything particularly new (despite some of the more distinctively crafted fighters in the roster), but the all new Grind Grid certainly helps to make French Toast’s latest a unique and tactically nuanced fighter. All of the usual EX gauges and special moves are available, but when combined with the Grind Grid, the whole flow of battle is fundamentally changed with fighters encouraged to stay on the front foot and to intersperse their attacks with taunts and well-timed blocks. The Grind Grid builds as the fight progresses via positive actions that discourage overtly safe play and spam-based distance fighting. Once filled, the Grind Grid gives the successful player the choice of numerous ‘vorpal buffs’ that can ether fill your EX gauge, cancel recovery frames or block attacks without negative impact on health and abilities. Each of these buffs, while far from insta-win abilities, offer up huge incentive to stay on the front foot and can unquestionably prove the difference between success and failure.
Like anything else in this game, high level players will benefit the most from its inclusion, but thanks to its simplistic premise and encouragement of aggressive play styles, it’s something that can arguably make the game more appealing to casual players. Whichever way you look at it though, it’s a fine addition and the defining difference between this and French Toast’s solid but less exciting work on licensed fighters, Melty Blood and Dengeki Bunko Fighting Climax. While solid enough games in their own rights, it really is the combination of the Grind Grid’s effect on the fundamental way in which you play the game with the eclectic cast of characters that really make this their finest work to date. Without the natural limitations of working on a licensed product, French Toast have been able to create mechanics and aesthetics built solely upon the limitations of their imaginations, and you know what, it totally shows in the final product.
What the game lacks in game modes, it more than makes up for with unique well implemented mechanics, a likeable cast and gorgeous aesthetic design. Sure, the story makes absolutely no sense, but that’s par for the course when it comes to fighters, and anyway, it’s the gameplay that really counts, and here, well, for lack of a better term, it’s shit hot. The fundamentals highlight the developers’ history within the genre while the Grind Grid gives a glimpse of its potential future. It’s not quite as slick as Street Fighter or as gorgeous or technically nuanced as BlazBlue, but make no mistake, Under Night is a top quality 2D fighter with all the attributes to become a true genre heavyweight.
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