Fans of Japanese animation are familiar with the niche of visual novels being paired together with fighting games.
Two notable titles under this hybrid genre are BlazBlue and Melty Blood. French Bread was one of the responsible developers for Melty Blood, and Under Night IN-BIRTH Exe:Late is another famous creation with much of their involvement. After being available on consoles and arcades for a few years, the game finally comes to PC gamers on Steam.
Under Night's strength lies mostly in its diverse roster, and I've enjoyed much of the fighting play style. When I say diversity, I mean the differences between character move sets. Of the sixteen playable characters, each has little overlap with the others. Attacks come out at various speeds and distances, while projectiles approach using different angles and sizes. The character I've been best at, Hilda, summons massive clock hands that appear and strike at enemies from different parts of the screen. She's almost entirely ranged. I have to make sure the enemy stands at the right spots in order to hit with her attacks. Another character with positioning strategies is Carmine, whose gimmick involves leaving puddles of blood on the floor that act as traps.
Apart from the move sets, there's also great diversity found in design. The characters have vivid sprites that look expressive while also being clear with where their attacks are striking. Idle animations are filled with natural and exaggerated motion, especially around clothing. I can spot the separate frames when attacks and movements are being made, but they flow together so well that I need to actively look for it to notice. The sharp frame transitions are a necessary part of competitive fighters; I'm glad the controls feel responsive without animations suffering for it.
Keyboard controls are hard to get used to.
I recommend using a controller since Under Night originated from console systems. It's a shame I couldn't use my mouse to click through menus since that might've made the keyboard more viable. Arcade controls might be an option as well, but I've never been invested enough in fighters to get my own. Four buttons initiate the moves, while the joystick and directional pad let me move around. Holding buttons also activates certain moves. It's a standard setup; I was already familiar with these controls, so jumping right in wasn't a problem.
The modes available on the main menu are plentiful. There are several score-centric options for single player and the dreaded network mode for multiplayer. It is dreaded because Under Night is a PC release of something that has been around, and many experienced players are waiting to crush newcomers. The ease with which the veterans crushed me is a harsh way to show how high the skill ceiling can be. Button mashing through here is only possible in a couple of modes, and never works in multiplayer.
Button mashing becomes outright impossible once the difficulty setting is turned up to its maximum. The combos possible here can go for some time. The amount of hits displayed on the screen also comes with a number representing damage. Single hits tend to be in the low hundreds. The highest combo damage I've seen was over six thousand, done to me by a level five AI. It happened over the course of several seconds. This hybrid genre has some of the fastest paced combat. It's something to get used to, and many of my reactions eventually felt more like instinct.
Beyond the characters, the intro to every fight is one of the most distinctive I've ever seen or heard. It opens with intense music which brings out loads of anticipation and excitement. Character portraits are zoomed in and splashed with surging colors to emphasize the feud between them. Tiny words are sprinkled all over the place to add a bit of story flavor. It's a short intro that only lasts a few seconds, but it embodies the nature of a fight.
Fighting is basically all anything is centered on.
The story is bare, despite being counted as a visual novel. Using a character through the arcade mode unlocks fragments of the plot, all the way until I reached the end credits. It's mostly a collection of dialogue between the characters on the roster. Due to the limited amount of people involved, the setting also centers on a single goal and area. I have nothing here to dive into. Though the appearance designs are great, I can't connect too much with everyone's personalities.
2D fighters have a comfortable place in the industry. Even many AAA titles default to the setup, even if their character models are 3D. Though Under Night isn't as smooth as more advanced models might let them be, in exchange I got to experience fast fights with a lot of intensity. Additionally, this simpler graphics allows this game to be played on most platforms, including my laptop. Fighting friends I hung with in person is the most fun I had, and being able to carry it around on my laptop is what allowed it to happen.
I'm giving Under Night IN-BIRTH Exe:Late a 9 out of 10. It was concise, enjoyable, and thoroughly exciting. I've only won one online match, so I wouldn't recommend unfamiliar players to go through that. The single player modes are varied enough for a person to get the full experience, minus the highest difficulty of fighting experienced players. There are a lot of fun characters with different skills and abilities for a person to toy around with and master. If you're able to play alongside friends, you'll definitely be in for competitive fun.