An acquired taste

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By Alexander O. Cuaycong
and Anthony L. Cuaycong

FOR LONGTIME FANS of the fighting game genre, Ecole Software is a name they cannot but be familiar with. As the developer of, among others, the Melty Blood and Dengeki Bunko: Fighting Climax series, it’s no stranger to two-dimensional combat. And while its releases might not be as popular as those from the Tekken, Mortal Kombat, and Street Fighter franchises, they do boast of a solid design that belie their seemingly simple roots.

Originally released as an Arcade, PlayStation 3, and PC title, Under Night In-Birth embodies the basic concept quite well. This visual novel-fighting game hybrid is a breeze for newcomers to get into with its uncomplicated combos and straightforward mechanics. Its real challenge comes from the Grind Grid, a special bar at the bottom of the screen that tracks charge gains and losses depending on on-screen developments. Aggressive moves (such as advancing to, and attacking, the opponent) charge it, while defensive moves and mistakes, (including taking damage) deplete it.

Clearly, the Grind Grid is crucial in Under Night In-Birth. Players who take advantage of it are rewarded, eventually entering into a “Vorpal” state where they do extra damage and are allowed to charge the EXS special move gauge. The latter triggers extraordinary attacks that are devastating to any opponent. And with these mechanics in play, the game becomes a steady, exciting mix of back-and-forth combat, with the advantage shifting between aggressor and defender, and providing an entertaining, action-packed match.

To further delve into the concept, Ecole Software concept has released Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late[st]. Available on the PS3, PS4, PC, and PS Vita, it is both an update to and an expansion on the original, adding four new characters to the roster, enlarging its single-player mode through a campaign called “Chronicles,” incorporating an in-depth tutorial, and inserting a challenge mode. Gameplay tweaks to balance the competition have been made, and players also gain a new special ability in the form of “Veil Off,” a super-powered mode, accessible only by maxing out EXS bars, that allows players to use their special attack to their heart’s content.

With over 20 characters to choose from, a serious story mode to go through, a robust fighting mechanic to work with, and a decent online component to boot, Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late[st] is heavy in content. It does a lot of things properly and does them with its own brand of charm, never failing to draw in players to its universe through its solid storylines and gameplay. Its protagonists are all unique and distinct from one another, and its artistic design, while dark in theme, blends nicely with its overall atmosphere.

Still and all, Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late[st] is an acquired taste, with its fun factor dependent on the extent of the player’s engagement in its milieu, its fighting mechanics, and its intense, fast-paced gameplay. Some may find its story mode to be entertaining, especially with regards to their favorite characters, but others may well deem it a chore given its VN treatment. And because each character has a backstory to play through and unlock, it can be tedious for those who want all options available from the outset.

At the same time, Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late[st]’s fighting mechanics aren’t as straightforward as they appear to be. While combos and special moves don’t require a Master’s degree to perform, the Grind Grid presents layered intricacies, which, even given the in-depth tutorial, can be confusing, especially to newcomers of the genre. And as fun as it may be, squaring off against the AI can hold interest only for so long. The computer is no slouch and is a tough opponent, true, but the real enjoyment comes from fighting players at a similar skill level or against friends who also enjoy the game. Which is to say a player has to find that aspect attractive or available in order to get the most out of the game.

In the final analysis, Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late[st] suffers the fate of all fighting games. For all its content, the value derived from its single-player mode is limited. Its online component does the heavy lifting, a turnoff for those who have neither the resources nor the inclination to get, and stay, connected. For everybody else, it’s certainly a title they’ll immerse themselves in quickly and delightfully.