Review: Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late[cl-r] proves complex fighting games can be approachable

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Fighting games are hard. They’re tests of a lot of things, all at one: execution, game knowledge, quick thinking, decision-making under pressure, creativity. In a multiplayer setting—which is what fighting games really are designed for, at heart—two players go head to head to test all of those abilities, and nine times out of ten, the better player will win. That’s inherent in any sort of competitive endeavour, really.

But there’s been an idea creeping around for the last few years that fighting games are too hard, to the point of alienating newcomers. I won’t say that’s not a problem—it definitely is—but it’s resulted in a trend of trying to make the genre more welcoming by “simplifying” things by reducing the complexity of game systems. The assumption is that having too many things to learn is what makes a game difficult for new players, so by reducing the amount of knowledge there is to be picked up, newcomers will be able to get into the groove of playing the “real game” quicker.

The problem with that approach is that, no matter how much you systematically simplify a fighting game, new players are always going to get their asses kicked by more experienced players—that experience translates directly into better decision-making and being better able to predict what an opponent will do and react accordingly.

A screenshot from Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late[cl-r], showing Gordeau fighting against Byakuya

In an odd way, it can make “simplified” games even more alienating than complex ones, because it’s harder to see why you’re losing and how you can improve. There’s a thousand different ways to get clowned in Guilty Gear, which means a thousand different areas of improvement you can identify from any given loss: “I need to stop dropping combos.” “I need to get better at anti-airing jump-ins.” “I need to figure out why people keep escaping my setups.” But with something like Divekick—a game where every character has exactly one identical move, a dive-kick—you’ll lose nine out of ten and have no idea where to even begin improving, because you’re losing to the more experienced player’s better understanding of much more esoteric things like spacing and player psychology. 

Which brings us to Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late[cl-r]. This is the fourth iteration of a game that’s been kicking around in some form or another since 2012, and has never really been sold as a game designed to be beginner friendly. Indeed, it’s a game with layer upon layer of interconnected systems, and full of the long, buttony combos that are assumed to be so discouraging to newbies. And yet, I can’t think of any other fighting game that is so inviting to new players—precisely because of all the complexity, and the carefully-considered learning curve built around it.

Before you even start thinking about stuff like combos and the Grind Gauge and Vorpal state, you can get a pretty good feel for the basics of attacking and blocking by button mashing your way through Arcade Mode—mashing the A button will do a nice little autocombo that’s far from efficient, but looks cool and is more than adequate for fighting against the computer. There’s also a tutorial that’s nicely segmented; if you’re brand new to fighting games, you can jump into the beginner tutorials to quickly get a feel for the genre’s basic mechanics, while comfortably ignoring the higher level stuff until later.

A screenshot from Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late[cl-r], showing Hilda fighting against Carmine

When you’re ready to take the next step up, the beginner section of a robust combo trial mode can see you learn basic but effective combos for any character within a matter of minutes. They won’t be optimal—that can come further down the track—but they’ll be good enough to get some damage out of a wide range of situations, and look cool while doing it. Each trial also comes with a short description of when and why you’d choose to use the combo in question. Under Night In-Birth is also very lenient when it comes to input timing and cancel windows, so you don’t really need to worry about strict timing or tight joystick motions until you start getting into the harder stuff.

Once you’ve got those basic combos down, you’ve pretty much got everything you need to jump into the gauntlet of multiplayer. Don’t kid yourself—unless you’re playing someone of a similar skill level, you’re going to get stomped, but that’s where the beauty of Under Night In-Birth‘s many layered systems come in. As long as you pay attention, it’ easy to find little ways to continuously improve, whether that’s learning some slightly trickier, more damaging combos, jumping into the higher-level tutorials to learn about more complex mechanics and trying to slowly incorporate those into your game, or learning how to deal with even just one of the things your opponent threw at you. You’ll still lose most of your matches, but now you have all these markers of incremental progress—even if you get stomped, managing to land that combo you’ve been practicing or successfully avoiding a particular attack that was giving you trouble before can feel like a bigger victory than actually winning the fight.

Making a fighting game more welcoming to new players isn’t about removing complexity; it’s about creating a clear path for improvement, and that’s something that Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late[cl-r] does better than just about any other fighting game out there.

A screenshot from Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late[cl-r], showing Yuzuriha fighting against Waldstein

The other crucial  piece of the puzzle, and one that’s easy to overlook when you’re so wrapped up in mechanics of the game, is character designs. A fighting game character is more than just a set of tools; it’s the way that players connect with the game. (Patrick Miller put it best when he said “choosing a character is one part choosing a musical instrument, another part choosing an avatar, and another part choosing a weapon.”) Being able to connect with a character is more important than ever for a new player, so having a cast that’s interesting in every facet of their design is vital.

Under Night In-Birth has a wonderful assortment of characters, from the feisty Wagner, who’s always looking for chaos despite being one of the game’s “heroes”, to Gordeau, a carefree bartender who moonlights as a scythe-wielding mercenary. Yuzuriha might just be one of my favourite videogame characters of all time: heir to a long line of demon hunters, she’ll take that job seriously when she must, but would prefer it everyone could just Not so she can enjoy playing with her new smartphone and watching TV—not mention her effortlessly cool sense of style, and a ridiculously long sword that she calls “Ayame-chan”. But even if Yuzu wasn’t in the game, at least half the rest of the cast would be potential candidates for my main character, which is more than I can say about any other fighting game.

Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late[cl-r] adds one new fighter to the mix in Londrekia Light. He’s a fighting prodigy with plenty of pride in his abilities (sometimes to a fault), who acts more aloof than he really is, but he’s also completely incapable of talking to women after having grown up in an all-male organisation. His attacks utilise ice (in contrast to the fire attacks used by his rival, Wagner), with a lot of acrobatic animations inspired by figure skating. One new character might not seem like a lot, but Under Night has always favoured quality over quantity, and Londrekia is a good addition to a very well-rounded assortment.

A screenshot from Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late[cl-r], showing Londrekia fighting against Wagner

Where Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late[cl-r] does arguably fall short is in its single-player offerings. If you’re someone who really has no interest in playing fighting games with other people, there’s not a lot on offer here aside from an interesting but fairly brief visual novel-style story mode, an arcade mode, the aforementioned combo trials, and a couple of different variations of survival-type modes. The focus is clearly on the multiplayer side of things—which I don’t think is a problem, but is worth knowing if you’re expecting the sort of expansive story seen in the likes of Blazblue.

But for a deep, interesting fighting game that works wonders at being “beginner-friendly” precisely because of that depth, Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late[cl-r] is fantastic. At a time so many other fighting game franchises are fumbling around with trying to appeal to newcomers by “simplifying” things then getting confused when that doesn’t really work, Under Night is a perfect example of how complexity, when well designed, can create a meaningful sense of progression. And really, that’s what’s going to make new players stick around: giving them the tools to learn something new from every loss, and see the results of their effort in every fight.

Score: 4 stars

Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late[cl-r] is developed by French Bread and Ecole Software, and published by Arc System Works and PQube. It’s available now for PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Nintendo Switch, and PC.

A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.

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About Author

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.