Platforms: PS4 (reviewed), PS3, PS Vita

Under Night In-Birth is perhaps the most surprising indie fighting game success in a while. Made by Ecole and Soft Circle French Bread, the guys behind the Melty Blood series, Under Night proved what this team could do when they left the doujin-soft (Japanese fan game) community and started working with their own IP. It was well received in 2012 when it first released in Japanese arcades, and then again in 2014 when it hit Japanese home consoles. In fact, it was one of the most imported games that year, as fighting gamers waited patiently to buy its official U.S. release the following year. Every time Under Night had a new release, fighting gamers swarmed to it and showered it with praise.

Yet every Under Night release was just a port. Its console version, EXE: Late, certainly had more features than its original arcade version, but this was still Under Night 1, so to speak. It’s sequel EXE: Late{st} released in Japanese arcades in 2015, shortly after the original hit home consoles in the U.S. Sure enough, fighting gamers showered it with praise. Three years later, and Late {st} has finally been localized for home consoles.

But the 2015 fighting game market is very different from the 2018 fighting game market. In 2015 there were sparse offerings aside from the release of Mortal Kombat X and Pokken Tournament. It was a fantastic environment for a smaller indie title to shine. On the other hand, 2018’s fighting game market is absolutely saturated with major fighting game releases. In a month we have already seen major released from Capcom, Bandai Namco/Arc System Works, and Square Enix, with upcoming titles like Soul Calibur VI and Blazblue Cross Tag Battle still on the way. It is very easy to get overshadowed by Hadokens and Kamehameha’s this year.

Can this titan of an indie fighter possibly make a splash again in such a huge ocean of AAA fighting game releases?

What’s New

Let’s make something clear. EXE: Late{st} is a sequel in the way that Street Fighter II and Street Fighter II Turbo are sequels, which is to say, it’s an update that you are going to have to buy as a full game. To be fair it’s a rather extensive update and the game is being sold at a bargain price. Still, if you played the original Under Night then EXE: Late{st} is going to feel very familiar.

The first thing you get is a huge balance patch. All the old characters get new moves and mechanics to play around with. The gap between tiers has shrunken greatly, making more characters viable. However, you may be disappointed to hear that the Under Night’s original top tier powerhouses like Waldstein and Gordeau have been kicked down a few pegs.

Joining the cast are four new characters, Phonon, Mika, Enkidu, and Wagner. Phonon attacks with a long range whip and is considered one of the best characters in the game right now. Mika is a grappler that is more focused on inserting her grapples into combos than creating throw mix-ups like Waldstein. Enkidu is a blind martial artist who uses rekka style moves. Finally Phonon uses a sword and shield that she can buff over the course of a match.

Each of these new characters is a treat to play. They are all unique and represent archetypes that weren’t explored in the original cast. The only issue is, there are only four of them. Four characters is not a lot for a sequel. Heck, MVCI gave us six new characters in its first season of DLC, and DBFZ is going to give us eight!

These four new characters are the only thing casual players are going to see. Sure they might take notice of the few new stages and tracks of music but primarily they are looking for new characters to mash around with. They aren’t going to notice the subtle changes to the GRD system, the empowered barrier block, or the addition of a button dash, all things that will make mid to high level players very happy. To a casual player, it’s as if they are spending $50 for four characters when they could spend less money for more character by purchasing DLC for another game.

Here we see the biggest problem with Under Night In-Birth EXE: Late{st}. To fans of the series and experienced fighting gamers, EXE: Late{st} is a fantastic game, but casual players just won’t see the value.

Playing by yourself

That’s not to say that Soft Circle French Bread didn’t try to court the casual crowd. Most notably, EXE: Late{st} includes a story mode while the original Under Night release did not. It’s an absolutely massive story, featuring more than 12 hours of visual novel style scenes complete with CG art splash screens and full Japanese voice acting.

You experience the story in an interesting way. At the beginning, most chapters are locked. You need to witness the events of the story from one character’s point of view in order to unlock the story arcs for other characters. Eventually each character’s story comes together to create one holistic meta-narrative.

This would be great, one of the greatest story modes of any fighting game yet even, if not for one problem. There are no fights. There’s no gameplay at all. It’s just reading. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good story. It’s a story I’d happily watch as an anime or read as a manga, but I’m not here to be a nerdy Otaku… mostly… I’m here to push buttons and punch faces. I don’t want to sit for 12 hours in front of a screen and read. Just sell me the novelization separately and give me something to fight in the actual game.

There are a handful of other single-player modes to choose from but these are more “traditional” than what we have seen come out of modern fighting games. There’s an arcade mode, time trial mode, survival mode, score attack mode, all the very basic stuff. There isn’t really anything analogous to Dragon Ball FighterZ’s quests or Injustice 2’s multiverse mode which limits EXE: Late{st}’s single-player replay value.

Class is in session

There is one single-player mode that I feel the need to mention separate from all the rest, and that’s the tutorial. Hands down, this is the best fighting game tutorial we have ever seen. Better than Guilty Gear XRD’s. Better than Dragon Ball FighterZ’s. Literally the best.

Why?

Because it includes 179 different lessons all about Under Night and fighting games in general. It doesn’t just teach you how to dash or how to block. It teaches you the theory behind the game. Why do you want to dash? How do you block mix-ups? How do you create your own mix-ups?

This is just a small sampling of the many many topics the tutorial goes into. Frame traps, fuzzy guard setups, safe cancels, hit-confirms, combos and combo extensions, effective counter attacks, all of this and more is covered by the tutorial. If you have no idea what I was just talking about, great! The tutorial will teach you.

It splits its lessons up into Novice, Beginner, Intermediate, Expert, and Veteran skill levels. Novice lessons are for players who haven’t touched a fighting game before. It explains bare bones basics such as the health bar and timer. Beginner lessons teach you about a fighting game’s basic controls. It will teach you how to perform quarter circles, how to attack, how to block, and the basics of comboing. Intermediate lessons go into mechanics that are specific to Under Night such as the GRD system. It also goes into basic combo, mix-up, and block string theory. Expert lessons get into the nitty gritty of fighting game theory. It teaches you how to prevent your moves from whiffing, how to build meter, how to secure a kill with a combo ender, how to keep your opponent in block stun with dash canceling, and more.

It’s the Veteran lessons that really surprised me. These are lessons that will teach even the most accomplished of professional fighting gamers a thing or two. They go into really complex topics and really niche situations. For example, there is a lesson about how you can use the “chain shift” (the game’s universal cancel mechanic) to read what an opponent is going to do. Using it causes time to freeze for just a second, and this allows you a brief moment to read your opponent’s mix-up. You can then act as soon as the freeze stops, allowing you to block effectively. That’s a technique I would have never thought of and I’ve been playing fighting games for years.

When you are done with the main tutorial, there are character specific missions to dive into. These tutorials teach you effective combos and hit-strings with your character of choice. They once again categorize each mission by difficulty, but they also categorize missions by their use in combat. Is this a poke? Do you use this while you are pressuring your opponent? Is this a mix-up? The missions even let you improvise and start these combos in different ways, which is more like how real professional fighting game players play.

If you have having trouble completing these missions, there is a “mission assistance” function that walks you through the hard parts. There’s also a full text explanation of each mission that includes tips on how to complete it, and a deeper examination of how to apply it in battle. Then, after you are done with all of that, there are yet MORE missions that teach you character specific strategies like “How do you get around projectile spam?” or “How do you open up a turtling opponent?” There is an average of 40 missions per character, and they do a phenomenal job of teaching you how to play. If you actually complete all of a character’s missions, you are likely ready to take on your first tournament!

When you are done with all of this, you can then go into training mode which includes its own powerful tools for upping your game. It shows frame data for every move and even your inputs! It lets you program training dummies to take advantage of gaps in your pressure strings. It even lets you change characters without having to back out into the character select screen.

Simply put, French Bread thought of everything a fighting gamer might need to learn how to play and integrated it into EXE: Late{st}’s tutorials. If you are new to fighting games, this tutorial won’t just teach you how to play. It will teach you how to be a pro.

Of course, there’s still the hurdle of getting newbies interested in the first place and that hurdle isn’t small.

The Whole Package

Everything else about Under Night In-Birth EXE: Late{st} is good, but not good in a way that surpasses the original. The music is fantastic, but that’s because most of the tracks are re-used from the original. The graphics sport some of the best sprite work any fighting game has ever seen, but once again most of these sprites are re-used from the original. It’s good, it’s just not new.

That’s a good way to describe EXE: Late {st} in a nutshell: good but not new. It’s a fun game, that looks good, sounds great, and has an amazing tutorial, but if you aren’t already major Under Night fan, then you aren’t going to give this a second look. There are just too many other games out there. That doesn’t make it a bad game. In fact, it’s probably one of the better fighting games on the market.

It’s just that casual players won’t be able to see beyond four extra characters. They’ll feel like that’s all their paying for, despite the many other modes, story, and extras that were added. They won’t feel the changes integrated by the incredible balance patch. They won’t discover new character mechanics. They probably won’t even check out the fantastic tutorial and if they do, they might balk at the size of it. Under Night In-Birth EXE: Late{st} is an example of a fantastic game whose value can only be seen by those who would have purchased it anyway.

Which is a shame, because I really think you should give Under Night In-birth EXE: Late{st} a shot, even in this super saturated year of fighting games.