On first glance, the character roster for this long-running one-on-one brawler series seems largely uninspired, featuring a cast of pointy-haired individuals copied from the pages of any random anime light novel. Spend just a few minutes with each, however, and you’ll soon discover that the majority couldn’t be further apart.  

Some characters appear diminutive in size but can still hold their own due to being able to summon knights and demonic beasts. Mika is equipped with mechanical arms; Vatista is in fact an advanced AI lifeform. We’re also fond of Gordeau, who uses a staff, and consequently feels similar to Capcom’s rendition of Marvel’s Gambit.

Walstien and Merkava greatly overshadow the rest, being screen-filling beasts. These two are ideal for beginners, with Merkava able to unleash a whirlwind of fists and Walstien able to send rivals flying with one punch. Newcomer Londrekia favours ice attacks, meanwhile. All that’s missing is a frontman of sorts.

The fighting system is incredibly deep, boasting over a thousand balance changes since the last iteration – for the uninitiated, the original Under Night In-Birth was released in 2012. It doesn’t simply rely on outlandish attacks, as characters can merrily go toe-to-toe with kicks, jabs and throws. It’s even more pleasing to see that it doesn’t fall back on hackneyed projectile (fireball) attacks for long-range moves. Instead, most have wide-reaching sword slashes or can unleash mystical entities.

Much like Guilty Gear, there’s a long list of aerial attacks too, far exceeding the usual quota of a few kicks and punches. Irksome aerial dashes are omitted, meanwhile. Hurrah for that.

Adding to this, there are the series’ trademark mechanics – it uses a four-button set-up, with a gauge for more powerful attacks that fills whenever certain offensive or defensive manoeuvres are performed, which in turn gives battles a steady flow. Block several attacks, for instance, and it’s possible to gain a temporary buff to stage a comeback.

Newcomers may find this system needlessly complex at first – indeed, it doesn’t help that an obtuse terminology is applied – but thankfully it doesn’t get in the way of jumping in blind and performing beautifully outlandish attacks. Under Night In-Birth really is a treat for the eyes, showcasing buttery smooth animation with a rare air of consistency. It’s a shame we can’t say the same for the backdrops, which are a little uninspired.

The general length of a battle is also well-judged. It’s a vastly different experience to most beat’em ups, in which a few special moves and a couple of heavy blows can pretty much guarantee victory. Here, characters can withstand numerous hits before hitting the dirt, giving ample time to recover and fill the gauge should a fight commence in a one-sided fashion.

The tutorial and mission modes both take considerable time to work through, slowly rewarding players with trophies by clearing set amounts of objectives. There’s also a text-based Chronicles mode, in which each character has a back-story expanding chapter. Despite resembling a graphic novel it’s entirely linear with no multi-choice questions, and once breezed through it’s unlikely you’ll ever return. As an extra though, it’s nice enough.   

There’s also a store to spend in-game credits on new title cards and character colour-schemes, which allows for personalisation when playing online. Time attack, score attack, and survival modes round the package off nicely, with score attack mode giving just ten stages to dominate, making it not too time-consuming.

This is a game that constantly surprises, filled with thoughtful touches and flourishes – the developers have put in considerable effort to create the best 2D brawler they possibly could, building on an already sturdy foundation.

Playing on the hardest difficulty setting really opened our eyes to this. In other brawlers, this setting usually results in the opposition simply blocking every attack and countering at every chance, but here the AI will chain combos and go to great lengths to prevent your gauge from maxing. Play this way for an hour or two, and you’ll no doubt emerge a more adept player, having learned a trick or two. Of course, the same can also be said for playing online with those well-versed. It constantly pushes you harder, being something of a silent educator, making it easy to pick up new techniques.

Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late[cl-r] isn’t a name that rolls off the tongue, but it’s one that deserves to be remembered. Hopefully its appearance at EVO 2020 will enlighten more to its existence.

SCORE
8