It’s pronounced “under night in birth ecksa late clear.”
I wasn’t familiar with Under Night In-Birth until its surprise announcement as a main-stage game at EVO 2019, and I wouldn’t blame most people for not knowing anything about it. It’s a 2D indie fighting game created by Melty Blood developer French Bread—with assistance from Arc System Works—that was originally released for arcades in 2012. Due to the intense passion of its fans, Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late[st] was selected to share the EVO spotlight last year, bringing the title to mainstream awareness. Now the latest version, Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late[cl-r] (UNICLR for short), is making its debut on Switch, and there’s never been a better time to see what all the fuss has been about. Like most of Arc System Works’ catalog, UNICLR separates the majority of your basic attacks into light, medium, and heavy attacks that each have their own dedicated button. Simple combos can be performed by leading light attacks into medium attacks, and then medium attacks into heavy attacks. Where UNICLR sets itself apart from other games with this setup is a system it calls Passing Link, which allows you to string together your three basic attacks in any order. Instead of just doing a light-medium-heavy attack, you can also do a medium-heavy-light attack, or a heavy-light-medium attack. Passing Links can also be combined with the Smart Steer function that creates an automatic combo by simply pressing the light attack button repeatedly. Smart Steer, especially when combined with Passing Links, allows even inexperienced players to have some basic combos they can perform to rack up damage on opponents.
However, the most unique part of UNICLR—as well as the source of a lot of its depth—is a system known as the Grind Grid. The Grind Grid is located in at the bottom-middle of the screen, and it’s kind of like a super meter that both players share. You can build up your own side of the Grind Grid with various techniques and combos, and there are also techniques you can pull off to deplete your opponent’s side of the meter. When the circular gauge behind the meter fills up, the player who has filled their side of the meter the most gets a buff called the Vorpal State.
When in the Vorpal State your attacks are a bit more powerful, and you gain access to character-specific moves that you can use to more easily push the advantage against your opponent. It doesn’t last too long, but if used properly it can turn the tide of battle, so you’ll always want to keep an eye on the Grind Grid and try to manage your attacks accordingly to ensure you win the exchange. If the Vorpal State is about to be awarded and your side of the meter is more full, you may want to hang back for a second and play defensively. Meanwhile, your opponent may want to jump in and do something risky to try and deplete your gauge to pull the rug out from under you. The Grind Grid makes for a lot of miniature fights within a match that ensure the tension of a make-or-break moment sticks around from beginning to end.
If all that sounds intimidating, then don’t worry; UNICLR may well have the best tutorial I have ever seen in a fighting game. Each tutorial explains the concept or ability it’s teaching you about and then lets you try it out for yourself until you figure it out. Each lesson is written carefully to explain the concept as simply, but also as thoroughly, as possible. And there are a lot of lessons: 179 to be exact. They range from the very basics, such as how to move and what your health bar is, all the way up to high level techniques, such as Chain Shift Reversals and landing Veil Offs during combos. It’s incredibly thoughtful towards new players, and it’s the only fighting game tutorial I’ve ever seen that gives tips on how to input quarter circles more easily. I cannot imagine a better starting point for someone that’s never played a fighting game.
Unfortunately, UNICLR does disappoint in one big way, and that would be the quality of its online experience. Recently the hottest topic in fighting games is the increasing demand for better netcode, as most Japanese-developed games are still using delay-based code while many western developers have switched over to rollback netcode. The difference between delay-based and rollback netcode is well outside the scope of this review, but suffice it to say that rollback is widely agreed to be better, and UNICLR is delay-based. This leads to the slow, stuttering online lag that Nintendo fans would best recognize from Super Smash Bros. Ultimate and Mario Maker 2 that seriously degrades the online experience. Delay-based netcode has been the standard for a long time, so in the past this would’ve simply been “the way things are” for a fighting game. However, with western games like Mortal Kombat 11 proving how much better the online experience can be, I think it’s fair to expect better from fighting games.
Despite its disappointing online issues, Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late[cl-r] is one of the most impressive fighting games I’ve ever played. It’s oozing with style, it’s shockingly accessible, and the back-and-forth exchanges prompted by the Grind Grid system make for non-stop excitement in every match. There’s even a fifteen hour visual novel experience in the Chronicles mode that helps flesh out the world and characters of Under Night In-Birth, though personally I think I’m more afraid of understanding all the insane proper nouns in the plot summary than I am excited. This was a worthy addition to both the EVO lineup and the Switch lineup, and there’s nothing I want more now than to see the game finally reach the mainstream success it deserves.