I like to think that I’ve played a lot of fighting games, but I certainly haven’t played them all. One developer I’ve almost completely ignored is French Bread, who are mainly known for the Melty Blood series. Under Night In-Birth is the latest series from French Bread, and I’m happy to say that it takes the genre to some interesting places.
At first glance, one might be tempted to write the game off as another anime air-dasher in a similar vein to the ArcSys games. Looks can be deceiving, though. What I thought would be heavily based on the air game quickly turned out to be the opposite.
Simple acts like moving around can be extremely dangerous in Under Night In-Birth. Almost every character has attacks that cover ridiculously wide sections of the screen, meaning it’s easy to get caught with your pants down for careless movements. While ArcSys games generally give you safer options while in the air, Under Night In-Birth restricts your defensive options mainly to the ground. With the main battle taking place on the ground and attacks covering so wide an area, managing your spacing becomes extremely important. One bad move can force you to eat a very damaging combo.
Even though mistakes are punished heavily, Under Night In-Birth might actually be a great game for newcomers to the genre. On a basic level, the game is flashy, the inputs remain relatively simple, and the combo timing is relatively lenient. There are even auto combos for mashing the same button! Everything that might superficially hold someone’s interest is present and accounted for, but the mechanics can actually help players understand the game on an even deeper level.
The GRD system (short for Grind Grid) provides information about the game in a rather ingenious way. Both players can fill in GRD blocks shown at the bottom of the screen based on their performance during the game. Generally, GRD blocks are added to reward aggressive tactics like walking forward or landing hits, and removed for making mistakes like taking damage or getting your attacks blocked.
Unlike most modern fighting games which feature some kind of comeback mechanic, Under Night In-Birth instead boldly goes in the opposite direction. A timer counts down inbetween the GRD blocks, and whoever has the most when it finishes gets to enter a “Vorpal State,” which gives them both a damage boost and access to a move called Chain Shift, which essentially acts like a Roman Cancel from the likes of Guilty Gear Xrd, cancelling the recovery for an attack and briefly freezing time.
The only real issue in regards to new players is that nothing in terms of mechanics ever gets explained to you in the game itself. I had to read through the digital instruction manual and go to outside sources like friends and the internet to get a grasp on how it all works. It’s a shame because all of the pieces of an easy to pick up and play fighting game are there, but none of it gets presented in a way that’s easy to digest.
With all that said, I really enjoy playing Under Night In-Birth. I appreciate the simplistic feel of the game. It’s nice to be able to pick up decent combos without having to invest a ton of time practicing, it’s convenient. The risky nature of the movement and spacing means that you’re always hanging on the edge of your seat. Overall, I’d say it’s a mix of simplicity, tension, and risk-taking that makes the game so interesting.
Under Night In-Birth also has a tightly knit cast that manages to be very diverse without being overwhelming. From heavy projectile-based characters like Hilda to basic shoto-style sword guys like Hyde, everyone has a distinct but easy to understand gameplan. Some of the characters are less interesting looking than others, in particular I feel like there are a few too many generic-looking sword people, but they all play very differently so it’s not a huge deal.
My absolute favorite character right now is Merkava. He’s basically a giant shadowy bat demon, referred to as a “Void” in the in-universe lore. His movements are very wild and erratic, and his attacks focus mainly on his stretchy limbs, head slamming, and face chomping. To be honest though, the real reason I like him is that he just seems to be having so much fun being a weird monster thing. It’s hard not to have a good time playing as him with the way he shrieks and laughs with primal glee while fighting.
I had a blast playing Under Night In-Birth. This is the first time in a while that I’ve played a fighting game that felt like a completely new breath of fresh air, and it was quite nice. The game’s greatest strength is in its simplicity, which rather than hurting the game, helps make it more exciting. I’m glad developers aren’t afraid to experiment with simplicity, because I think games like Under Night In-Birth can do a lot of good for the genre in the long run.
Food for Thought:
1. All of the modes one might expect from a fighting game are present and accounted for, from online to Training, and even Survival and Time Attack modes. I got to try out the online mode a little bit, and the netcode seemed to be surprisingly solid.
2. Playing through the Arcade mode takes you through each character’s story, but good luck following it. No matter who you pick, you’re basically just thrown into the madness and left to pick up the details of world of Under Night In-Birth bit by bit. It’s kind of nostalgic in a way. It reminds me of playing old fighting games from the 16-bit to early 3D eras, where tons of fighting games would have little to no real story in the actual game, instead leaving most of the writing in the instruction manual.
3. My favorite part about Merkava has to be his victory animation, where he swoops the body of his victim into the air and flies off-screen while letting loose a glorious cackle.
4. From what I can gather, Merkava is actually on the high end of game balance, which I was surprised about. Not because I don’t think he’s powerful, but usually when I first try a fighting game, I’ll look into a few characters and decide which one I think hits the right balance of power and being fun to play. Only later would I look the rankings up to find out the character I picked is actually pretty terrible. It’s a weird feeling for my choice of character to finally be vindicated.