Taking a tentative step into the incomprehensible world of Anime for the first time at the age of (almost) 40 is akin to asking a horse to narrate the next season of The Circle; it’ll do its best but not very much will make sense. Factor in a title that looks like a text message got corrupted in transit and things bode poorly for whatever this escapade may turn out to be.
Thankfully, once loaded, Under Night is strangely familiar. Eclectic rock beats and a overladen menu seemingly from 1995 scream a seedy arcade where bleary-eyed teens traipsed a well-worn path between their favourite cabinet and the change machine, taking great care to dodge the hook-fingered old crone sinking the bulk of his pension into a blinking, bleeping fruit machine, while the latest in a chain of occasionally sucked-on cigarettes sends up a thin, spiralling smoke signal that all is not well in this dank paradise.
Just what is this game and why is it stoking the embers of teenage memories? Well, Under Night is a 2D visual novel that often lets 2D fighting get in the way of its, let’s say, overwhelming, story. There’s some back-and-forth about a thing called The Hollow Night and these bad things called Voids and a whole load more excuses for some inventively stylised characters to indulge in some good, old-fashioned 2D fighting. Think Street Fighter at Mardi Gras with hair and make-up by Noel Fielding..
Under Night’s roster of characters is varied, with something for everyone to unleash their preferred fighting style. There’s also Waldstein, who is the size of a well-appointed cottage and moves with a similar speed. For the kind of ridiculousness that underlines the game’s penchant for fancy, look no further than our boy Waldo. Players can indulge in an Arcade mode that pits players in a succession of 10 fights, taking your chosen character towards an ending of variable ludicrousness. There is also Chronicles mode, which is purely a visual novel and somewhere for fans of the series to get lost in for many, many, many hours.
If the 2D novel is your thing, prepare for some slightly wonky translations (‘disguesting!’) and an exhaustive story. It’s a shame that the battiness is backdropped by a lot of disappointingly bland backgrounds that sadly also linger as stage backdrops in the otherwise pleasing fighting modes.
Back to the fighting, which is where the majority of players should spend their time. For novices there is a tutorial mode that makes in-depth guides such as Injustice’s generous onboarding look like truculent afterthoughts. Every level of fighter experience is catered to, with an interactive run-through of everything the game has to offer. For fighting novices like myself, this gives a great grounding and provides a good sense of familiarity amid all the anime… flamboyance.
Skills learned in training can also be further honed in Training and Mission modes, with a series of combo and scenario challenges in the latter that start tricky and will likely only get more baffling for all but the most nimble-fingered of gamers. Add in the Time and Score Attack, and Survival modes, each of which are moreishly enjoyable and skewed towards fans of leaderboards, and the game has plenty to offer for its mid-level price.
The game’s fighting system gets as deep as you want it to be. On the default difficulty the Arcade mode is a breeze, especially with a forgiving combo system that allows even the mashiest of button pressers to achieve something resembling competence. However, upping the difficulty level or venturing online for PvP battles will require rather more dexterity in order to be consistently successful. With the game now accepted at Evo, Under Night’s elite level is a bewildering joy to watch; a whirling frenzy of attacks, blocks and high-level fighting strategies that underline how dynamic the game can be in dedicated hands.
On the whole this update to the Under Night series is a largely positive experience. In terms of modes it is well-stocked so even the most fumbling novice will be able to get plenty out of the game even without any real affinity to the rambling – but entirely inoffensive – 2D novelisation. While stage backgrounds are disappointingly generic, the pace of the fighting should mean they will only be paid the most fleeting of glances. Otherwise the game’s graphics are apt for the genre, with some fantastic flourishes that enhance the empowerment of landing the game’s meatier combos and various special moves.
The title may be suggestive of a game that requires a prohibitive level of expertise to comprehend what is even going on but the reality is this is an energetic fighter that welcomes players of all abilities with open arms, and becomes increasingly charming in direct proportion with its familiarity.