With 2009 being the year that fighting games make a triumphant return it was only logical that we see a release of SNK Playmore’s proverbial King of Fighters series. It is hard to imagine that games like Tekken and Street Fighter have only scratched the single-digit sequels and KoF is now introducing a re-birth of their franchise with the twelfth iteration. King of Fighters XII is a reboot with new visuals, new characters and some new gameplay tendencies. Out of everything the series tries to reinvent it continues to retain the same feel of the original games. This is good for KoF fans, but fighting game fans that have been spoiled by other recent fighters may find the lack of innovation and progression a bit disappointing.
King of Fighters has always been unique in that it offers one-on-one fighting, but you get to choose a team of three combatants that switch out when their predecessor is exhausted in battle. You can also choose the arrangement before each match, and combining various styles have always been one of the series’ strong points. This is likely why the roster of 22 characters is a bit inadequate. Previous games have contained character select screens that defied imagination, but this outing shaves down the roster to just shy of a couple dozen.
It is obvious when you take into account that the development team had to redraw each character by hand, which takes several months considering the amount of animation, so the fact that we got that many should be a blessing. However, when you omit such fan favorites as Mai and replace them with new, less interesting characters your reasoning tends to lose its credibility. To their credit the roster is still diverse, and finding the right combination of teammates will be a fun, and learning experience, you cannot help but be upset that they decided to exclude some of the most popular characters.
The core game is broken down into the typical modes, and unfortunately they lack in variety. Arcade mode is basically a time trial mode that lets you square off against five sets of opponents before ending the game without the traditional boss battle. There are some story sequences in between the matches, but they don’t change and are used mostly for aesthetic purposes and fluff. There is a training mode, which lacks a lot of the typical fighting game traditions and of course an art gallery, which consists of the only unlockable paraphernalia in the game. Finally you have versus (which if left out would completely defeat the purpose of it being a fighting game) and will likely be the destination for most of your play time.
As with any brawler released this decade there is an online mode that accompanies the package. When it first launched it was plagued with lag, and in my online adventures I found myself partaking in a slow motion beat down time and time again. SNK eventually patched the game, and some improvements were made, but the online code is still so buggy that actually finding an enjoyable match can prove tiresome. With games like BlazBlue and Street Fighter IV running nearly flawlessly online it is hard to accept such a lackluster performance. I am sure with future patches the game can eventually run smooth, but at that point will anyone still be around to take advantage of it.
What does work in KoF XII though are the mechanics. If you are a fan of the series then it will take some adjustment. Controls have been simplified, and character moves changed slightly, but once you master the new mechanics the game plays fantastically. You have two punch and two kick buttons, which can be combined for a flurry of various combos. Juggling is also more prevalent this time around giving skilled players a chance to take advantage of air combos. The new counter system works well as it allows you to punish your opponent for turtling too much, and also allows you to unleash a massive combo attack if you can time the attacks just right. There is also a new cancel move that activates when two players attempt the same move at exactly the same time. All of these new nuances make the game feel more fluid, not to mention fun to master.
Visually the game received the first upgrade it has seen since nearly the inception of the series. All of the characters have been redrawn, and reanimated for a much more detailed HD experience. If you own an HDTV you will quickly notice though that the sprites are still as noticeable as ever. If you try to use the soften filter it simply makes all the characters look blurry. It still looks great though, and the backgrounds are equally impressive. There are only a handful, but seeing the large women go nuts after your victory and the crazed-out guys bowing (or head banging your call) really speaks volumes for the developers attention to detail in the environments. The music is a different story consisting of generic tunes that plague every facet of the game. Overall the game does generate a very generic vibe outside of the animation.
King of Fighters XII is not a bad game; it just came out at a bad time. The re-birth of the franchise really feels like ten steps backwards, and it wouldn’t be so bad if the competition wasn’t so stiff right now. The template is now laid out for the series, and hopefully we can continue to see improvements over the next few chapters. DLC would do wonders for fans wanting new characters, but I think it is more likely we will see a new version of the game released before that happens. As it stands if you are a huge KoF fan I cannot deter you from purchasing this, you probably already have, but at $60 it just doesn’t deliver enough to warrant a recommendation over the other games already out.