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A Long Running Series Makes its High Definition Debut
The King of Fighters XII arrives courtesy of Ignition Entertainment as they decide to bring us a title developed by SNK Playmore. While fighting titles by SNK have certainly not received as much recognition as Capcom's efforts, we can't deny the immense influence they've had, with SNK introducing such accepted conventions of the genre as desperation moves, super power gauges, tag team fighting, even the somewhat infamous chest bouncing antics of female characters. And this, King of Fighters XII, is SNK Playmore's first foray into the high definition fighting game era. Though I consider the title a success in most of its efforts, just like most SNK titles, it suffers from a few issues that unfortunately bring it down. This review will explore those issues, as well as everything that makes the title stand out.
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Three on Three Fighting Basics
While most fighting games involve one on one fights, the King of Fighters series (except for the Maximum Impact spinoff) has always stood apart due to its three on three fighting mechanics. Players get to choose three fighters to pit against an opponent's three person team in a battle format where the winner stays and the team that loses a round gets to send its next member into the fray, until one team has run out of fighters in the match. It's important to note that while King of Fighters 2003 and King of Fighters XI used a format similar to Capcom's Marvel vs. Capcom 2 title in which you could switch fighters at any time during the match, King of Fighters XII returns to the original format it pioneered in its first release, King of Fighters '94. That is to say, there is no way to switch fighters during the round. The fighters duking it out stay until one of them has depleted its life bar. KoF has returned to basics.
Talking about basics, KoF XII is a traditional 2-D fighter in the vein of the Street Fighter series, with 2-D hand drawn sprites rather than 3-D models for the characters. For its input, it uses the traditional four button layout that SNK has used for many years. Most SNK titles were developed for the Neo Geo system, which sported a four button joystick, and SNK has stood by that tradition. These buttons account for two punches and two kicks in weak and strong versions. There are no medium attacks ala Street Fighter, but you can use the directional pad or joystick to modify the resulting attack, and depending on the fighter you will produce different moves from the default ones for each button press.
Each character brings its unique fighting style into the fray, and different combination of directional inputs and button presses (mostly of the circular style range of motions used in most 2-D fighters, with a few charging motions for good measure) will produce fancy special moves, and over the top Super Desperation Moves when the special gauge located at the bottom is filled. There is also an additional gauge that ties into the Critical Counter system, but more on that later. Basically, the game keeps most of the conventions you'd expect of a 2-D competitive fighter and adds in a new system with the Critical Counter ability into the mix.
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Nuances of the Fighting Engine Explained
The previously mentioned Critital Counter system is one of the big additions to the combat engine in this version of the KoF series. While most fighting games out there have a Critical system of a sorts, awarding extra damage when a player interrupts an opponent during a move, KoF XII takes it a bit further with this system. Basically, there's a gauge beneath the character's health that fills up as damage is dealt or taken during the match. Once that gauge fills out, the Critical Counter can be performed. The title's not subtle about this at all; the character with the full Critical Counter gauge has a flashing health and Critical Counter gauge, and every neutral hard punch (or kick with some characters) has a flame effect tacked on. The Critical Counter gauge will rapidly diminish once it's full, so you need to make use of it quickly. If you manage to land this blow with the flame streak as a counter move and before the gauge has emptied, the Critical Counter is activated, causing the camera to zoom in on the fighters, and the affected fighter to go into a stun, letting the character that landed the Critical perform a powerful combo, linking moves that wouldn't usually link together. Or, you could opt to perform a Super Desperation Move immediately after the counter, which would cause a bright flash and the Super Desperation Move will do more damage. In most cases though, you're better off stringing together a bunch of hard punches and kicks and ending with a Special Move or with a normal version of a Super Desperation Move.
Another of the big additions is the Deadlock system. Basically, if the fighters hit each other with a same strength move at the same time, a Deadlock happens and both characters receive only a fraction of the damage and no stun from the hit. You can also punch or kick a character's projectiles in order to negate them, working as something similar to a parry in Street Fighter III.
One feature that's unique to KoF, but that started with KoF '96 so it's not a unique mechanic to KoF XII is the jumping system. Basically, instead of having a single style of jump, KoF XII has four different kind of jumps that you will need to master if you want to make the most of the fighting in the title. There's the usual plain vanilla jump that results from hitting up on the pad or stick. But there's also the short jump or hop, which is performed by very briefly hitting the up direction. This is much easier to do with a joystick than a pad, and many practice performing it by hitting up then down immediately. The advantage to this jump is that it allows a quick, unpredictable overhead blow, beats low attacks, and gives your opponent less time to react. There's also the hyper jump, performed by pressing down/up-left or down/up-right quickly. Similar to the super jump in the Marvel vs Capcom series, but not as flashy. This one can't be performed straight up, and its mostly used to cover a lot of ground (however, it gives your opponent the most time to react). Then there's the hyper hop. You perform this one by running forward and then pressing up very briefly, as if in a hop. This jump will cover a lot of horizontal ground, but will keep the low height of the standard hop. Mastering the variety of the jumps and their uses is an important aspect of the strategy in a KoF title, and KoF XII is no exception.
Besides the jumping game, KoF XII also keeps a variety of ground mobility options that once again, were pioneered in KoF '96. The first of this is the run. By pressing forward two times quickly, the character will run towards his opponent at high speed. This is to close distance between fighters and to set up rushing combos. You can also press back two times quickly to dash back a short distance, perhaps helping you to get away from a vulnerable position in the battle. You can also press both light punch and light kick buttons together to perform the emergency evasion roll, a move that has a few frames of invincibility that can be exploited to great effect, but also has a few frames that leave you very open to counter attack, so it needs to be used wisely and sparingly.
Throws are performed by pressing both punch buttons together and a either forward or back on the directional pad or joystick. Every character has an animation of missing a throw, leaving them open for a brief moment, and their priority is overall diminished from past titles in the series and from many other fighting games in general, so you don't want to use them unless you're absolutely sure it will land. Practice will help you sort this out. You can also perform a blow back attack that's always been present in the series by pressing the hard punch and kick buttons at the same time. This one adds a version with auto guard properties performed by holding the controller back while charging this move.
As for the Super Desperation Moves, these are performed with a full super gauge. This gauge is located at the bottom of the screen and fills out during the match as damage is taken or delivered. There is only one level of the gauge, so no multiple strengh supers as in other titles, nor a way to accumulate multiple stocks. You fill it up, and then you look for a chance to use it. Fairly simple.
All of these features make for a very interesting and fun fighting engine. While some characters may feel underpowered due to changes such as throwing priorities (basically, characters such as Clark and Daimon were very powerful in previous KoF installments and this one brings them down a notch, which can be a tough reality check for players who favored these characters), the bottom line is that fighting engine is very enjoyable, feels very tight and responsive (this is one fighter I can actually play casually with the standard 360 pad; I can't stand the 360's pad in SFIV or BlazBlue, titles that I play exclusively with a joystick) and arms you with the tools to always find a way to win a match, no matter how lopsided it seems. That's an achievement in itself.
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The King of Fighters series has always been known for its expansive, if somewhat unbalanced, character roster. Its first title in 1994 had a total of 24 fighters, so it's disappointing to see the roster for KoF XII shrinking down to 22 characters in this console release. That's less characters than Street Fighter IV, and which some will consider as too few for a title rooted where fights are team affairs. It's also interesting to note that every single character is a returning entry, so this is the very first KoF title that does not introduce new characters (unless you want to count Raiden, which makes its first KoF appearance, but who has been in various Fatal Fury titles in the past). These are the characters you can play as:
- Kyo Kusanagi
- Goro Daimon
- Benimaru Nikaido
- Ash Crimson
- Shen Woo
- Duo Lon
- Terry Bogard
- Andy Bogard
- Joe Higashi
- Kim Kap Hwan
- Raiden (also known as Big Bear from the Fatal Fury series)
- Iori Yagami
- Athena Asamiya
- Chin Gentsai
- Sie Kensou
- Ralf Jones
- Clark Still
- Leona Heidern
- Ryo Sakasaki
- Robert García
- Elizabeth Blanctorche
Now, it's important to note that some of these characters have received extensive move changes. Some of them have, in fact, been almost completely redesigned or stripped of their signature combat moves. Kyo Kusanagi, for instance, has reverted back to his moveset from KoF '95, losing the powerful flaming punch combos that made him such a technical fighter from '96 onwards. Still, his standard moves still keep him as a top notch rushing fighter, but his Wicked Chew and Poison Gnawfest are missed. Iori Yagami, who used to be basically a Kyo clone (as far as specials were concerned, as his normal moves were quite different) has been turned into a completely different character due to storyline reasons. An interesting choice, as KoF XII itself features no storyline, but my guess is that since SNK does plan on finishing off the Ash Crimson story arc, it made no sense to redraw Iori with the old moveset only to have to completely replace him in the next proper storyline KoF. Ralf Jones has had many of his moves removed, keeping only the Vulcan Punch and adding some explosive punch moves with auto guard properties. Clark Still has had his throwing priority diminished, and he has only kept his Vulcan Punch and Super Argentine Back Breaker moves. Many other characters have gone through move changes too extensive to mention here.
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Visual and Aural Presentation
The gameplay graphics are a whole other story. King of Fighters XII uses high resolution hand drawn character sprites, resulting in characters with tremendous amount of personality. The animation is also incredibly smooth for this method, making titles such as BlazBlue, and previous King of Fighters efforts look like a slideshow by comparison. This is Street Fighter III quality animation with much higher resolution sprites, which I applaud. Of course, the way the game zooms in on these sprites may expose too many pixels. I don't mind this, and think it actually looks great, but those who aren't a fan of sprite art in general may not like this aspect of the presentation. There are also many wild, colorful particle effects to depict hits in combat and the whole title has a very lively, colorful look overall. Unfortunately, there are only 5 levels to fight in, and one of those is repeated (one during the day, the other during the night). Some may also dislike the way some of these levels are portrayed (the France level full of overweight women for instance), but the overall tone is one of excitement for the fight and a little bit of satire.
As for the audio, it just doesn't fare as well. Music is generic, and not all that memorable, especially compared to previous entries in the series. Character voices sound great in Japanese (but then again, I'm just used to these voices after so many years of the series), but not as enthusiastic when set to English voices. The sound of combat itself is fairly decent, with strong blows registering pleasing aural feedback.
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Unfortunately, this is where King of Fighters starts to falter the most. Basically, this is almost a straight port of the Arcade title, with little in addition to it. You can play the Arcade Mode, which is a Time Trial. You choose a team, and the scoring system is how long it took you to make it all the way to the end. If you believe you could have done a better time on a particular fight, you can choose to retry it once in order to improve your time. You do this for five fights and the game is over. There's no storyline about it, and no overpowered end boss as has always been a KoF tradition.
You can also play versus mode against a friend or the computer. There's a bit more flexibility here, allowing you to pick from team battles or single character battles. There's also online. Unfortunately, as of this writing, online performance is truly abysmal, so that is not a very good option. Sure, you may occasionally run into someone with a good connection to fight with (and I suggest you add that player as a friend so you can at least fight against someone from time to time online), but that will be a big exception rather than the norm. So while both Street Fighter IV and BlazBlue feature top notch online fighting systems, KoF XII's is severely lacking, and horrible in its performance. Of course, the online lobby isn't bad at all, and you can even choose to play against the CPU while waiting for an opponent (something that I believe BlazBlue could use), but it seriously needs to have its netcode patched. Ignition has promised such a patch from SNK Playmore, but it just hasn't happened on this version yet (the PS3 version has been patched already, but as I have not played that version, I do not know if it performs any better than the 360 version I'm reviewing).
The Practice mode works well, though it hides too many important options (such as the character's move list, which for some reason is on the second page) from plain view. It could have used a Trial Mode such as Street Fighter IV, but alas, such a mode is nowhere to be found. There's also no survival mode, a surprising ommission, and no story mode. All you can do with this title is fight, fight, fight, and fight! The combat engine is certainly excellent, but due to its poor online performance and its poor CPU AI, this title has very short single player legs. You really need a local friend or two (hopefully enough to do home tourneys) to enjoy this title at its best.
There's also the obligatory Options mode that let you alter things such as the length of time in a round, CPU difficulty (not that I've notice it make much of a difference; the CPU is extremely easy no matter what setting its at), sound volume, and spoken language. You can also add filters to the sprites if you are not pleased with the blocky look inherent with sprites, but I prefer the crisp, unfiltered look.
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Content Advisory and ESRB Rating
The King of Fighters XII has been rated as a Teen title by the ESRB due to the nature of its content: humans fighting each other. There's really nothing here that I would consider as something to keep a child away from, save on the way its over the top fighting moves may be interpreted. Few of these moves are of a truly bloody nature, and I can't say that I've noticed a blood splatters or anything particularly graphic about the violence. A standard boxing match is far more graphic than a fight in this title.
As for titillating content, there is surprisingly little of it for Japanese developed fighting game. While SNK may have invented the bouncing female chest rave in video games, the ladies in this title are surprisingly well behaved and do not sport provocative attire at all. Maybe slightly sexy in some cases, but nothing particularly revealing nor appalling in any way. An afternoon at the mall will reveal far more innuendo and skin, so this title is pretty safe in that regard.
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Final Evaluation and Recommendation
At the end of the day, The King of Fighters XII is a truly excellent fighting game with a fun, but limited roster of fighters and a very well thought out fighting engine. King of Fighters purists may prefer an older game with a bigger roster, but there is no denying that this new version is a very well designed base for future sequels. Unfortunately, the lack of console extras and lacking single player modes may be a serious detriment to your decision to purchase it. I am actually surprised that my final evaluation of a game that I enjoy so much is to avoid it for now, unless you find it for a discount price.
What you really need to evaluate before purchasing is how much do you value extra single player modes in your fighting games, and if you are willing to accept a crippled online experience (or if you have enough local competition to look past the crippled online) that may be patched in the future. I'll be the first to revise this review and recommend the title if the proper patch happens and saves this game.
Basically, as a console release, KoF XII is bare bones and you need competition to make the most of it. However, until the online is patched, such competition may not come by so easily depending on your gaming habits and friends. So, this is the most important detail to consider before committing to the game. The fighting engine is certainly top notch, and its spin on needing to learn three fighters rather than just one to excel has always been a great KoF key feature, but that may not be enough to justify spending full retail on it unless you're a hardcore fan.