[Quick Note: This is my first experience with the King of Fighters (KoF) franchise. I hope that this review benefits, and isn't hindered, by my newbish eyes.]
To celebrate the 15th anniversary of the KoF series SNK has released a brand new entry onto the next-gen systems. Covered in 100% hand drawn art and brand new fighting mechanics, their new entry has “ambitious” written all over it. However, the fighting genre, where people are still playing SFII, it’s possible taking a leap forward can be a fall back.
Let’s get one thing straight. Yes, this game is 100% hand-drawn and it looks incredible. The characters have an absurd amount of detail in their movements whether it’s when they are shifting into a crouch or punching another character in the mouth. There is a staggering amount of work put into each and every character and background (hand drawn too), but the style comes at a price.
Whenever the camera zooms closer, the fighters become a little more pixelated than what the next-gen gamers are used too. The stills laud the game as being one of the smoothest looking games ever, and animation-wise it is, but the characters have more jagged edges than Fraggle Rock. While this is a by-product of the beautiful dot pixel art, it will turn most gamers off.
Because the sound was left behind, the awesome graphics has its drawbacks. The impact noises from punches and kicks ring true, but the background music is forgettable (literally) and the English vocals for the characters are comical at best. This can be remedied by changing the vocals back to Japanese, yet it still doesn’t fix the disastrous soundtrack.
Hopefully, even though the characters don’t have the same polygonal polish as SFIV or BlazBlue, gamers will look past the pixels and realize the delicious amount of movement the characters accomplish. Each character is given their own personality, more so than one liners and intro speeches, because they are given more room to exhibit flair. It makes choosing from a smaller crowd of fighters a bit disappointing, but the amount of work put into each character is obvious from the start.
The basic fighting mechanics of the game are like any other standard fighter. Utilizing a four button set up, instead of six, players execute combos and special attacks while fighting in 3 on 3 matches. However, this isn’t a normal tag title like Tekken Tag or Marvel Vs. Capcom 2; players pick a team of three characters and then arrange them in the order that they want to use them. It adds a small amount of depth, but the ability to switch between characters on the fly will always generate more, and better, strategy. A new element added to the game is the Critical Counter System.
This component sets a gauge beneath each player’s health that fills as they deal, take, and block damage. Once the gauge reaches critical (oh yeah) mass players can execute a counter (more on that in a bit) by attacking with a hard punch or kick while the other player is attacking. If it connects, there is a green flash and the recipient becomes stunned. The winning player can then execute a free style combo on their opponent for a few seconds.
You can jab them to death, use heavy kicks, unleash specials, or just blow your super move load all over the place. It’s a nifty, and visually appealing, feature that goes a long way to turn the tide of every match, yet it feels like the rage ability from MKvsDC. Anyone using crouching attacks can avoid being countered by the standing hard punch or kick since players cannot be moving when attempting to use it, or they can just jump around and avoid you while the meter drains.
The crux of the gameplay (competitive fighers, listen up) relies heavily on the games counter system. Any attack or special that connects with another attack of the same strength is canceled with little to no damage. Certain attacks still have priority over others, but it’s possible for fighters to bounce off each other two or three times before connecting with a punch or special. It produces a feeling that players are actually sparring rather than blocking and counter-attacking.
Players can also utilize a guard attack. Akin to the focus attack from SFIV, this attack puts the fighter into a charged state that will absorb attacks from the other player. Once an attack is absorbed, the defending player can use the moment to create a neutral area between the fighters or unleash an attack on the pressing player. It’s a little more dynamic than the focus attack because the impact from the absorption pushes both characters back.
For a fighting game to be good, and experience the kind of longivity that SFII has, it has to balance easy and entertaining controls with depth. KoF XII has easy and polished controls, but the game feels like someone that mastered the yellow belt and stopped there. Everything it knows it does well. However, there isn’t enough here to keep players interested, and there are so many borrowed elements (the entire fighting genre can feel like an endless game of telephone) that combat overall feels completely average, most obvious when compared to the stellar SFIV and BlazBlue.
After players grasp the controls, they could jump right into the wonderful assortment of modes that KoF XII has available, but it’s quite difficult to do so because the assortment is far from wonderful. Actually, it makes me think of a starving homeless person. There are only two things you can really do here, and that’s fight…and fight while racing the clock. There is no story mode, and while some of you may think this is a good thing, it’s in fact one of the game’s pitfalls.
I would be the first person to tell you that MKvsDC story was the worst thing to happen to professional writing (if you can call it that) in many years. But the absence of the story made the arcade mode, which is now a time trial, worthless. It’s enough to miss the convoluted and hokey stories with the big bad bosses at the end. I understand that this is due to the Dream Match (no set story) implementation, but it will turn many people off nonetheless).
Of course, this would be acceptable if the online mode was worth the bandwidth it burns, and while it isn’t the worse thing floating around the internet, it doesn’t help the game’s situation. There are three different modes that offer varying skill rewards, and each one comes complete with a lobby, which gamers can spectate the other fighters while waiting.
But the connectivity issues generate a severe tendency for matches to experience lag, and while it’s not a completely unavoidable set back, it occurs enough to make playing the game over the internet, wireless or not, rage worthy. The PS3 version has the exclusive ability that allows players to create their own clans and battle other rivalry groups. While it sounds awesome, just remember you are still playing the same game, only slightly more organized.
KoF XII presents astounding visuals with incredible animations and entertaining characters, but they feel out of place in a bare bones title. Albeit polished, the game’s lack of fighting mechanics and the limited amount of gameplay modes tarnish the essences for single players. It offers depth, but not enough to keep competitive fighters around, and it’s not fun enough to wrangle in the casual brawler. SNK’s first foray into the next-gen market landed their beloved fighting franchise in the purgatory of being hellishly average.
The game looks and flows beautifully, even if the background animations tend to be borderline racist.
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The average polished fighting mechanics aren't helped by hokey new ones, and there is a severe lack of variety and quality of the different modes.
The characters' voices ring out clearly, but I can't even remember what the background music sounds like.
Fighting fans will want to look elsewhere as the online component may cause nothing but rage, and the gameplay doesn't rise up above its competitors.
KoF XII is a bold step in animating 2D fighters but completely average everywhere else.