Review: The King of Fighters XII

Since its debut in arcades and on the Neo-Geo 15 years ago, SNK’s The King of Fighters has always served as an inverse to most fighting game series. Over the years, it’s become known for its substance-over-style approach, sporting low-resolution graphics and pixelated sprites, but also boasting a unique and high-quality 2D fighting engine. In stark contrast to games like Street Fighter, many of KOFs’ character designs and techniques still have yet to be emulated by other fighting games. The character roster has grown massive over the years, and despite its low resolution, KOF has also always brought exceptional art and music to the table.

King of Fighters XII represents SNK going for a fresh start in terms of aesthetics. Unfortunately, it appears almost everything else got pushed to the back burner in their efforts, leaving a package that requires a whole lot of willpower to love—and that’s after the patch which fixes various bugs. Speaking of which, PS3 users, get ready to download roughly 800 megabytes before you get to run this game even once.

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Ironically, the improved visuals that SNK had been going for, and which had fans drooling from trailers, are a letdown in the final product. While the backgrounds are quite nice, the new sprites were actually dotted at an extremely low resolution, and then blown up for HD displays. The result? Every character is still bordered by an array of pixels, and one still has to fiddle with filtering settings (a hallmark of previous KOF console ports) to minimize their presence. It begs the question: just what was the point? It gets worse due to the fact that the game engine zooms in and enlarges these sprites further still when fighters are close, reducing graphic fidelity even more. Forget BlazBlue—Guilty Gear XX still looks cleaner than this. However, I’ll give points to KOFXII for its fluid animation, even despite its missing frames.

The list of disappointments stretches further. There’s basically no story to this installment, which suggests a “dream match” setup. Dream matches in KOF are usually massive character-fests, allowing players to experiment with SNK’s rich selection of fighters at will. However, since this KOF shipped with an all-new, expensive-to-produce spriteset, only a little over 20 characters are present, and they’re all The Usual Suspects(tm), with no international team structure and several glaring omissions. I can understand the cutting of “quirkier” characters such as Duck King or Team USA Sports—however, the excision of the entire history of the Fighting Women’s Team is just a tad overkill. This is the blandest KOF roster ever, period.

So far it could be argued that my complaints are mainly over personal tastes. (I’ve heard some people like Ash Crimson.) Fair enough; it’s always the play and mechanics that hold the greatest importance. Even ignoring all of the personally disappointing visuals and roster choices, this would be a decent, if barebones fighter, in terms of playability. Unfortunately, something far worse than the previously mentioned gripes rears its head the second you try to play this game arcade-style. The input window for digital control inputs is overly strict in terms of timing and directional acceptance. In other words, unless you perform special move motions exactly as the command list tells you—with absolutely no margin of error in terms of rotational degree—and do so at a slow, practiced speed, the move will not execute. During fast-paced matches, special moves will often require multiple attempts, diluting heat-of-battle strategy. As for Desperation Moves, which require double rotational motions in quick succession? Forget it.

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Oddly enough, if you play fighting games with your chosen pad’s analog stick, this isn’t a problem. However, the second you switch to a digital control solution—as is standard practice for fighting game veterans—the game falls apart. With Hori fighting sticks plugged in, we shockingly found our ability to execute moves and techniques plummet, rendering the game almost unplayable by our standards. It’s a huge shame, because as mentioned before, this would otherwise still be a serviceable, functional fighter. Those with controllers and sticks that allow for masquerading of analog thumbsticks (such as Mad Catz’s recent Street Fighter offerings) can get around this limitation to an extent, and the Dual Shock’s D-Pad also does fairly well in a pinch.

Such is the state of local competition. As for online, well, even after the patches, it’s quite lacking. Unfortunately, the whole thing is crippled by the fact that the game has no way to prioritize connection speeds. Invariably in our tests, we would be matched with people with one red signal bar, indicating high latency—and indeed, the performance reflected as such.

Finally, it should be noted that several characters have been downgraded from previous incarnations. Super versions of Desperation Moves are gone (they would have required extra animation and effects), and pretty much every piece of canon that’s proven detrimental to a character’s playability has carried over to this game. Iori’s flames are gone, messing with his strategies considerably. Kyo’s lost much of his distance and melee game, and is back to being a pseudo-grappler—meanwhile, Clark’s lost grapples. Half of Terry Bogard’s offense is gone. Kensou’s psychic power is scarce. And so it goes. In place of all this is a single major play mechanic, the Critical Counter. Activated via a neutral-standing strong punch, this has the effect of pushing the player character forward and giving them unlimited combo potential for a short time. It’s a carbon copy of Street Fighter Alpha 2’s Custom Combos, and while it’s still fun to play with in a KOF setting, it still feels somewhat phoned in.

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Closing Comments:

In the end, calling this a “rebirth” or even a “reboot” just doesn’t cut it. If one looks hard enough, they can see the ambitions SNK had with this game, sadly outstripped by time and budget. This was likely a no-win situation for the company, and the release of so many high-profile fighting games over the past year did it no favors. As a release, this is botched beyond belief. As a fighting game, it’s just barely playable, provided users take large concessions. Normally I’d recommend that only the most diehard of King of Fighters fans pick this one up… but I have a feeling that said fanbase will be the ones disappointed the most.
score2.75
Versions Reviewed: Xbox 360, PS3