The King of Fighters XIII Review
Game: The King of Fighters XIII
Developer: SNK Playmore
Publisher: Rising Star Games
Available On: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 (Reviewed on Xbox 360)
Despite being in existence for more than 15 years, The King of Fighters has never been as commercially successful in the West as contemporaries like Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat. Whilst wildly popular in Japan and with the always fervent SNK fanbase worldwide, the average man in the street probably wouldn’t know who Kyo Kusanagi was even if he was on the end of his signature flaming uppercut special. One thing that we mustn’t grumble about, however, is the availability of the series in the UK. Going right the way back to the days of the Sega Saturn and PlayStation, there have been conversions of nearly every instalment in the franchise for PAL gamers, a tradition that is thankfully upheld to this day by Rising Star Games, who have assumed publishing duties from Ignition Entertainment.
The last time we got to play a new console KOF was the decidedly poor King of Fighters XII, which featured a meagre roster of fighters, an art style that split the fans, and a severe lack of gameplay modes. When I first played it, it had the feel of an unfinished product. The single player experience was a joke, and I skulked back to my older KOFs to get my fighting fix.
This time around we are promised a conversion of the 1.1 coin op revision of the very well received sequel, SNK Playmore’s sophomore effort on Taito Type X2 arcade hardware, along with a stack of extra content, including exclusive new characters. The question is, can KOF XIII finally entice mainstream fight fans to the King of Fighters tournament, or is it another 2D rumble destined to remain a niche title?
STORY: Being the final instalment in a story arc that began with The King of Fighters 2003, there are a lot of loose ends to tie up plot wise. What this means is a smattering of poorly implemented cutscenes and a convoluted, confusing “Story” mode which attempts to bring protagonist Ash Crimson’s tale to a satisfying conclusion. At the risk of upsetting anyone, I have never been a fan of the androgynous Crimson character since Falcoon introduced him to the mix. He lacks the macho appeal of a Terry Bogard, the demonic presence of Iori Yagami or the Manga-esque cool of K’. He is just a cocky teenager in a red jumpsuit whose overpowered moves have ticked off some of the long-term fans of the series.
I for one couldn’t really care less about what is going on here, plot-wise. It has something to do with a mysterious organisation attempting to break an ancient seal and unleash series mainstay malevolent being Orochi. It all makes very little sense, and isn’t helped by reams of slow moving text explaining each plot development, sometimes littered with spelling errors. Fighting games have never really been the best at telling a story you want to emotionally invest in, because at the end of the day you just want to kick someone’s ass and have some fun, and this title is no exception to that rule.
That said, there is some quality conversations that takes place between the fighters, presented in a similar fashion to the often highly amusing exchanges in Playmore’s SVC Chaos game, and much of it is very knowing with some in-jokes that long time fans will enjoy. Regardless of the loony plot, some much-loved characters of old return to the fray, such as Mai Shiranui, who was bafflingly omitted last time around, and, for home versions only, stick twiddling Fatal Fury stalwart Billy Kane.
GRAPHICS: If KOF XII split fans with a flashy new art style and some decidedly Neo Geo-esque zooming and scaling effects, the sequel will delight all and sundry with its spanking new take on the King of Fighters universe, that also manages to give plenty of knowing, fan service nods to the past. The completely redrawn characters are presented in 2D of the most stunning high resolution, all animated with due care and attention against a selection of detailed, feature-packed stages. Eisuke Ogura, who had previously worked on the animation and character design for previous SNK aesthetic high-spots like Garou: Mark of the Wolves and Real Bout Fatal Fury Special is back on board with the designs here, and it shows. Some of the characters have all-new stances and costumes, whereas others are given poses and nuances shipped in from earlier games in the series, such as Terry who wears his outfit from Fatal Fury 2, but has his Fatal Fury 3 stance, or King, who appears in her Art of Fighting guise. The backdrops feature reworked locales from older SNK games, change with each round and have some amusing shenanigans taking place, such as fruit and snakes falling from the top of the screen during the lush jungle stage. I particularly loved the London stage, which is in keeping with the tradition of some of the earliest King of Fighters games, and has some surprisingly accurate depictions of London coppers and the ubiquitous red buses. The zooming has been thankfully eradicated, and everything moves along far more smoothly as a result. Hands down, this is the best looking King of Fighters game yet.
SOUND: KOF XIII features some all new J-rock themes for the various selectable teams and characters, as well as some old-school themes spanning the entire series that fans will love. King of Fighters has never had the kinds of instantly iconic tunes associated with Street Fighter, yet the music is perfectly matched to the fast-paced action and is decidedly easy on the ear. The original Japanese voices are included for the characters during battles, but there is no voiceover or speech of any sort during the cutscenes and story sections. Some classic SNK English voice-over action (“Again…legendary men…return”) could have been just what was required to make the otherwise poor story hugely more entertaining on the whole.
GAMEPLAY: It wasn’t just the daft camera effects that were stripped back from the previous instalment, gone too are a number of fighting mechanics in favour of a far more accessible system that borrows bits and pieces not only from earlier games in the SNK canon, but also from other notable success stories from contemporary one on one dust ups.
The standard way to play KOF XIII involves selecting a team of three characters but, unlike Marvel vs Capcom 3, you do not tag between the trio in real time, but select a predetermined order before the bout and fight one-on-one battles until either you or your opposing team are diminished. The basic controls are pretty much par for the KOF course. You attack using four buttons, a weak and heavy variant for punch and kick, respectively. You can run forwards or dash backwards by double tapping the directional stick. You can carry out an evasive roll by hitting two of these buttons in unison, and there are various different ways you can jump, including a standard leap, a small hop, and a forward hop useful for avoiding projectiles and leading into an attack. There is even a way of pulling off a nifty recovery when you get knocked down, breaking your fall and positioning you far better and out of direct harms way.
Getting more technical, the new ways to actually beat people up make things highly accessible to newcomers and a boon to old heads like me who have been playing for years. You have two different gauges to keep an eye on during bouts, the Power bar and the Hyper Drive bar. The Power bar increases when you attack or receive damage and is used to carry out highly powered EX special attacks and super moves. The Hyper Drive meter is used to access the various Drive Cancels that are available.
The EX special moves are similar to those implemented in Street Fighter IV and will eat up one stock of your Power gauge but, rather than in the Capcom game, where the EX attacks were simply a more powerful variant of a move, here there are extra frames of animation or additional hits, for example, pull off Joe Higashi’s Hurricane Upper in an EX style and he will unleash not one but three successive tornado projectiles toward his foe. There are also EX Desperation Moves, a super powered attack of which all characters have at least two variants, and the new NEO MAX moves, which eat up three Power stocks and carry out an enormous amount of damage.
The Drive system exists in order to maximise your combo potential and allow for some outrageous chain attacks. A Drive Cancel allows you to cancel a special move mid-attack and go straight into another. When your Hyper Drive bar is full, you can enter Hyper Drive Mode which allows you, for a limited period, to carry out as many Drive Cancels as you wish, potentially leading to some insane multi-hit combination attacks. It is a superb system that harkens back to the Free Cancel system from The King of Fighters 2002.
MULTIPLAYER: Compared to its nightmarish predecessor, it is easy to play KOF XIII online. You can nip in and out of a room with no trouble at all, and I experienced only a tiny bit of lag when playing against players overseas, something perhaps to be expected. Like Street Fighter there is an option to turn random challengers on or off, and you can search for opponents based upon connectivity, location and suchlike. Unfortunately, there is no spectator option, but you can still use Training Mode whilst you are waiting for a bout to start, which gives you a feel of a boxer limbering up before a bout. Well, it did for me anyway.
LONGEVITY: XII was a travesty that contained only the bare minimum for you to do before you got bored, certainly from a single player standpoint. XIII brings the series firmly back on track and, as a package, has enough modes and extras to keep you involved for some time yet. As well as the standard Arcade, Survival, Time Attack and VS modes that are standard within the genre, there is also a Story mode that features branching, selectable paths through the game, whilst explaining via some pretty boring static cutscenes the crazy goings on of the confusing Ash Crimson saga. Some fans will love this, and with so many characters, corresponding Achievements, and an absolute stack of text and plot stuff to see, it is something that may well appeal to a certain type of KOF die-hard. For those who don’t fancy that, there is an excellent Mission mode, which challenges you to carry out specials and attack combinations for each of the thirty-odd cast of characters. Some of them are absolutely tough-as-nails to pull off, and will require some practise and determination; hardcore fight fans will love this. There is also an easy to follow tutorial mode that effectively explains the combat system to newcomers.
The Arcade and Story modes are not particularly testing on the out-of-the-box settings, and you can increase the difficulty if you wish. But beware, even on the lowest difficulty, the bosses you encounter at the end of each mode are as cheap as they come, completely overpowered behemoths that have super-reinforced vitality bars and a stupefying arsenal of attacks. I am not going to moan too much about this, however, as I have come to expect this after many years of being beaten senseless by the likes of Geese Howard or Rugal Bernstein. Indeed, the daughter of the latter acts as the organiser of this year’s tournament, thus reminding me of the many beatings her father inflicted upon me.
When you consider that other fighting franchises will charge you extra for downloadable costumes, it is a real treat that SNK Playmore have decided to include a raft of different costumes for each character, as well as a decent customisation option that allows you to create your own colour schemes for your favourite combatants. There are some amusing inclusions within the customisation options, such as the ability to make Raiden look like Hulk Hogan, dress Maxima up in a suit that apes Marvel’s Iron Man, and even some costumes that poke fun at other fighting games.
There are a raft of unlockable Achievements, gallery art, music, player pictures to customise your online profile card, and even some console-exclusive hidden characters. There is loads to do, and that is before you even consider what the online side of things brings to the table.
VERDICT: SNK Playmore have been trading on past glories now for quite a considerable length of time, with only a handful of success stories to speak of. It is heartening that they obviously saw what a disgrace their last King of Fighters was, and have fully rectified that with their best game to date. By a country mile this is the finest post-Playmore release, and the best, most expertly balanced, and accessible stab at the franchise since the rightfully well-regarded King of Fighters ’98. There are some new additions to the fighting system that make sense and will make the game less intimidating to newcomers, and kudos for at least trying to introduce a more fleshed out story mode, even if it is as mad as a bag of ferrets. As someone who owned a Neo Geo and has been playing classic SNK arcade games for many years, this game has rounded off what was already an excellent year for fighting games really rather nicely. A beautiful looking, silky smooth fighter, this one should be in every 2D fight fans’ stocking, so get writing to Santa, pronto!