Developer: SNK Playmore
Publisher: SNK Playmore and Ignition Entertainment
Also on: Xbox 360
Console Played on: PlayStation 3
Release Date: Friday September 25th 2009
Age Rating: PEGI 12
Now in its 15th year, as the back of the box proudly proclaims, The King of Fighters is still living in the shadow of its glorious 1998 offering. By 2007, with the launch of XI, the game had become a compendium of contrasting fighting styles and confusing techniques, with only the most ardent of players able to understand its many complexities. Mirroring the seminal Street Fighter IV, which pared back the series to entice new players, SNK’s reboot of the franchise opts to simplify and refine the experience.
The main draw here is the redrawn, high-definition sprites. This is no small feat, as the series has previously recycled the same sprites for fifteen years, and SNK do their best to remind the player of their hard work at every opportunity. The cost of the redesign is that there’s now only 22 fighters in the roster – the lowest ever for the series – and fan favourites like antsy antihero K’ and buxom Mai Shiranui are nowhere to be seen, although most other series stars make an appearance. There’s the obligatory inclusion of iconic rivals Kyo Kusanagi and Iori Yagami, as well as effeminate current poster boy Ash Crimson alongside regulars Benimaru Nikaido, Terry Bogard, Clark Still and Ryo Sakazaki amongst others. They’re all lovingly detailed, and the 2D style is hardly lacking in pixelated charm, but in an age of splendid 3D it feels like SNK’s stubborn reticence is making things harder than it has to be.
Even worse, there are only six stages to choose from, and one is just a night-time version of another. Much like with the characters, all backgrounds are lovingly, and belligerently, crafted in 2D, with most of them using clever tricks to imitate the third dimension. Nice, but ultimately limited.
Commonly discarded as a poor man’s Street Fighter, the reality is that SNK’s technical fighter demands the player adapt a different mindset than they would with anything from Capcom’s mighty stables. As a series it’s never quite taken off outside of Japan, with Street Fighter so ingrained within our collective psyche that even seasoned fighting game players often turn away from SNK’s flagship fighter. Despite SNK’s best intentions, King of Fighters XII is unlikely to change anything.
This is a bit of a shame. The King of Fighters is a spectacular fighting game. It’s faster than Street Fighter, for a start, with characters able to dash across the screen, and the attacks are generally faster. This encourages a very offensive style of play. Plus you’ve got the combos: blue-haired mercenary Leona Heidern, for instance, can perform a heavy jump-in punch, followed by a heavy standing punch and then her heavy Moon Slasher. This is a fairly standard bread-and-butter combo that does a good chunk of damage, with a similar alternative that can be achieved with a couple of crouching light kicks and a light punch before the Moon Slasher finale.
Granted, similar combos also provide the substantial bulk of Street Fighter, but The King of Fighters XII’s heavy aerial focus, with characters routinely performing speedy hops across small portions of the screen as well as super jumps, ensures that opportunities for maximum punishment need to be taken whenever possible. Low-tier Street Fighter players can happily ignore technical combos, slowly working them into their repertoire as they progress up the ranks, but King of Fighters XII requires them to be mastered before you even put the disc in the drive. While XII might be more accessible than XI, it’s still far more difficult out of the box than the other fighters on the market.
XII retains the staple 3-on-3 gameplay that made up the original games, disinheriting the tag ability adopted in the previous two games. After picking a group of three – and unlike previous years, XII doesn’t sort its characters into suggested teams – you simply pick the order you want them to fight in. Then you fight until you’ve battered the other team into annihilation. Whilst this might be a faithful homage to series roots, notably the ever-popular KoF 98’, it feels regressive when compared to other team-based fighters.
Whilst an arcade stick is still the preferred method for combat, the game’s 4-button system (light and heavy variants of punches and kicks) means a standard controller is more than adequate. Special moves are largely what you’d expect, a combination of timed charge moves and quarter/half circle rotations, but the game’s fiddly supers involve complex rotations of far greater difficulty than commonplace double quarter circle movements. Pressing both light attacks results in a roll, an evasive manoeuvre which proves dangerous in the right hands, and jabbing both heavy attacks pulls off a new Blow Back attack, which instantly crumples an opponent if charged – similar to Street Fighter IV’s Focus attacks, but without the ability to absorb an attack.
There’s a few more whistles and bells to complement the grand argy-bargy. A Critical Counter system charges when giving or receiving damage, and when maxed out gives the user the ability to chain any of their attacks together for a limited period of time after countering a special attack with a crouching heavy punch/kick. If you end a critical counter with a super you can easily notch up some massive, devastating combos.
In a further attempt to keep everything simple, most characters have been scaled back to their pre-KoF 96’ movesets, with Duo Lon and Iori receiving new – and significantly different – fighting styles. Fans of Terry Bogard will be distressed to find out his Power Dunk is missing in action, and Kim’s more advanced chains have been removed entirely. The spartan approach to specials means there’s more reliance on staple pokes, jabs and command moves, ultimately making it easier for new players to understand the technicalities of the game. Which is a very good thing.
I still want the Power Dunk, though.
Elsewhere, there’s not much going on. The ‘Arcade Mode’ is nothing more than a flimsy five stage time trial with two awful FMV cutscenes that try and convince you that it’s all really very exciting. There’s no hard-as-nails boss to get frustrated at, and no survival mode to keep you occupied. There’s also no storyline, with SNK opting to make the game a ‘Dream Match’ to excuse themselves from narrative duties.
The worst feature, however, is the inexcusably poor online mode. Awful netcode ensures the game is dead on arrival, and SNK have promised patches but failed to deliver. It’s baffling how such a necessary component arrives in such a mess, especially when considering that virtually perfect netcode system GGPO was coded by one man in his spare time. It’s a real shame, especially when glancing at ace-sounding online features such as 3-on-3 clan battles. Without a proper online mode, you’re left with the woeful single-player options unless you happen to stumble upon a group of friends who want to play the game. And what, honestly, are the chances of that?
Final Thoughts: Whilst Street Fighter IV feels like an accomplished game in its own right, King of Fighters XII ends up feeling like a platform for future titles. It’s a skeletal offering that highlights the robust, endearing fighting engine, but fails to deliver on anything else. If King of Fighters XII is the rebirth for the series, let’s hope it sorts itself out in its formative years.
Gameplay – 8: There’s a solid, technical fighting engine here that’s, thankfully, been well realised. It’s a shame there’s not a few more characters to appreciate it with.
Graphics – 7: The 2D look won’t suit everybody, but fans of two dimensions will be glad to see it presented in such loving detail.
Sound – 6: Like the rest of the game, there’s not much of a soundtrack to be had. The music is functional, but unremarkable.
Overall – 7: A quality fighting game marred by a lack of features and an abysmal online mode. The King of Fighters XII feels like a missed opportunity.