Review: The King of Fighters XII (Microsoft Xbox 360)

The King of Fighters XII
Genre: Fighting
Developer: SNK Playmore
Publisher: SNK Playmore
Release Date: 07/24/09


King of Fighters is one of those franchises that has managed, despite the fact that the games generally don’t change much from one iteration to the next and the fact that there are something like a hundred different games in the series, to maintain a fairly strong fanbase throughout the about fifteen years of its existence. In the interest of full disclosure, I admit openly that I consider myself to be a part of that fanbase; while I am in no way equipped to play the games competitively, I spent the better part of a month in the arcade at my college working over King of Fighters ’97 until I could beat the game with nearly any team I chose, and I imported the Saturn version of the game for the express purpose of not having to drop quarters into an arcade cabinet whenever I wanted to rip into Orochi. I confess this for two reasons. First, because I want it to be known that when King of Fighters XII was announced, I was ecstatic. The series has needed a visual overhaul for years now, and the announcement that we’d be receiving a game with all new character models was long overdue and incredibly welcome. With Guilty Gear caliber visuals backing the solid mechanics of the franchise, hey, how could they go wrong? The announcement of the character roster, though a little disappointing, was still okay; we’re missing a lot of franchise characters, like K’, Mai, Shingo and King, sure, but there are a lot of old mainstays on the roster too, like Kyo, Iori, Terry and Athena, so it’s not like there aren’t ANY good characters in the game, right? The visuals looked slick, the promise of online play was seriously tempting, and it looked like the die hard fans of the franchise were about to have their wishes granted.

King of Fighters XII, unfortunately, is a game that exists to fulfill the exact opposite of those expectations: it is a game that would have, were everything fully functional, been most impressive to newcomers, as it’s a serious step backwards in complexity and design from the last several games. Further, let us note the “would have” above as a bit of foreshadowing for things to come, as everything is most definitely NOT “fully functional”. Make no mistake here: King of Fighters XII should have been the game to revitalize the franchise, but as it stands, it might well be the game that ENDS it.

So, the King of Fighters franchise does have a story, but this specific game almost completely exists without mentioning it, and if you wanted to know what in the hell was going on with the story here you’d have to spend about three hours poking around the internet trying to figure out all of the events leading up to the game, which it actually refuses to ever mention at any point. So, yeah, no story. Now, as King of Fighters ’98 Ultimate Match showed us, you needn’t have a story in your fighting game so long as there are a bunch of neat modes and gimmicks to keep the game fresh, so showing that they learned from the awesomeness that was the above game, SNK decided that King of Fighters XII shouldn’t do that. You get Arcade Mode, Versus Mode, Training Mode, and Online Mode, and nothing else. The modes are all fairly standard; Versus Mode allows you to play single or team battles against friends, Online Mode allows you to fight in Arcade, Ranked or Player battles, and Training allows you to train your skills as needed, though for some odd reason, Arcade Mode only supports team play, so you can’t just play through it in one-on-one fights. King of Fighters XII is a bit disappointing, mode-wise, compared to its predecessors, as there are no real fun and exciting features, no Challenge or Survival modes, and frankly, no modes at all aside from those four and an Art Gallery that you’ll spend exactly thirty seconds looking at. The modes in the game are functional, certainly, but it’s fairly bare-bones as far as next-gen fighting games are concerned, and unfortunately, this is a trend that continues on for about the whole game.

One area where the trend doesn’t apply is the presentation, as the visuals and the audio are both stellar. Visually, King of Fighters XII looks outstanding in every way imaginable. The character sprites are fluid and lifelike, and there’s a significant amount of detail in their movements and animations that make the fights come alive on-screen. The special move effects are bright and lively and bring some serious excitement to the battles, and the backgrounds are also well animated and colorful. On the other hand, the game has this odd fixation with accurate light sourcing on the sprites, so as characters move in and out of light sources their shading and colors will fluctuate; while this surprisingly realistic, it also looks weird, and some more tweaking might be needed on the effect. Many of the character models are redesigned for this game, though some designs work better than others; Kyo, for example, looks perfectly fine, and Iori looks as imposing as ever, even without the belt around his knees. Athena, on the other hand, looks like a bland anime character in a sailor suit, Leona’s new outfit essentially seems to be designed to point out that she has boobs, and characters like Kim and Goro, who could have used a redesign, are essentially rocking the same duds for no adequately explained reason, which is disappointing. Aurally, the game has some strong, energetic tunes that are fun to listen to while fighting it out, and the sound effects are as powerful and painful (in a good way) as ever. The voice work also deserves special mention, as King of Fighters XII comes with both an English and Japanese language track option. The Japanese track features the same voice talent as prior games in the series (or a reasonable facsimile), for the most part, and they’re as stellar as ever, and the English track is generally pretty solid for those who enjoy that sort of thing. Sadly, there’s no option to customize voices by character, like in Street Fighter IV, but the fact that there are multiple voice options is welcome, if nothing else.

So, in case you’ve never played a King of Fighters title before, here’s the gist: the simplest way one can describe it is as such: imagine Street Fighter, with four buttons, different strategies, and teams of three fighters, and that’s the most basic explanation one can give. King of Fighters XII more or less follows that tradition; if you’ve played a 2D fighting game in your life, you can figure out reasonably quickly how it works. You’re given two strong and weak punches and kicks to work with, and aside from the standard combos that can be strung together with those, all of the characters have their own special and Desperation (super) moves to work with. If you’re a Ken and Ryu fan, Ryo, Robert, Terry, Andy and Kyo should fit you okay. Like Guile? Kim, Leona, or Ash might do you fine. More of a Zangief fan? Try Goro or Raiden. Love Chun-Li? Benimaru and Athena have you covered (that was the closest I could come up with, sorry). This is not to say that these characters are identical maps of the mentioned Street Fighter counterparts so much as it is to say that they fit into similar play styles; the characters in King of Fighters XII all have their own unique and interesting ways that they can be played, and part of the fun is finding the characters you work best with, and with sixty-four characters, well, you’ve got a lot of options.

The three-on-three team aspect is a big part of what makes any King of Fighters game work as well as it does, however; in King of Fighters XII, you put together a team of three fighters to do battle against one another, and when one team member is eliminated, you move to the next one. At first, this is a simple matter of simply assembling a team of three members who you happen to like, but the longer you play the more of a mental chess game the experience becomes, to the point where you pick out characters because of what sort of opposition they can shut down and counter as much as you pick them because of their play style. There’s a significant amount of strategy involved in picking characters, not just for their effectiveness, but for their effectiveness against others, as it’s generally not a good idea to bring someone slow in against someone with projectiles and speed who can dodge around them and shut them down, unless you’re really skilled, for instance. King of Fighters XII also retains a lot of the techniques from similar games, such as Emergency Evasion (dodging, essentially), Fallbreakers (recovery when falling to the ground), and Super Special Moves (formerly known as Desperation Moves).

King of Fighters XII does a few things its own way, of course, and the most notable change to the mechanics here is the Critical Counter system. Essentially, as you strike back and forth, the Critical Counter meter near your life meter fills, and when it maxes out, it glows green and begins to count down. During this time, if you counter attack an enemy, IE you hit them as they’re trying to hit you without pressing any directions, you stun them and can unleash a chain combo on them for a few seconds. This isn’t quite crippling, but with good timing, a good Critical Counter can turn the tide of battle. There are other smaller differences here and there, like the ability to cancel an attack with an attack of the same power level (meaning that, yes, you can punch a fireball to break it), for example, that hardcore fans will find to be new and interesting, as they add a new dimension to the gameplay. The game mechanics are also a good bit streamlined from earlier titles; you only have one SSM bar to charge at a time, most of the characters have been reverted to their King of Fighters “Ëœ95 movesets (unless such a thing didn’t exist, in which case they were reverted to some other style) or have entirely new movesets, and most of the more complicated mechanics from prior games (Strikers, Extra mode, Tag matches, teammate relationships) have been excised entirely, leaving King of Fighters XII focused on the three-on-three team bat les between the characters and nothing else.

Arcade Mode, as noted, sees you blow through a series of five matches to earn the lowest completion time; there’s no bosses or gimmick rounds of any sort to deal with, and the mode is essentially meant as a basic team VS CPU mode more than anything else, as there’s no option to play with a single character here either. Versus Mode is your standard local multiplayer, featuring either single or team matches, so if you’re looking for a one-on-one match, you can do this here. Online, as noted previously, offers the option to play Arcade Matches, Ranked Matches, and Player Matches. Arcade Mode tracks your success with Battle Points, which are essentially earned in large amounts for wins and small amounts for losses, and you can play single or team matches. Player Matches are for fun, affect nothing, and can be played in single or team matches. Ranked Matches earn you True Skill points, which are based on a complex algorithm designed to effectively determine your ability as a player. There are a bunch of 360 games, including BlazBlue and Halo 3, that use this metric, so if you’re familiar with those, you have the right idea. These matches are team matches only, and enforce strict settings to ensure identical conditions (in other words, no changing the round time, for instance). Though King of Fighters XII lacks a lot of the modes of its predecessors, there’s still a good amount to do with the game if you want to play against friends or online, so you’ll have… well, okay, if you want to play against friends locally or against the CPU, you’ll have some reason to come back. Online, not so much.

See, King of Fighters XII’s single biggest flaw, above and beyond everything else that’s wrong with the game (and there’s a lot) is that the online play, as fabulous as it WOULD be on its own, is absolutely destroyed by some severe lag issues. Now, okay, personally, I can understand that conditions are not always going to be optimal when playing online; people have different settings on their systems, and after spending the better part of an hour trying to play Virtua Fighter 5 online against Bebito, I am fully aware that sometimes things just don’t work. That said, I have a FiOS package that allows for transmission speeds that can best be described as “blazing fast”. If the person I’m playing against is showing as having a good connection, there SHOULD NOT be five second stalls in the middle of matches, and the match should not be chopping up faster than a lumberjack on speed, okay? This is a technical issue on the software side of things, period. On the 360 alone I’ve played Marvel vs. Capcom 2, King of Fighters ’98 Ultimate Match, Soul Calibur 4, Street Fighter IV, Battle Fantasia, and Virtua Fighter 5 online, and not a single one has had problems like King of Fighters XII. In its present state, the online component is outright horrendous and borderline unplayable, and until this is fixed (assuming it’s EVER fixed) it’s best assumed the game doesn’t even HAVE online play, so, yeah, you’re paying $60 for a game with Arcade and Versus play.

Next, let’s talk about the characters. Now, complaints have been made about the low roster, when compared to older King of Fighters titles, but this is hardly a fair complaint by itself; twenty two characters is a solid roster, and hey, compared to most of the Arc System Works games released in the past few years it’s downright robust. Further, it’s entirely reasonable that a lot of characters who were fan favorites might be left out because 1.) you need to give fans a reason to come back for the next game and 2.) with a smaller roster someone will have to be cut, so that’s not unfair. That said, why in the hell does everyone play like they did fifteen years ago? Didn’t we evolve past this? Why are we missing so many moves from characters who have had these moves for nigh on a decade now? Kyo Kusanagi has used chained punches, an arcing kick and two finishers for over a decade now, so why, exactly, did we need to devolve the character to a version that hasn’t been the primary one for more than ten years now? What was the purpose of stripping Terry Bogard of the Power Dunk, one of his more useful moves? Why does Joe Higashi’s Slash Kick suddenly have huge priority? Also, while I understand the storyline concept behind changing up Iori’s moveset, and I get that Kensou was a joke and making him a major threat wasn’t going to offend anyone, you could have accomplished the same thing by adding in new characters and leaving the old characters alone for the FANS of those characters. And don’t give me that “they’ve done it before” garbage; Kyo Kusanagi changed after about two games of being in existence, and only about half of his moveset changed, but Iori is almost an entirely different character here, for better or worse, and you didn’t even need to strip out two of his moves to make the character work, so at least returning players could have had a baseline to start from. This also doesn’t excuse why Mature, a character who’s had a pretty robust moveset in prior iterations, has TWO MOVES in this game, neither of which is especially interesting, when there was no reason to change her in the first place.

The new mechanics that have been added to the game also feel like they’re structured in such a way as to completely direct the focus of the player to defensive, rather than offensive, play, which feels antithetical to the way King of Fighters games have normally played. Now, Emergency Evade is nothing new, but the Critical Counter system and the ability to cancel attacks with an attack of the same power level make it more productive than ever to turtle your way to victory, especially with characters like Leona and Ash, whose moves are charge-based. It’s not even like these systems, by themselves, are BAD, but in concert and with nothing to balance them out, they make it very easy for a player of reasonable skill to play super-defensive, picking and choosing their spots to whittle down an opponent until time runs out (and since you can’t turn round time off, that’s ALWAYS a possibility). Considering how many good, balanced systems have been in the King of Fighters games over the years, it’s disappointing to see the game tuned in such a way as to favor one style of play over all others. Oh, and as a side note, at one point I ended up observing an Online match while testing Online play, and after two solid minutes of trying to leave, discovered that there was simply no way that I could find to do so without quitting to the dashboard, which is annoying by itself, but in this case it’s simply another annoying problem thrown onto a mountain of other, MORE annoying problems.

Frankly, as a tech demo King of Fighters XII is a solid product that shows off the improved visual style of the series and retains the solid controls the games are known for, but as a full-priced game, it’s simply too shallow, too primitive and too flawed to be worth investing any time or money in. The game looks and sounds great, and the actual controls are responsive, as they should be. The characters are generally easy enough to pick up and learn, so casual players or fans of the whole series should be able to figure out how things work without much issue. There’s no reason to want to do so, however, as there are very few modes to play through in the game, and the most interesting mode of the lot, Online, is so glitchy and choppy that it’s not even worth testing until a patch comes out, assuming it ever does. Further, while the character roster is decent, the characters themselves are either reverted to older versions so primitive they might as well be rendered as cave paintings or so changed as to be unrecognizable, and several of the characters are leaps and bounds better or worse than everyone else, cutting the already unimpressive-by-franchise-standards roster down even more. The new play mechanics added to this game also redefine the focus of the series, making it far easier to turtle your way to victory than ever before, and with most of the other mechanics that have defined the franchise over the years stripped from this game, the end result is a game that’s mechanically designed to reward methodical, defensive play over anything else, which FURTHER tips the balance of power in favor of certain characters above others. Basically, even with a functional online component and free downloadable characters, King of Fighters XII would be an unbalanced and unexciting, but quite pretty, fighting game, but as it is now, it’s essentially an overpriced tech demo that features tons of style, little substance, and lots of flaws.

The Scores:
Story/Game Modes: MEDIOCRE
Graphics: GREAT
Sound: GREAT
Control/Gameplay: GOOD
Replayability: BAD
Balance: POOR
Originality: POOR
Addictiveness: BAD
Appeal: POOR
Miscellaneous: WORTHLESS

FINAL SCORE: BELOW AVERAGE GAME.

Short Attention Span Summary:
King of Fighters XII was originally heralded as the rebirth of the King of Fighters franchise due to its massive visual redesign, but thanks to some lacking mechanics and a broken online mechanic, it may well be the undoing of it instead. On the plus side, the presentation is outstanding, the controls are as tight and functional as ever, there’s a decent roster of characters in general and the game mechanics are easy enough to learn and understand. However, there’s a dearth of gameplay modes, online play is buggy and choppy, the characters are primitive compared to any of their versions in the last ten years or so completely changed as to not even be the same characters, and the game has been stripped of most of the mechanics that have made prior games interesting. The new mechanics added to the game, though interesting, combine to essentially favor defensive play, and this combined with some noticeable balance issues that make some characters powerhouses while other characters are practically useless leaves King of Fighters XII as a very pretty, very messy game. Only the most diehard of franchise fans will find this to be worth the asking price; everyone else can either safely pass it by or pick it up in six months when it’s both more affordable and, hopefully, patched.

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