Review: KOF Sky Stage (Xbox 360)

KOF Sky Stage
Genre: Traditional Shooter
Developer: Moss
Publisher: SNK Playmore
Release Date: 09/15/10

You would think that putting popular franchise characters into a goofy, inexpensive shooter as a cute nod to fans of the genre and your games would be, or would have been at least, a common thing, but such is not the case. To be honest, the only game I can think of off the top of my head to do this thing is Gunbird 2 with its appearance of Morrigan from Darkstalkers, and while I’m certain there are others, it’s hardly a common thing. This is a shame, as you would think that characters from games like Castlevania, Dead or Alive, Street Fighter and the various Megaten games, among many, many others, would make neat main characters in shooters, but such things never seem to come to pass. Leave it to SNK to commission such a game like KOF Sky Stage, a game based around the King of Fighters universe where you shoot at other fighters and various spacecrafts while unleashing special moves and other such sillyness. Astonishingly enough, as a ten dollar download, it’s pretty fantastic for fans of the King of Fighters franchise and shooters in general. While it’s not the best shooter ever made, it’s a great fanservice game that will scratch your shooter itch all the same.

The story here is that Orochi is awakening (yes, again), and six fighters have taken up the cause of shutting him down at the behest of Chizuru Kagura: Kyo Kusanagi, Mai Shiranui, Terry Bogard, Iori Yagami, Athena Asamiya, and Kula Diamond (thus placing the game prior to King of Fighters 2003, assuming this game is in-continuity). Now, this is pretty much a tailor made, “everyone gets together and fights it out” story that seems to need little actual exposition, but in an interesting twist, the developers have actually crammed in various bits of exposition for each character, between their pre-fight dialogue with bosses and their pre-stage monologues about the situation as a whole, giving the storyline a good bit more personality than it might have otherwise. Various old familiar faces show up to facilitate this, such as Omega Rugal, Orochi Iori, the Orochi Team from KOF ’97 and others, which only adds to the nostalgia factor for long-time fans while keeping the story interesting as it changes from character to character. The storylines aren’t super in-depth or anything, but they’re better than your standard shooter fare and they’ll likely make you interested enough to play through the game with more than one character, which is a good thing if nothing else.

The game looks pretty solid, though instead of using normal sprites ala most standard King of Fighters titles the game goes full 3D, which, while a bit surprising, ultimately isn’t all that noticeable. The character models are generally well animated all around and easily recognizable, both allied and enemy, and the various smaller enemies you’ll face look acceptable for a shooter, all in all. The different environments are also very nice to look at and drastically different from one another, though some stages use color palettes that tend to obscure enemy bullets a bit, which isn’t ideal in a game where bullets are filling the screen, though this doesn’t happen often.

The in-game audio, on the other hand, is something of a mixed bag. The music is solid, as one would expect from any shooter, and the sound effects sound fine all around. However, some of the voice actors sound like they were recast using native English speakers, which is odd for two reasons and annoying for one. The annoying reason is, I assume, obvious: they’re not especially exciting voice actors, and while they get the job done, they’re not superb or anything. The odd reasons are less obvious, however. For one thing, this is pretty much a game that’s going to appeal to King of Fighters fans, most of whom are, obviously, perfectly fine with the Japanese voices, considering they’ve been hearing them for over a decade now. For another, nobody bothered to recast Terry Bogard, so it’s odd hearing his regular voice actor alongside the redubbed actors, even if his acting is in English and all.

As this is a shooter, the mechanics of the game aren’t terribly hard to wrap your head around. You move the character around with the stick or the pad, and holding down the A button sprays bullets from your character onto the screen in whatever pattern the character uses. Each character has a different pattern, obviously, with some being more practical than others at various points. Each character also has a bomb they can use with the Y button, filling the screen with death and clearing it of bullets and weaker enemies as they go. The interesting gimmick of the game is the Super Attack system, which is surprisingly interesting and fits the theme nicely. Basically, your character has a three level Super Meter at the bottom of the screen that fills up on its own in a few seconds. By holding down the B button, you can use between one and three bars of the meter to perform various special actions, dependant on the character. This can be anything from a massive damage attack to a damage avoiding teleport to summoning copies of your character to shoot along with you, depending on the character, which makes each character more than just a bullet pattern. Since the bar is constantly refilling, you don’t even need to worry about doing something to charge it; by simply waiting a few seconds, it’s ready to go again. On the downside, you can’t attack while you charge it, which can be a problem in heavily populated sections, making it a solid risk/reward system that gives the game a fresh feeling all around. You can also taunt at the press of a button, which clears the screen of bullets, but then jacks out the bullet count, but also rewards you with additional medals, which award you points at the end of the stage should you get there intact, adding another interesting risk/reward factor to the game, which should please shooter fans all around.

The game features five levels and multiple bosses, depending on a few factors, making the game more than just a one-and-done shooter due to its variety overall. The game also offers off and online multiplayer action, allowing two players to take it to Orochi and his flunkeys with screen-filling shooting mayhem. There are also multiple settings to play around with, dictating the amount of health bar segments and bombs you can carry with you as well as the difficulty of the game overall. You can also start from any stage you’ve completed if you’re just looking to see all the endings, though. The game is also big on its high scores, as the game rewards you not only for your destruction of enemies, but also for collecting the aforementioned medals that fall out of enemies (with silver medals being worth the least, green medals being worth more, and gold medals being worth the most) and for “combos,” IE multiple enemies destroyed in succession. As such, you’re challenged not only to vaporize enemies efficiently, but also to collect as many medals as possible and to keep your combo chain going, which all combine to make the scoring system tough, but fair. There are online leaderboards you can use to track this thing, if you wish, whether you want to compete with friends or strangers to be the best, for fans of such a thing.

The biggest problem with KOF Sky Stage is that it’s fairly limited as an overall experience, even with the options noted. Compared to something like Deathsmiles, which features more than double the available stages, branching path options, and multiple endings per character, it’s not hard to feel like KOF Sky Stage isn’t as robust as it could have been. Now, granted, Deathsmiles is a full priced retail game, while KOF Sky Stage is an Xbox Live title that costs ten bucks, but this doesn’t change the fact that the game feels as though more could have been done with it than actually was. It also bears noting that the medal system is somewhat annoying in that medals collected during a stage are immediately lost the moment you take damage, meaning you’ll have to clear a stage without taking a hit to have the medals count. This is understandable, in that it rewards better players with higher scores for avoiding damage, but so should playing on a higher difficulty or maximizing your use of the taunt option. One hit stripping you of all the medals you collected seems kind of harsh all in all. It also bears noting that the game is somewhat on the low end of the balance scale, as even in practice difficulty, which is the easiest difficulty available, the game fills the screen with bullets constantly by about the third stage. Put simply, the game has no concept of “taking it easy” on the player, meaning that the more casual shooter fans out there will probably find the game a little… frustrating, let us say.

KOF Sky Stage is, for the price, worth every penny if you’re a fan of the King of Fighters series or shooters in general, as for ten dollars it gives you good bang for the buck. There’s a surprisingly solid story built into the game, the visuals are flashy and well designed, and the music and sound effects work nicely and fit the game well. The game is incredibly simple to play and learn, but between the Super Move system and the taunt option, there’s plenty of risk/reward elements to make the game more than just another shooter. With six characters to play as, each with their own positives and negatives, as well as multiple bosses to face, difficulty levels to conquer and options to set, both alone or with a friend, there’s a good amount of variety to the game for fans. The game doesn’t offer as much variety as some other shooters available for the system, however, and there are some difficulty concerns, between the less than balanced difficulty settings and the fact that one hit loses any medals you collect in the stage, that might put off less skilled players. For ten dollars, though, KOF Sky Stage is one of the better shooters available on XBLA, as it’s a fast and challenging shooter with interesting mechanics and charm to spare.

The Scores:
Story: GOOD
Graphics: GOOD
Sound: GOOD
Control/Gameplay: GREAT
Replayability: ABOVE AVERAGE
Balance: POOR
Originality: ABOVE AVERAGE
Addictiveness: ABOVE AVERAGE
Appeal: ABOVE AVERAGE
Miscellaneous: GOOD

FINAL SCORE: ENJOYABLE GAME.

Short Attention Span Summary:
KOF Sky Stage is a solid shooter that’s well worth the ten dollar asking price if you’re a fan of the King of Fighters series or shooters in general, though it’s not without its flaws. The story is surprisingly solid considering it’s basically a licensed shooter, the game looks rather nice all around and the music and sound effects sound great. The game is easy to play and offers enough unique elements to make it more than just another shooter, and between the multiple storylines, multiple bosses, on and offline multiplayer, various options to play with and online leaderboards, there’s a good amount of content to play with for fans of the genre and the series alike. That said, the visuals occasionally obscure the bullets, which is a major no-no in a game of this sort, and the English dub of the game is unexciting, if not horrendous. Further, the game feels somewhat lacking in depth, with only a handful of stages and no real branching paths or anything similar, and the game feels somewhat skewed towards being brutal between the bullet-hell nature of the game on even the lowest difficulty and the inability to keep collected medals unless you avoid any damage in a stage. KOF Sky Stage is certainly fun, and it’ll hold your interest for a while if you like the series or the genre for sure, but more casual fans may find this to be something they won’t have as much fun with as they’d want to, unfortunately.

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