The King of Fighters XIII
Developer: SNK Playmore
Release Date: 11/22/11
Two years ago, SNK Playmore brought us The King of Fighters XII, a game that was supposed to signal the rebirth and revitalization of the franchise, but instead nearly flushed it down the toilet. Boasting improved visuals for the next generation consoles, the game was visually and aurally sound, but between the massive regression in both character variety and character movesets, the reduced play options, the sloppy netcode and the sheer feeling that the game was an overpriced tech demo did the game no favors. Well, SNK seems to have taken those criticisms to heart, and while it falls to Atlus to bring the game to the States, The King of Fighters XIII seems, at first glance, no poorer for this thing. Featuring a larger character roster, an actual advancement to the plot, a larger depth of gameplay modes and some theoretically solid gameplay tuning, The King of Fighters XIII seems like everything its predecessor should have been and then some. All is not joy and sunshine, however, as some old flaws return to plague the game and some new issues rear their heads, but make no mistake: while not perfect, The King of Fighters XIII is both everything its predecessor should have been and a strong sign for the future of the franchise.
The King of Fighters XIII returns to and concludes the Ash Crimson storyline started back in The King of Fighters 2003, which left off officially in The King of Fighters XI with Ash having stolen Iori’s and Chizuru’s power, leaving only Kyo Kusanagi as the final obstacle in whatever plan he’s aiming to complete. Another game means another tournament, instigated by “R”Â once again, though while the symbolism is familiar, it’s another Bernstein behind the tournament: Rose, daughter of eternal pain Rugal, is the host of this year’s King of Fighters tournament. All is not as it seems, obviously, and Rose, Ash, Kyo and the rest are all smaller pawns in a much bigger game that, well, you’ll have to ruin a bunch of teams to see through to completion. Astonishingly, King of Fighters XIII has an actual in-depth storyline to it, not merely an Arcade Mode and a bunch of endings, which allows for a lot more plot exposition, and for the most part, what’s here isn’t bad. Ash is a pretty divisive character amongst the fanbase, but his plotline comes to a fairly satisfying ending here and ties up a lot of loose ends for the inevitable sequels, and the game ends on a pretty open note for the next game, whatever it may be. The game doesn’t simply add in a plot, however, as there are now a whole bunch more modes to play with. You’re offered an interactive Tutorial to learn the basics, the standard Arcade and Versus modes to fight the CPU and local friends, the aforementioned Story Mode and Xbox Live play so you can take it to online opponents in Ranked or Player Matches or check your standings on the Leaderboards. You can also save and download replays of fights to study and review, plow through Mission Mode, which offers Time Attack, Survival and Trial options, fill up the Gallery with images by playing through the game, and customize your character colors as you see fit. To sum up, OH YES there are a lot more options here than in The King of Fighters XII, and right off the bat, we’re already batting at a much higher average.
As with its predecessor, the visuals and the audio in The King of Fighters XIII are basically fantastic. Visually, King of Fighters XIII still looks basically fantastic 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. The weird light sourcing effect from the prior game is also a lot less noticeable, and while it still seems to pop up here and there, it’s a lot less awkward and noticeable, to the extent that it’s either no longer in play or done much better. The character designs from the prior game are once again in play, for both old and new characters, and for the most part, the redesigns are winners, though not always. Most of the cast has remained unchanged from prior games or has changed for the better (Vice, Mature, Elisabeth, Kyo), though redesigns from the prior game that were, frankly, stupid looking then (Leona, Athena) look no better now, and Mai’s bent-over pose is just goofy (though, I suppose, accurate, given the kind of damage her chest is likely doing to her back). Additionally, nine of the characters feature additional costumes that can be accessed with the Back button while choosing their color, and while only a couple are obviously different (Kyo gets his school uniform back, Elisabeth beings back the cleavage), they’re all fine additions that celebrate the franchise history. Aurally, the game once again 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 in The King of Fighters XIII only offers a Japanese language track this time around, which is fine in the sense that the English voices weren’t amazing and it helps keep the cost down, but disappointing in the sense that the voices weren’t bad either, and it would have been nice to have the option. Still, most of the Japanese voice work is either from the original game cast or close enough that it hardly matters, so fans will approve, at least.
So, in case you’ve never played a King of Fighters title before, let’s borrow the description I’ve been using for them from the past few reviews: 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 XIII 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, Mai and Athena have you covered, to a point. 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 XIII 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.
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 XIII, 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. While you can use Story Mode as a way to adjust to the teams as they’re formed, since you can’t change up your teams there, you’ll find that in all other modes you can customize your team as you see fit, so Story Mode is a good way, along with Practice Mode, of testing characters when you have to, but eventually you’ll likely be mix and matching teams with little trouble. 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 XIII 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).
Now, King of Fighters XIII basically is its own brand new game from its predecessor in the sense that a lot of the mechanical changes made in the prior game were ripped out almost entirely and replaced with mechanical changes that are both more familiar and, frankly, less annoying. Critical Counters and attack cancels are gone entirely, while the EX system, Drive Cancels, and Hyper Drive were added, and the game is better overall for it. The EX system can basically be described as “Darkstalkers specials”Â; by doing a special or super move motion and pressing BOTH attack buttons you will burn an additional bar from the super meter (defined as ONE for EX Specials and TWO for EX Supers), and deal extra damage with the regular move. Drive Cancels and Super Cancels are exactly what they sound like: you can cancel from one special or super move into another, allowing for additional combo options. Further, the Hyper Drive system fills a second gauge above the super bar in the normal “take/receive damage”Â fashion, and when full, you can burn it to go into Hyper Drive mode, allowing Drive Cancel options that aren’t normally viable, and further allowing for massive combos in a short period of time. The game also adds a multilevel super bar mechanic similar to that of King of Fighters “Ëœ97 and beyond, where the super bar maxes out at three levels to start, but each teammate you lose adds one to the maximum level. Finally, in addition to the standard super moves, characters now all have NEO MAX supers that burn three bars and deal massive damage, and as an added bonus, with enough super bars stocked, you can cancel from a super into a NEO MAX super if you’re so inclined for big damage.
Arcade Mode, as in the prior game, sees you blow through a series of matches, to get to the end, but now grades you on several categories for scoring, and offers up Target Actions for you to complete, such as “perform a Drive Cancel”Â or “hit a special move”Â which give you added bonuses in battle. Each match also features little conversations between opponents now, which is cute, though it doesn’t affect anything. There’s still no boss battle to complete in Arcade Mode this time around, but you can potentially earn fights against Ash, Sakai and Billy Kane depending on how you perform at least. Story Mode is basically a sequence of storyline events that you can make a couple of minor choices during, and this is the only mode with true boss battles (two of them, in fact), though it’s a lot more rigid than Arcade Mode and once you clear it out you’ll likely go back to Arcade Mode. Versus Mode is the same as ever, allowing two players to battle it out in single or team matches locally, and Online is also mostly similar, though Arcade Matches have been excised in favor of the simple Ranked or Player Matches one would expect. Mission Mode, however, is expanded significantly; while you can take on missions for the different characters if you want to learn their more intricate combos, you can also jump into Time Attack to see how fast you can clear enemies or Survival Mode to see how long you can go against the CPU, both of which are excellent additions that immediately add more to the single player experience from the start. The options to save and view replays, check player stats and view online leaderboards are nice for those who like to step up their game, and they’re fun to fool around with even if you’re not a tournament level player. The Gallery and character color palette customization options are also pretty novel and, while they’re unlikely to keep you hooked, they are cute and add variety to the game. The game also features a much expanded roster of thirty three characters (thirty one unlocked, two hidden) and announcements of two fan favorite DLC characters, “Iori with the power of flames”Â (AKA Normal Iori) and “Nests Saga Kyo”Â (AKA technically Orochi Saga Kyo, but whatever), as well as a fairly expansive amount of Achievements to clear, giving fighting game fans their money’s worth and then some.
Unfortunately, we’re then stuck coming back to the “except for the fact that online play is painful”Â discussion, because as with its predecessor, King of Fighters XIII has some pretty painful netcode. Now, if you’re jumping into a three or four bar match you SHOULD be able to play a match against someone easily, but those match-ups aren’t frequent (and, again, I’m speaking as someone using open NAT on a high speed FIOS connection), and two bar connections and below feature some OBVIOUS and PAINFUL lag issues. The online experience isn’t AS bad as in the prior game, but it’s still really hurtful given various other online fighting games on the market and how well they respond, comparatively, and while Atlus is promising this will be fixed sooner or later, it’s a problem now. Further, while it’s nice that the roster has increased significantly, why are we in a position where the characters still play like older versions of themselves? It’s great that we’re getting the updated version of Kyo, even if it’s five dollar DLC, but many of the characters are still using old and awkward control styles or using older movesets. King still has Double Strike as a super instead of a normal move, Terry is still missing Power Dunk, Mai is basically working with a stripped down moveset, and after the numerous improvements we’ve seen in the characters up to King of Fighters XII it really seems like more could have been done to bring the characters back to where they were instead of where they were ten years ago. Also, the actual missions in Mission Mode are significantly less friendly than in something like, say, Marvel vs. Capcom 3, starting you out with multi-hit combos that are a pain from the get-go instead of simple combos that work up to more advanced concepts. Oh, and as a final note, the game should also probably use more universal terminology when discussing certain things, as it will instruct you to use a Desperation Move in Target Actions but won’t reference what this means (super move) in the command list or the manual. This is fine for experienced players who have seen the term before, but for new players, it’s annoying and frustrating.
King of Fighters XIII, even with its flaws, is a major improvement over its predecessor, and while it’s not quite at the level where it can universally compete with other top-tier franchises just yet, it’s certainly getting there, at the very least, thanks to some excellent additions all around and some ultimately beneficial mechanical changes. The storyline actually reaches a resolution for the Ash Crimson saga here, and the game does more with it than simply explain it in team endings, and between this and the addition of several useful single player modes on top of the solid multiplayer modes from the prior game, there’s some solid variety the game needed from the start. The visuals and audio are as clean and solid as ever, and the gameplay feels as solid as it ever did but is backed up by some strong mechanical changes that make the game feel like a big improvement over its predecessor. There’s a good amount of content to the game, from the larger character roster to the new modes and unlockables, as well as the promise of DLC that’s either already available or in the works, to keep the game in your console for a while as well. The netcode for the game is problematic, unfortunately, and while a patch is on the way, for the moment the game is still a bear to play online except against those with the best possible connections. The game also still features characters with nerfed movesets that feel like a big step backwards from earlier games in the series, the Mission Mode missions are unfriendly to new players, and the game uses inconsistent terminology at times that makes for some weird moments for new players. Once the netcode is patched, King of Fighters XIII will likely be much easier to recommend, but at the moment it’s still a massive improvement and a good indication that the series is heading in the right direction again, and genre and franchise fans will have a lot more fun with this game than King of Fighters XII.
The Scores: Story/Game Modes: GREAT
Balance: ABOVE AVERAGE
Originality: ABOVE AVERAGE
FINAL SCORE: GOOD GAME.
Short Attention Span Summary: King of Fighters XIII shows that SNK paid attention to the critics of the prior entry in the series, and while it’s still got some noticeable flaws, it’s a significant improvement over King of Fighters XII in almost every way that matters. The Ash Crimson storyline wraps up here in solid fashion, in a way that the franchise hasn’t really tried until now with a devoted Story Mode, and a bunch of added single player content is attached to the game from the start to improve the experience from the get go. The visuals and audio are still strong this time around, and the game is mechanically similar to prior franchise entries, but features several new mechanics and the removal of less useful mechanics to make for a game that’s generally better to play all around. There’s also a strong amount of content to the game, from the larger roster to the added modes to the unlockable Achievements and promise of DLC, and anyone who wants their fighting games a little more robust will find that King of Fighters XIII has your hook up here, if nothing else. The netcode in the game is presently unpleasant, though, leaving players with anything less than a great connection fighting against heavy lag, and while a patch is on the way, for the time being the game is hard to really enjoy online. Further, some of the characters still feel nerfed compared to prior versions of the same characters, the Mission Mode missions are hard to step up to and could have used some “easing in”Â for new players, and the game mixes terminology in ways that will be confusing for new players. Once the netcode is fixed up, King of Fighters XIII will be a much easier game to recommend, but as it is, it’s still a major step up from the prior game and a good fighting game overall for fans of the genre and the franchise to drop their cash on.
Mark B. is the Senior Editor at Diehard GameFAN, mostly because he’s been on staff for a decade. He has previously written for 411Games, InsidePulse Games, Not a True Ending, Retrograding and Beyond the Threshold, and he maintains multiple infrequent columns, as well as a Hitbox stream on Saturdays. You can check out his archives and non-game related work over at markbwriting.com, and follow him on Twitter at MarkBWriting or Facebook at MarkBWriting. (Special thanks to J. Rose for the artwork.)