The King of Fighters XII
Rebirth. That’s what The King of Fighters XII is all about. Getting back to the basics, reliving the glory days of the fighting genre. Remembering what made the series kick ass. A large ensemble cast divided into teams of three, all competing in one of the most epic crossover tournaments ever conceived. All kinds of flashy special attacks and technical aspects to master. The thrill of barely surviving each match, testing your skills and tactical prowess with every passing bout. The feeling of satisfaction which only comes with defeating a ridiculously overpowered boss, and frantically shoving another quarter into the arcade machine when you failed. It was intense and competitive, but that’s what made it so fun. The King of Fighters XII was designed to recapture that kind of experience, but on a whole new level; by bringing the series to the new generation of consoles, SNK had the opportunity to demonstrate just how awesome their fighting games could be…
And they failed.
A quick glimpse at the playable character roster will give you a glimmer of what’s to come. 22 fighters, all of them depicted with stunning hand-drawn detail. Veterans of the series ought to get nostalgia pangs from some of the potential lineups; not only do you get series mascots like Kyo, Iori, and Terry, but quite a few of the retro characters as well. Leona, Goro, and Andy Bogard are finally back in action, and others – the Ikari Warriors and Sie Kensou in particular – have been undergone a design overhaul. Not to mention Ash Crimson and his former crew. But while that’s all well and good, some of the other choices are a little strange. The game is supposed to be a dream match; despite numerous references, it doesn’t continue the story established in the previous titles. SNK could have included anyone from the series, but they still managed to screw it up. Where is Mai? You know, the most iconic female character in the entire canon? Why did we get Raiden, when Geese would have worked so much better? The relatively small roster is understandable given the amount of time and cost needed to craft each character (not to mention potential downloadable content), but at least include the ones that actually deserve to be there.
By the way, hardcore fans: There’s no Rugal. Or any boss character at all, for that matter. No, I’m not kidding. There is no boss in this game. It’s kind of ironic, considering how SNK is infamous for its awesome final battles. The lack of a boss demonstrates how rushed and incomplete the Arcade Mode is. Rather than treating you to tons of fights, hidden characters, and underlying challenges, it falls back on a more archaic design. It follows the traditional rules of the older games: you make a team of three fighters, choose the order in which they take part in the upcoming battle, and duke it out elimination style. Five rounds later, and the game is over. While it’s a tried and true approach, it seems outdated compared to the tag-team combat mechanics from The King of Fighters XI. The game would have been amazing if there was an option for it. Instead, the Arcade Mode boils down to a glorified Time Attack Mode; rather than trying to beat a high score, you’ll spend your time trying to complete each fight in the fastest ways possible. It’s an interesting twist on a usually bland feature. It gives you an incentive to learn more about the characters you use; by spending your time figuring out which moves and combos work best, you’ll develop your tactical skills and get a better understanding of how the mechanics work.
There’s a lot to learn, too. The basics are easy to pick up; the buttons correspond to light or heavy punches and kicks. Pressing in certain directions, however, might let your character unleash projectiles, multi-hit combos, forward dashes, anti-aerial assaults, and a handful of other crazy stunts. While they are impressive, it’s worth noting how truncated some of the movesets are. Many of the characters have lost some of their best moves; Kyo has practically reverted to his old ‘94 tactics, and Robert seems more like Ryo than he has in years. It’s disappointing, considering how varied and complex the movelists were in the last few games. Regardless, they’re still tough to master. Pulling off that kind of stuff has always require skill – the controls are very precise and responsive – but they’re much easier to execute this time around. It’s all thanks to the Simple Command option, which lets you use watered-down inputs to use the same moves. Having trouble with Terry’s Rising Tackle? Just hold the control stick down, press the right button, and watch him go flying. It makes the game far more accessible to those who haven’t grown up memorizing all of the movesets.
That won’t save them from the deeper aspects of the gameplay, though. This series has always been about technical combat, and this is no exception. While many of the complexities of the last couple of titles have been tossed asunder, The King of Fighters XII augments the basic mechanics with a few new features. The Critical Counter System works with the flow of the fight; by taking damage, you charge an energy bar that can temporarily grant you the ability to pull off a flurry of basic attacks. The trick is learning how and when to execute it. Since you have to press an attack button at close range – directional inputs deactivate it – you have to wait for just the right moment to connect it. You’ll probably fail most of the time, but it’s well worth the effort; a Critical Counter sends your opponent reeling long enough to unleash potentially devastating combos and turn the tide of the battle.
The Deadlock System is even harder to use; if two attacks of the exact strength collide, they’ll nullify each other and send both fighters careening backwards (or not, depending on your skills with the controls). That can be a huge help, especially when you’re facing a particularly challenging foe. The problem is that you have to memorize which Deadlocks work with each attack; otherwise, they’ll just happen by accident. Instead, you’ll probably rely more on the defensive tactics. Pressing both heavy attack buttons lets your character charge an attack, which can temporarily stun an enemy and lead in to potential combos. Pressing those same buttons and backward on the controller, however, will let you parry and counter an oncoming attack. Timing is crucial into making this work, and mastering it is one of the most rewarding aspects of the game. It’s an immensely useful feature; not only does it allow you to switch from defensive to offensive gameplay, but it works wonders in terms of developing tactics and keeping the combat focused and fast-paced. These features, combined with all of the other nuances of the combat mechanics, make the game one of the technically impressive fighters on the console.
Too bad there’s little else going for it. Aside from mastering the systems, there’s little reason to keep playing the game. The Arcade Mode is brief enough as it is, but the rest of The King of Fighters XII is either flawed or practically non-existent. Oh sure, you get the Versus Mode, which lets you take on the AI or a friend. Yeah, you get the Practice Mode, which can come in handy when you’re trying to master the deeper aspects of the gameplay. The problem lies with the execution. There’s no way to exit out of a mode or cancel a selection without having to go through the entire process of choosing a team and starting a fight. The ridiculously long loading times make it even more annoying; by the time you get back to the original screen, you might end up debating if it’s really worth retrying. Speaking of which, where is all the extra content? A few dozen pieces of artwork doesn’t cut it, no matter how hard it is to unlock them. Couldn’t there have been at least a little effort put into celebrating the series, like with bonus videos or cutscenes? This is the 15th Anniversary, after all. Where are the extra characters? The different levels and musical themes? Not to mention a Challenge Mode, which would have been great as a way to test someone’s grasp of the combat mechanics. The last few King of Fighters games had all of this, and it actually made you want to keep coming back. XII, on the other hand, doesn’t even have a Color Edit Mode. There’s no excuse for a title being so featureless.
The game tries to make up for its shortcomings with the online multiplayer. It’s promising at first glance; not only can you fight random gamers from around the world, but whole teams can be assembled with a different person controlling each character. That’s an awesome idea; it takes the team building concepts from the older games and expands upon them. The actual combat is far less endearing. Considering how the game places so much importance on timing and tactics, you’d think more time would have been put into making the online gameplay as smooth as possible. There’s too much lag. Far too much. It drags down the combat and makes it nigh unplayable. The worst part is the wait time that comes when you’re playing with a big group of people. There’s no way to cancel out of a session, which means you’re stuck watching the rest of your party play when you could be searching for a new opponent. Having to reset the entire game just to escape from a multiplayer menu is ridiculous. The designers could have made the game far less annoying if they had spent a little time making the interface more user-friendly.
Instead, they focused all their efforts on the presentation. The audio has nothing worth noting; the music is comprised of bland rock arrangements, and the voice acting is atrocious. However, it looks gorgeous. The animations run as smoothly and fluidly as the combat itself. Iori’s new moveset might have been drastically altered, but his attacks flow together seamlessly. The new character designs are amazing; throwing out the old character sprites gave SNK the chance to rebuild their fighters from the ground up. Take Ralf, for example. He used to be some random mercenary with a bandanna, jeans, and punch capable of ripping tanks apart. Thanks to his monstrous new design, he actually looks as powerful as his moves suggest. The amount of detail that went into these animations is astounding; Ash doesn’t just step backward from an impeding attack, but saunters lazily away, brushing his hair out of his face as he goes. The same goes for the backgrounds; you’ll be cheered on by crowds of overweight tourists on the French Riviera, entertain the bustling crowds of a Chinese slum, and take center stage of stadium illuminated with fireworks and camera flashes. It’s a shame that there are only six levels (two of which are just day/night copies of each other), as previous King of Fighters games were known for their variety. They could have at least included a graphically updated version of Southtown. But considering how little thought was put into this game, perhaps a little fan service was too much to ask.
It’s fascinating, in a way. SNK had the opportunity they were waiting for; they could bring their greatest series into the latest generation of gaming, getting the attention of a whole new audience looking for a great new fighting game. But they botched it. Horribly. From a technical standpoint, the game is among the best out there; even with the severely reduced movesets, the new mechanics offer an awesome blend of offensive and defensive gameplay. The graphics are arguably the best ever seen in a 2D fighting game. But everything else just drags it down. The playable character roster is solid enough, though some of the more iconic characters are missing. The Arcade Mode feels rushed; there’s not even a boss character, one of the most basic features of all fighting games. The alternate gameplay modes are lacking; aside from the versus mode and some unlockable artwork, there’s no incentive to keep playing. The menus are needlessly tedious to use. The online multiplayer has some awesome ideas, but the laggy gameplay and annoying interface kill any potential entertainment value. If there was ever a game that could be used as an example of wasted potential, The King of Fighters XII is it. So much for a rebirth.