It's a strange thing to be talking about 2-D fighting games again with any sort of relevance, but with Street Fighter IV, BlazBlue, and now the 12th (official) iteration of the King of Fighters series, '09 is feeling more like '90 if you can dig what I'm putting down. I'm not a stalwart fan of the KOF franchise, and as such, didn't have any pre-concieved notion regarding what to expect with SNK's latest, at least in regards to its passed installments. However, coming in the wake of two fine fighting efforts, not to mention a little light in the loafers, King of Fighters in an enjoyable, if not fundamentally flawed fighting game.
King of Fighters XII is set up as another "dream match" in the series, ignoring the storylines of previous installments in order to offer as many of the SNK favorites as possible in one package. As such, the game focuses more on reinventing the core fighting as well as look of the franchise, and in this respect, it shines. The fighting in King of Fighters XII is crisp, more offensively oriented than its Capcom brethren, and comes with a brace of unique systems (ie the critical counter and "clash" systems) that make it a thoroughly different, if not equally enjoyable and deep fighting game as any on offer. KOF's other great strength comes in its re-drawn 2-D sprites and backgrounds. Not only does every fighter look amazingly detailed and beautifully animated, the arenas that these clashes take place in are stupendously designed and unique. It's a shame, however, that in both cases and indeed in the whole of King of Fighters package, there isn't as much here as you might like.
And that's what really drags King of Fighters down as not only a fighting game, but a full-priced game in general. The trifecta of modes in any fighting game, Arcade, Versus, and Trials isn't even complete. The Arcade mode isn't particularly engaging, not even offering any type of uniqueness depending on selected characters, even being based upon a TIME TRIAL format. The versus mode does its job, but after that, there isn't much to keep local players around. As I noted before, the backgrounds and fighters look great, but there isn't a whole lot of them. There are only about five backgrounds, and for a "dream match", the roster is a little light. Especially with the 3 vs. 3 format employed, there are just far too many mirror matches for my liking. The one thing that could be KOF's salvation is online play, but even at the time of this review (nearly a month passed its release) the online remains unplayable.
King of Fighters is a game that should be bound for greatness, but a score of errors in judgement (and programming alike) leave it as a relatively short-lived experience by fighting game standards. There is a lot of fun to be had here, and with a few more installments built upon its rock-solid gameplay, this is a fighter to watch. However, right now, KOF XII stands as a skeleton of a good fighting game, appearing almost as a preview build complete with protracted roster and bare-bones features. Fans of fighting games and series veterans are sure to have a good time, especially once the price drops, but its current 60 dollar price point for a complete lack of content makes King of Fighters XII a hard sell, if not an incredibly fun one.