Pretender to the throne
Since 1994, the King of Fighters series has been SNK’s marquee franchise – a massive crossover fighting game using characters from many of its older series such as Fatal Fury, Art of Fighting, Ikari Warriors, and even Psycho Soldier (where Athena and Kensou made their debuts). 15 years later, the series introduces itself to the PlayStation 3/Xbox 360 generation with The King of Fighters XII, which sets out to redefine the franchise to appeal both to newcomers and long-time fans. Does it succeed? Short answer: not really.
First, let’s focus on the good parts. Those familiar to the KOF franchise should be familiar with the set-up: you and your opponent select teams of three characters each, and you fight it out until one side has exhausted all of their fighters. Most of the staple special moves and counters for each character are there, along with some small refinements to the existing battle system, such as knockdown attacks and critical counters (which, if successful, allow you to unleash a blazing-fast custom combo for big damage, just as in Street Fighter Alpha 2), while keeping the battles as fast-paced as they have ever been. Another much talked-about element of KOF XII is the new graphics engine. The character models have all been redrawn to take advantage of the new hardware used by the arcade version, and as a result, the game looks gorgeous.
It’s too bad the rest of the game isn’t as polished. What music that exists is often drowned out by a combination of crowd noise and characters shouting their attacks. The game also includes an English-language voice track (a first for a main-line KOF title, previously only seen in its two Maximum Impact spinoff games), but it sounds a lot like the original Japanese voice actors attempting English, and the results are not pretty. The single-player mode is only five stages long and nothing more than a glorified time trial, since it lacks a proper end boss (though, given SNK’s love of controller-breakingly hard bosses, this is probably for the better). The available roster of characters has shrunk from over 30 in KOF XII to a meager 22 in this release, leaving several fan-favorite characters out of the loop and limiting the number of options one has when forming teams.
By far the biggest offender, however, is that the online play is just as barebones as the offline content. It’s very hard to find an opponent with a reliable connection, and when you do eventually find someone, you don’t get to see the players’ connection status until after you’ve entered a room with them. Before a few post-release patches, it was almost impossible to get a match going, as the game would lock up before even getting to the character select screen, forcing you to quit the game entirely (which counts against your record as a “disconnect”).It’s unfortunate that the King of Fighters series took such a huge step backwards with this release. KOF XII feels incredibly lean compared to the home release of KOF XI, which came out on the PlayStation 2 two years ago. Tidying up the dated visuals doesn’t mean much if the rest of the game isn’t updated in turn, and removing features and characters between iterations doesn’t help its cause, either (especially when its main competitors Street Fighter IV and BlazBlue: Calamity Trigger offer more robust options in both single- and multi-player). For charging full price to have gamers play what is essentially a half-finished game, King of Fighters XII gets 2 stars out of 5.