It kept 2D fighting alive for awhile longer.
The King of Fighters tournament is back once again and the usual teams are entering for their personal reasons. The new sponsor of the tournament is a man named Magaki, and he's seeking to reawaken the powerful Orochi whom was defeated in the tournament once before. But what is his real plan? It seems as if there's more on his mind besides Orochi's rebirth. -summary
SNK fighting game fans are usually very vocal on their love for the King of Fighters franchise, and they love to make those comparisons with Capcom's Street Fighter series, which results in always mentioning how much superior the game is to Capcom's fighter. Even though I tend to hold the adventures of Ryu and Ken closer to me; I will never argue with a King of Fighters fan on which game franchise is the best, because it's a no brainer that SNK takes this. They are constantly finding ways to expand on the game play as well as other things, and there's usually something to look out for. King of Fighters XI is a sequel to King of Fighters 2003 and it's indeed a better game due to its updates.
The game is a 2D fighter with 3 on 3 martial arts team combat, and the goal is to fight through several stages to meet the final boss Magaki. The line up boasts over 40 fighters along with secret characters from previous games. The main game takes place in Team battle and this is where you're forced to use pre-determined teams, in other words, if you select Terry Bogard of the Fatal Fury franchise, then you can only use his team of Kim Kaphwan the Tae Kwon Do expert, and Duck King who happens to be a character in the franchise using his break dance style of fighting. However, in Arcade mode you can create whatever dream team you want of these three characters. The fighting game is definitely fun if you dig this type of thing; the first couple of battles will get you accustomed to the flow of things, and later on the highly competitive CPU will take it to you with extreme prejudice.
The characters have an excellent moves list filled with projectiles, air attacks, and close in maneuvers. The usual super special attacks make their way here, along with the highly damaging Super Special Leader Move; but there's a lot more to this game than just the usual suspects. The player can switch out characters in the heat of battle, which is something that returned from 2003. There's a power bar present that gradually fills as you fight, and this allows you to pull off those moves. New to the game is the Skill Gauge, which allows the player to store up to two stocks of Skill Points. This allows you to utilize the technical aspects of the game, such as the Quick Shift, Saving Shift, and Guard Cancel Shift; these allow you to perform several defensive and offensive strategies while continuing your attack, by switching between characters or performing super move cancels into another move to prolong combos, and this steadily drains the gauge.
There's plenty here to get into, and this stuff can only be accurately explained while experiencing what the game has to offer. King of Fighters XI is a very technical fighter that requires loads of practice. The ability to tag out is great for preventing terrible disadvantages, but it's not exactly a go to thing at will; there's a small delay before the tag out that sees the character performing some type of pose, and if timing is off when tagging out then you can suffer horribly to a powerful barrage of attacks. The fighting system is very deep, also filled with counters, evasions, and guard crushes. Thankfully there's a practice mode where you can provide yourself with unlimited skill and special move stocks, as well as set the CPU up against you to try these things out.
The game has other modes in addition to Team and Arcade; there's a one on one feature that takes place in 2 out of 3 rounds, a survival mode that pits you against all the characters in the game, and a challenge mode were you have to perform certain request, such as beating opponents using only basic attacks, counters, or within a short time limit. This portion of the game is hard because some of these things will seem impossible to pull off, and luck is going to play a role in some of them. However, it's rewarding because this is where secret characters such as Geese Howard and Tung Fue Rue can be unlocked.
Along with the various game play additions, the character roster is clearly where King of Fighters trumps Street Fighter in a big way. This is one creative character roster with little to no clones. One of the new characters by the name of Momoko stands out for me and is among my favorites. She uses a capoeria style with some awesome close in offensive strikes, and her super special reminds me of Geese and Rock Howard's multi-button prompt smash attacks. Duo Lon returns with his ill Praying Mantis style plus long reach, cool downward air attack, and shadow kicks used as a projectile. Kula Diamond and Vanessa return to the ranks, with the former still amazing and fun to play with various ice attacks and kicks, while the latter makes fantasy boxing look so cool. The spear wielding Shion is an awesome sub boss with vicious combos and looks great in battle.
King of Fighters XI suffers from two flaws I believe; the first one is the steep learning curve. These new additions to the fighting have to be mastered, because the game is very difficult to finish knowing only the basics. Mastering the inputs for the specials and super specials will get one only so far, and I believe mainly King of Fighters diehards will feel at home, while newbies will be getting smashed. Flaw number two is definitely the final boss Magaki; he follows the usual SNK ultra cheapness. Magaki is massively over powered with various projectiles, teleportation, very high damage capability, speed, and in all honesty he's just not fun to play against. I really want to like the King of Fighters series more than I do, in fact I want to love SNK's fighting games, period, but their bosses across fighting games can be massive joykills though. I like to win with pure skill, not spamming certain combos and moves because the bosses are spamming themselves while being cranked to 11.
I'm glad to see that SNK have been getting their control functions down, because in a game like this, I would not want to be fighting against the controls too. The game is set up differently from SF with only two punch attacks and two kick attacks with shoulder buttons having other uses. The half circle, full circle, front to back circle motions, and multi-button prompts perform how they should for a fighter and that's perfect. The tag feature which can be performed by pressing either both punches or both kicks at the same time is just as fluid. I have heard of some people having complaints here, but they're just not good at the game. The default set up is well intact but I would recommend some adjustments in the options. The skill set for each character can be accessed at anytime with direction instructions on how to pull off the moves. There's just nothing to complain about here.
The game reuses plenty of sprites and although I haven't played it in a very long time, I think it also reuses character sprites from Neo-Geo Battle Coliseum. This isn't much of a problem since the animation for the characters is pretty nice. I love watching the nimble female characters like Kula for example; she looks awesome using her ballerina like spin kicks, and air projectile ice stars. Her mid-air cartwheel like spins are just a joy to watch. Vanessa's quick punching boxing animations look great too, as she dishes out fast hooks. I still love the character designs though; after thinking about it I can't fault SNK for the sprite issue because their characters looks so awesome. Duo Lon looks like a demented shadow priest in his dark robes. I hate the whole school girl thing, but Athena looks great and Terry Bogard is sporting his Mark of the Wolves design. The locations consist of ancient ruins, karate dojo's and other fight worthy places; some look better than others but nothing really stood out to me, plus I found the backgrounds to be kind of flat for a PS2 game around that time in 2007. It says something that Soul Calibur 2 which pre-dates this game by five years blows it away in that category.
The character teams uses their own themes and many of them enhance the atmosphere of the battle field. Unfortunately they're overshadowed by the fierce combat as far as getting the blood pumping. I really didn't care for the voice overs; many of the girls sound like they're from the same voice actor and it just annoyed me. In fact most of the voices irritate me, especially after the victories. I can't really say much about the sound effects since everything felt ordinary and nothing more.
King of Fighters XI is very solid for a fighter; the multiple modes are a nice addition, the challenge mode has its moments, the practice mode is great, the 2 player vs. mode is outstanding as long as you can find someone good to play against, and the characters are still diverse and creative. If only SNK would chill out with these crappy bosses then King of Fighters would be a great fighting game for everyone. Unfortunately, it's difficult to recommend this game to anyone other than fans of the series, since they already know these cheesy bosses have been a signature for their fighters since day one. If I would recommend any game to a newbie in the series then it would probably be King of Fighters 98: Ultimate Match to at least wet your feet, and that's kind of stretching it too. I can't shake that this game along with one of the sequels King of Fighters XIII were tailor made for veterans of the series. If you're that curious to try a new fighter and still have a PS2 then a rental is your best option.
Pros: Deep combat system, diverse and interesting characters, multiple modes
Cons: The usual SNK cheapness, mainly for vets of the series