It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. The old Dickens passage might never have applied so well to a videogame as it does the release of SNK Playmore and Ignition Entertainment's KOF XII.
There's no arguing that 2009 seems the year of the fighter, which will surely have an impact on the game's success, for better or worse. The question is, will KOF XII have an impact on the already crowded marketplace? Hit the jump for my full review.
The King of Fighters XII (PS3, Xbox 360 [reviewed])
Developer: SNK Pleaymore
Publisher: Ignition Entertainment
Released: July 28, 2009
[Editor's note regarding online play: Please be advised that as it had not yet been officially released, this game has been reviewed using a non-retail Xbox 360, and as such, I am unable to relay any experience with its network performance. However, the build reviewed is the very same as the retail version, and you can rest assured that if the online functionality turns out to be fuXXored, this review will be updated accordingly to reflect said suckage.]
Considering the current fighter-saturated climate, it might not be a bad idea to kick things off with a little disambiguation before we even get into the review proper. King of Fighters is a franchise that almost borders on cult status as far as mainstream gaming is concerned. Having originated console-wise on the Neo-Geo, it never enjoyed the same popularity as something like Street Fighter, and as such, might not ring as many bells for people who haven't spent a lot of time in the arcade. But chances are if you know it, you adore it. And if you don't know it, maybe now's a good time to get acquainted.
The KOF series (and SNK in general) is known for re-using its old character sprites in new games. This time around, however, with the series moving to new arcade hardware, the development team has opted to re-draw every last one of them, using new techniques -- increasing both the resolution as well as the frame count of each animation. The end result is some truly stunning sprite art, and that's the point I most want to drive home when discussing how the game looks. These are sprites.
There was a bit of a throwdown in the Destructoid offices a few days ago regarding KOF XII's visuals, and it wasn't the first time I'd heard the game referred to as "jaggy" or "not as pretty as BlazBlue." instead of polygonal 3D models or 2D vector art, SNK has held tight to its roots and kept all the game's artwork sprite-based. This look is admittedly not for everybody, but if you appreciate the design team keeping it real, you're going to see just how much tighter and more solid this can make a 2D fighter.
No, it doesn't look like SFIV or BlazBlue. But rather than bitch about what it isn't, you might try appreciating it for what it is -- and that's some of the most dynamic, detailed, well-animated and all-around gorgeous sprite art you've ever seen. Stills and screenshots do no justice to how great it looks in motion.
The stage settings have been given this treatment as well, with all sorts of classically SNK-flavored nonsense taking place in the backgrounds. Headbanging fat ladies, pigs randomly charging across the screen, ridiculous humor abounds. The entirety of the core game is a great example of what 21st century pixel art should look like. For what it is, it's magnificent. The only question is whether or not you'll like what it is, and that's up to you. But regardless of whether you're a fan of the dots, there's no denying that the animation is fluid and graceful, and every one of those added frames makes itself known. In the movement of clothing, in facial expressions, everywhere.
While it's neither fair nor sensible to compare KOF XII to its competition based on the visual design choices in its core game, (remember, it's an entirely different form of art), I find it perfectly fair to compare it based on what it has to offer your eyes outside of that. Unfortunately, it ain't much.
This is where I find most fault with KOF XII. The UI, menus, all those little extras that can take a great-looking fighter and wrap it up as a complete package? They suck. Some of it is so plain it's hard to believe it's part of the same game, especially when everything on the inside, from the hit counters to the gauges in the HUD, looks so great.
After waiting through an absolutely comedic number of company logos upon booting up the game, the main menu is a monochromatic blue with a spinning globe logo in the background; thoroughly uninspiring and not helped in the least by the Times New-Roman font that nearly everything is presented in.
That might have been passable for a main menu alone, but the azure suckage carries on throughout every selection, every option list, and even into the multiplayer lobby. The menus on your cellphone ten years ago were prettier and more navigable than this. While it might not seem important, for SNK's biggest and most beautiful release in years, it's like setting the Mona Lisa in a frame made of macaroni and pipe cleaners.
As for extras and flair, all KOF XII really gives us aside from a few very short anime cutscenes is a gallery of unlockable artwork and images -- all of which I'm sure would be quite lovely if the paltry menu descriptions gave us any indication as to what you have to do to unlock them. There's also a feature that lets you record your bouts to watch later in a Replay Mode, but again, no obvious clues on how to do this.
Worst of all is that none of this surprises me, after KOF 98's untranslated menu on XBLA and what seems to be a careless disregard for user interface from SNK lately on the whole. It's laziness, and it's starting to look like a habit. These are great games that deserve far better than this sub-shovelware level of presentation. It might not be as important as the core game, but you kids really need to step it up. This stuff still matters.
But if you don't mind eating your Filet Mignon on an ugly paper plate, you'll be happy to know that the core game kicks ass. Seasoned KOF veterans will notice some differences, but this is still SNK fighting at its finest, and a King of Fighters title through and through. Most of the adjustments are relatively small, but they're there.
For instance, there's a clash mechanic in place now, so that if you and your opponent strike with the same button press at the same time, you'll see a break animation and both players will be pushed back into a neutral position. Some people may not appreciate this if they're the ones at the helm when it happens, but you can expect a few excited cries of "oh shit!" from anyone spectating. Speaking of which, that's one thing KOF XII will offer you that SFIV can't: spectators in multiplayer mode.
The main difference you'll notice in terms of gameplay, however, is that the familiar Tactical Shift System has been removed in favor of the new "Critical Counter" system. In close combat, countering with a strong punch gives you a short window of time in which you can chain attacks together. Your lifebar will glow green to indicate that window, and when time's up you can seal the deal with one of your character's special moves. It happens pretty fast, but it's not incredibly hard to pull off, and when you do, it's nasty. Some of the more hardcore KOF fans will miss Tactical Shift, but trust me, you will be hurting people with this new system, and you'll be having a blast doing it.
The only catch is, you won't be doing it as Mai Shiranui. Or Rock Howard. Or Ramon. Or a lot of the other characters you've grown used to seeing, and indeed maining in many of the previous games.
There are 22 available characters, with Elizabeth and Mature being exclusive to the home console versions. That sounds like a pretty solid lineup as 2D fighters go, but if you've ever played KOF, you know this is the smallest roster we've ever had, at about half the size of what we've come to expect. My own mains are all present and accounted for, but that's not going to be the case with a lot of people. If you're a Chizuru or a Maxima, you might find yourself with an urge to kick someone's ass in real life when you learn you can't do it in KOF XII.
"No Mai, no buy" seems to be a popular response when the game is mentioned, and I can't say I blame anyone for feeling that way. In all honesty, I can't begin to imagine why SNK Playmore would leave out so many of the characters that have made this franchise what it is, least of all Mai Shiranui. They've hurt a lot of feelings with this emaciated roster, and in turn, probably hurt their own sales numbers as well.
There's been talk of unlockable characters, but after 16+ hours with the game, I've yet to see any new faces. There have been rumors of downloadable fighters, but SNK hasn't officially announced anything, and all I'm seeing on the marketplace at the time this review was written are some alternate soundtracks. No Mai? Really? I guess this would be the part where you'd insert some joke about her enormous boobs not fitting on the disc, but anyone who mains her is probably not in a laughing mood about now.
Still, what will matter most, and to the most players, is the fighting. And to reiterate, the fighting is delicious. It's solid. It's downright awesome. This is only made better and more satisfying by the great sound effects, with each punch, kick and special attack sounding like somebody is seriously having their day ruined. The voicework that goes along with all that pounding is pretty top-notch as well, even in English. And if you don't agree, there's an option to switch the voices (and even text) to the original Japanese. Some people won't care, but that option always gets a thumbs-up from me, and likely from more than a few lifetime KOF fans.
Rounding out the audio department is a pretty straightforward instrumental rock guitar soundtrack, which, while not exactly toe-tapping, feels like a blessing after a certain ... less-than-destructible main theme has been raping us in the ears these past few months. Each of the game's six stages gets its own number, along with another for the main menu, all of which are unobtrusive. I personally have no complaints. You won't exactly be rocking out to any of these songs, but at least they aren't offensive.
All of the above considered, I'm pretty happy with King of Fighters XII overall. Provided the online doesn't suck, I think most of the game's faults and shortcomings will be easily forgettable, especially after a few hundred rounds with friends. It's certainly solid enough to be played for years to come. There's no Mai, but the characters who did make the list play true, and most look better than they ever have.
The core game is spectacular, even if the presentation framing it is awful, and it's got the potential to be well worth the money. So should you buy it? That depends on what's most important to you, but I'm going to say you most certainly should.
[UPDATE: With the retail version now available, I've been able to test the online functionality of KOF XII as it is being experienced by all players. Verdict? Not what we'd hoped. This being a fighting game and pretty heavily dependent on that feature, the game loses a point from its review score, as promised from the start. Those of you obsessed with numbers should note that this changes nothing about the statements made in the review, as I still find it to be a worthwhile purchase. Try reading the description that comes after the number instead of just the number. Thanks.]
Score: 7 - Good (7s are solid games that definitely have an audience. Might lack replay value, could be too short or there are some hard-to-ignore faults, but the experience is fun.)