What’s missing from King of Fighters XII

[Editor’s note: BulletMagnet has a lot to say about King of Fighters XII. — CTZ]

By now I think it’s safe to say that the “dump on KoF” phase around these parts (if there ever really was one) has largely fizzled out, and the other shoe has inevitably dropped – while the ongoing talk surrounding the game has largely steered clear of outright flaming, thankfully, the fact remains that, at this point, if one criticizes King of Fighters XII, more than a few others will quickly step up to defend it. Which is fine.

After spending some time with the game, though, I find that, despite a nagging feeling that this article will bring me more trouble than it’s worth, I cannot keep my hat out of this particular ring, despite the fact that quite a bit has already been discussed elsewhere on the c-blogs, not to mention within the site’s official review. As much as I hate to say it, I find myself part of the diminishing local minority who can’t help but feel disappointed in the final product, though likely not for the reasons you think. While some of my opinions to this end do relate to points that have already been covered in other places, my major complaint about the game is something that I haven’t seen addressed in-depth by anyone else, and I feel that it’s a grievance worth airing (whether or not you agree with me, I’m sure you’ll let me know, one way or another).

First thing first, though, I suppose I ought to make it clear that I wouldn’t consider myself a “hardcore” fighting gamer by the usual definition (i.e. while I enjoy playing fighters, I’m nowhere near “tournament level” on any of them), but hopefully that fact doesn’t instantly render all of my observations and arguments completely null and void (once again, though, either way I’m sure I’ll be hearing from you about it).

Before I delve into the central point of this article, let me briefly make my position clear regarding some of the aspects of KoF XII that others have covered in more detail.

For starters, I’m (mostly) fine with the roster, especially considering that everyone present is sporting completely new digital duds – the somewhat modest cast, when compared to previous KoF outings, doesn’t bother me much (after all, if I can make do with ten fighters in BlazBlue, I can manage with 22 here), and while I could definitely quibble with some of the character choices and omissions, that area comes down pretty much exclusively to personal preference, and in my opinion isn’t worth going on at length about (by the way, forgive my brusqueness here, but “No Mai, No Buy” fapboys? News flash: she’s no more “vital” to the series than anyone else…unless virtual boobs are a major reason why you bother to play a game in the first place. Join the rest of us – i.e. ALL of us – who aren’t 100 percent satisfied with the selection and get the heck over it). Moreover, I’ve got no problem with Iori’s new fighting style (if you ask me he was long overdue for a design shakeup as it was) or Athena’s “retro” look – heck, even Ralf and Clark’s “disturbingly beefy” physiques, while not among my favorite sights, to say the least, aren’t enough of a distraction to earn anything resembling a lengthy critique, at least from me. However, some of the other changes to the cast, I feel, ARE far more detrimental to the overall experience – but that falls under what I feel is the game’s most glaring flaw, which I’ll get into later.

Next up, the much-ballyhooed graphical overhaul – first off, let me tell you, few have been more excited than I to see the results of the intriguingly different artistic choices that Capcom, Arc, and SNK decided to apply to their big releases this year. Moreover, deep down I was especially eager to get my hands on KoF XII, since I, like quite a few others, have something of a nostalgic fondness for old-fashioned sprite work, and have expressed my eagerness to see it more frequently taken further. My final feelings on the presentation here, though, are somewhat mixed – I can certainly appreciate the months and months of work (as detailed in the official site’s “Dot Gallery”) that it took to redo even this relatively small sampling of characters (especially considering how long SNK had gotten by largely via recycling), but, if I’m honest with myself, I have to admit that it’s not as much of a grand slam as I’d hoped it would be. Don’t get me wrong, the size and scale of the character sprites is on a level we haven’t seen since perhaps the Art of Fighting games (even the lovely BlazBlue characters will look a little shrimpy onscreen after you’ve played KoF XII for a bit), and the animations are, for the most part, satisfyingly smooth. At the same time, however, all the boasts regarding the “dramatically higher resolution” and “increased color palette” don’t always seem to have been backed up with a complimentary dose of plain ol’ artistic awareness – just off the top of my head, the shadowed part of Joe Higashi’s chest, a straight, drab monotone bearing nothing but some blockily-drawn single-outline pectoral and abdominal muscles to define or detail it, struck me as particularly poor-looking.

While the above is one very specific area that I think could have used some extra attention, I must confess that I just don’t think the character sprites translate very well in general onto a high-def TV or monitor (and before you say anything, yes, I AM aware that this is an inherent quality of the graphical technique used here; that doesn’t automatically mean, however, that I think it looks particularly good in this case. Also, lest you totally go off on me, no, I do NOT wish that the game looked like BlazBlue.) I honestly found that things came across better overall on an SDTV, since the lessened detailing softened the fighters’ rough patches without blurring them to hell and back as the in-game anti-alias filter wont to do. Unfortunately, standard definition also takes some of the bite out of the backdrops — on that note, while I was honestly more disappointed in the meager selection of 5 locales than with the size of the roster, I must say that I very much liked what was on offer behind the action. Unlike some others, I never found myself distracted by the large amount of background activity going on during the fights, and moreover was beyond pleased to see that SNK took full advantage of these settings to really capture the feeling of a huge international tournament. Suffice it to say, it never made much sense to me when a fighting game revolved around a major, high-profile combat competition, with figures of unimaginable power pulling the strings at the top and yet somehow you end up duking it out under a set of abandoned railroad tracks in the middle of nowhere, with nary a soul in sight. This all-too-prevalent anomaly is remedied here, and with panache to boot – all of the combat venues accommodate huge, raucous audiences, whose roars drown out nearly everything else (especially after a major blow is landed in the ring), and the packed-to-the-gills stadiums and other locales are suitably pimped out, with blimps floating and fireworks exploding overhead, streamers and flags from around the globe being waved wildly in the stands, and blizzards of confetti and pyrotechnic sparks showering the victor once a round is decided. This, in short, is what such a huge event ought to look like, and hats off to the background designers for coming through on that front. As a final note, while some fellow players were bugged to no end by them, I honestly could care less about the menu designs one way or the other, so I’ll leave that debate to separate entities entirely.

On to the meat and potatoes, the core fighting mechanics. As has been mentioned elsewhere, if you’ve played a KoF game before it’s the same four-button structure as always, and the same quarter/half-circle special moves, dragon punches, back-forward charges — you know the drill. The match structure is strictly “old-school” King of Fighters– select three characters, set their order, and battle one at a time, with Warrior # 2 replacing Warrior # 1 after the latter is knocked out, and so on. No tag feature, no strikers, no “leader” moves, no background assists, no “Extra/Advanced” or other tweaks to apply. Moreover, even the long-standard “Single” mode has been relegated to Versus matches only, so if you’re by yourself it’s Team play or nothing. Once the match starts, you’ll likely notice that several characters’ move lists have been notably trimmed – the console-exclusive Mature, to whit, has only two special moves (two and a half, if you want to be generous) and a single super. Not everyone’s arsenal has been so severely shaved back, but personally one of the things I always liked about the KoF games was the large amount of techniques that everyone had at their disposal, which exuded the feeling that, even within a roster of several dozen, everyone had enough in-battle options to be fun and at least relatively practical to use. Those who prefer a smaller set of joystick motions to memorize won’t mind this change, obviously, but at least in my eyes it’s a negative point. Otherwise, the usual multiple jumps, roll evades and blow-back moves are here, and throwing takes two buttons so it’s not likely to occur by accident. The only truly new mechanics are the “deadlock” (which automatically cancels out opposing attacks of equal strength when they hit at the same time) and the “critical counter,” which gives players a window of opportunity to land a hard, close-range hit and activate a “mini V-ism” combo chain to pile on the damage. All in all everything works fine, and nobody seems to overpower anyone else TOO much, though I’m sure that more frequent players have had established tiers assembled for months already.

Okay – hopefully all of that gives you a decent idea of where I stand regarding KoF XII on a mostly-“technical” level. Now, however, it’s time for me to let it all hang out, and start airing my major grievances with the game (and, quite likely, watch the threats against my life start rolling in). For one thing, as others before me have noted, the single-player experience is laughably skeletal, featuring (if you don’t count Training mode) only a five-stage Time Attack. Not only has any sort of “Single” mode been sent to the corner as described above, but no trace of a Survival, Score Attack, Story, Challenge, or even a “traditional” stage-by-stage Arcade mode is anywhere in sight. By extension, this means that the characters and stages you see right from the start are all you’ll ever lay eyes on, as there’s no room anyplace for an “extra” fighter and/or stage to encounter (granted, some will be pleased to know that there’s no “SNK Boss” to deal with, but at the same time it does take a lot of drama out of the proceedings when there’s no looming demi-god watching and waiting for you.) This whole state of affairs is particularly disappointing within the King of Fighters series, as import-enabled fans may recall the days when, alongside a much fuller array of “traditional” fighting modes, KoF console ports would even sometimes include a small “puzzle” mode or other fan-friendly distraction, just to fill things out a bit. This time around? The loftiest goal for lone players to shoot for (as the game’s Achievements would have it) is getting through the entire experience that SNK has offered you in less than three and a half minutes, which in itself is a rather sad thing to ponder.

Non-online Versus options are also minimal, as only a very basic one-fight-at-a-time structure can be utilized – forget setting up any tournaments, elimination rounds or the like if you’ve got a handful of friends over. Speaking as a gamer who rarely if ever goes online to play anything (though, if what I’ve heard is true, KoF XII needs some work in this area as well), it would seem that SNK, unlike the other two major 2D fighting game companies, has all but completely forgotten I exist – I’m certainly open to criticism/mockery for being a “hermit” or “dinosaur” or whatever else you might care to call me, but I know I’m not the only player who wishes that there was at least a little more to do here when one feels like kicking back and gaming in solitude. I know little about the game design process offhand, but I can’t imagine that rearranging the match structure would have been that much of a Herculean ordeal for SNK. They wouldn’t have had to rebalance or tweak anything, just offer up a shuffled set of challenges to give players the ability and incentive to approach the game in a slightly different way. When a developer sets off on such a massive undertaking as this game, likely at least in part to shed the “lazy” image that has dogged it for years, it seems particularly ham-handed and counter-productive of them to spend so much time and effort on the presentation and then all but completely forget to give all those pretty new characters much of anything to do (or fix all the bugs, or hire actual English-language voice actors for the “English” language mode, but I’ll spare you further musings on those points).

The above, however, is NOT my major complaint about King of Fighters XII– it is NOT what I feel is most conspicuously missing from the title.

In a word, what I feel this game is most sorely lacking is personality.

I can already hear the pitchforks and sturdy lengths of rope being brandished, and smell the smoky torches being lit. I perceive the enraged howling in the distance – “Didn’t you even READ the articles you linked at the top?” they scream. “We already covered this – Kyo blows off his finger! Robert adjusts his jacket! Terry holds onto his hat! And that’s just a few examples! There’s plenty of personality here, what on Earth is your problem?” Before you all send me forcibly hurtling over the nearest cliff face, please give me a moment to say that I readily acknowledge, and appreciate, those bits that you’ve mentioned and quite rightly praised for their artistry; I even agree that they do help to bring the characters “to life”. However, I also offer this in response:

Those subtle actions, by and large, are NOT personality. They are details. The two are not always the same thing.

Allow me to elaborate. Aside from the bountiful rosters and move lists, the third, and in my opinion most important, hallmark of the King of Fighters series is the immense variety and vibrance of the fighters, not just as fighters, but as characters, as people. Sure, in this latest installment everyone’s got plenty of little mid-match flourishes and tics to watch out for, but after the fight is over, then what? What is there to make any of those dueling piles of muscles stick out in your mind not just as an entertaining combatant but a compelling personality? In a variety of ways, past KoF entries accomplished this feat, as far as I’m concerned, better than any other fighting game series – in addition to simply cooking up the obligatory back-story for the cast (which still technically exists in XII, though it’s pretty much never a presence worth mentioning), the developers and designers went the extra mile to flesh out just about everyone, both inside and outside of the games themselves.

As one offhand example, if you’re a long-time KoF fan, think back to the sort of concept/promo art and other illustrations you’d see put out for the older games. Naturally there would be some standard dossier portraits and combat scenes, but overshadowing them would be far more intriguing compositions – characters, not beating each others’ brains out, but milling around at a lavish party before the tournament begins. Taking a break with their team at the beach. Chowing down on their favorite dishes, sometimes with startling relish. Enjoying some much-needed down time with their families or significant others. Breaking out of their “usual” characterizations while nobody else was watching. Sure, it’s all just still artwork, but it served as a compelling complement to the action onscreen, a way to make you more aware of exactly what type of personality you had at your fingertips when you made your selection after inserting a quarter – even the more “realistic” illustration style they went with for several years, while a bit silly, did its part to portray those whacked-out anime sprites as people who could, imaginably, exist as believable specimens of humanity even outside of the context of the games, and as a result the fictional world they inhabited, but we could only temporarily visit, was drawn closer to our own. While it’s true that a decline in this admirable practice started long before KoF XII was released, the current developers and marketers have, to say the least, made it clear that they have no intention of reversing this trend. If you’re tempted to pipe up and argue that “the extra crap doesn’t matter, STFUAJPG”, or “at this point in the series’ history, none of that fluff is really needed anymore,” my grievances hardly stop at the extra materials – seriously, stick around, take the time to sharpen those box cutters you’re brandishing; I’m just getting warmed up.

Return, if you will, to the game of KoF XII itself. The title screen is behind you; your team is assembled; the “versus” screen runs its course, and…the battle begins. I must ask – am I the only one who, after seeing this sequence of events for the first time, immediately noticed that something was missing? Yup, the characters’ unique pre-match opening actions – completely gone. They’re just as minor a set of details as the finger-blowing and jacket-adjusting referenced above, mind you, but if you ask me they’re at least as vital to the cast’s overarching characterizations as the fleeting gestures they make in the heat of a brawl – I can’t be the only one who misses, just to name a couple, seeing Chin flying in from offscreen and clumsily landing face-down on the mat, only to nimbly upright himself a moment later, or Kensou downing a pre-fight meat bun too fast and choking on it. And that’s not even taking into consideration the small library of “special” matchup intros – Kim reading the riot act to Chang or Choi, Kyo and Iori staring each other down and slowly seething to a boil (this time around, with Iori’s flame powers gone, I would have loved to see what manner of threats and insults might be hurled between them since this latest development), and of course the infamous Andy/Mai “Kimono? What kimono?” opener, just to name a few. Nowadays, though, before the melee commences, everyone, without exception, just stands there – granted, if some players considered the intros a waste of time, SNK could have easily included the option to disable or skip them, but instead opted to not even bother altogether. As a result, all of those little morsels of characterization have been, for whatever reason, completely abandoned; moreover, this shift toward unapologetic blandness, believe it or not, becomes even more onerous once the exchange of blows actually begins.

While many of the fighters act much the same as they have for some time, some of the most unique ones have been, for lack of a better word, neutered. Specifically, let’s go back to Chin and Kensou for a bit – the former, in particular, was one of my favorite characters in earlier KoFs, stumbling around the screen, taking regular swigs from his gourd (when he wasn’t bopping his opponent over the head with it…or knocking them out by making them gulp down some of its potent contents against their will), faking rivals out by suddenly dropping to the floor, and even damaging opponents by simply keeling over on top of them. His movelist was adjusted a bit from year to year, but he never failed to stand out and offer a much-needed bit of variety amidst the plethora of more “serious” martial artists – in this iteration, however, aside from his thankfully-intact goofy appearance, his battle maneuvers (now largely a set of standard “fancy punches”) have been “toned down” to such an extent that he hardly rates a second glance. Similarly, Kensou is no longer the klutzy, love-sick underdog that we used to know – even disregarding his out-of-left-field costume change, in much the same manner as Chin he’s a largely stock-and-trade “smile-free” martial artist, mechanically taking apart opponents with fists and feet in a manner we’ve seen, for the most part, a million times before. Granted, I’ve read the interviews with the developers, who have repeated ad nauseam the “beautiful clashing of fists” theme that they were going for, and can, to some extent, understand (though not necessarily agree with) why these changes were made – truth be told, however, if SNK was really so intent on a more “deadly serious” tone this time around (for reasons I couldn’t begin to guess), it further puzzles me as to why they’d bother bringing back any of the more “oddball” characters at all, if they considered it necessary to remove so much of what makes them who they are…or, at the very least, made them what they were.

This strict, largely senseless adherence to “standardized, sterile personality or none at all” extends its tentacles into nearly every part of the game. Taunting, one of my personal favorite vestigial-yet-enjoyable features, appears to have been completely disabled (or at least obscured to the point that I still haven’t figured out how to do it), so if you were looking forward to rubbing it in at the expense of your opponent via Athena’s sudden bout of sneezing (complete with an embarrassed apology), Terry’s “heel, Fido” whistle, or Joe’s “two-cheek salute”, you’re presumably out of luck. Moreover, while win poses are still present, each character gets only one apiece, and again, almost without exception, they’re the most unremarkable, been-there-done-that “stand still and say/yell something” set of post-battle actions to appear in a fighting game in ages – Iori’s signature maniacal laughter? Gone. Kim’s glinting movie star smile? Kaputz. Daimon striking a fierce pose, with his young son rolling in and attempting in vain to duplicate his intimidating dad? Forget it. The generic quality of what remains isn’t helped by the additional absence of inter-match win quotes, which, while nothing more than static portraits and some text, are still sorely missed by anyone who enjoys that little extra spark that it adds to the cast; sure, Terry will always be a pretty cool customer, but his unique aura is diminished that much further still when the player can’t watch him say “THAT’S why I’m here every year” to his unseen fallen adversaries.

The previously-covered lack of most “traditional” fighting game modes further hobbles any possible remaining attempts at effective characterization, most starkly by removing any place for some sort of story to fit in, along with the occasional bits of scripted scenery that would advance it along, while simultaneously giving the characters one more opportunity to endear themselves to the audience. I can already hear you bringing up the “dream match” entries in the series, and you have a point, but even then the games would at least give you the prospect of some sort of ending scene to go for (and sometimes even a “special” concluding sequence if you used a pre-set team), which, needless to say, is also totally absent here. To put it another way, KoF XII violates the “narrative awareness” guideline (along with a few others) that I previously wrote about in this article, though in a different way than was emphasized therein; while that particular paragraph focused its attention on fighting games that force a story onto the proceedings when it’s not really needed, in this case SNK has done the opposite, but to no lesser detrimental effect, by sorely neglecting the series’ rich background when it could have done the overall atmosphere a lot of good.

On their own, a lack of any one of the above-listed minutiae would hardly be cause for concern, let alone a lengthy treatise like this; KoF XII, however, in one fell swoop completely discards almost every method and practice that its predecessors used to make its characters, and the interactions, both violent and non-, between them memorable, enjoyable, special, and the sickly stragglers that remain have been so effectively hamstrung that they might as well not be there. The core of the King of Fighters experience, the combatants, simply put, are no longer what they once were – while their previous incarnations made enough of an impression on the fanbase to inspire countless projects and tributes, from art to fiction to heaven knows what, I can’t see the series continuing to hold such a hallowed place among the fandom if it continues along its current path. The portraits on the character select screen no longer represent people or personalities, but merely a series of dolled-up, largely lifeless Punch-and-Judy marionettes, whose only reason for existence is to robotically beat the snot out of each other at your command – in essence, the developers seem to say, nothing beyond frame counts, priority, and beyond-the-sprite hitboxes is the least bit important to us, or to you, anymore. From now on, the only reason to choose a “favorite” character in KoF is how effectively you can win matches with him, as you no longer have any reason to genuinely like him. All that other stuff that we used to endow our creations with was nothing more than a bunch of decidedly-not-hardcore distractions, and you’d best forget all about it.

Well, SNK, for whatever it’s worth I haven’t forgotten, and it’s a shame that you seem to want me to do so. This is the sort of all-too-common (and endlessly frustrating) developer attitude that I called out not too long ago in my “Second Dimension” piece, linked earlier – if you’ll indulge me, I think I’ll just quote directly from there, emphasis intact from the original article:

It just feels, to me, as if many of you are so nervous about getting a sprite-based game or the like out there to begin with that the “core” of the work tangibly feels tailored to ensure at least a bit of profit, and everything else is built around that single element. Even if the presentation and everything else is solid, it too frequently just doesn’t come across as a truly cohesive whole, as the Games of Old did. Again, a large part of this is simply the reality of your line of work in this day and age, but please, do your very best to minimize the negative effects of the status quo, because it DOES register at our end. The prettiest character sprites and most exquisitely-painted backgrounds in the world lose a lot of their luster if they’re recycled or reused too often, and moreover the most expertly-set mood pieces and details are all but completely worthless if the visuals as a whole are just there to look pretty, and do nothing to complement or enhance the actual goings-on within the game.

This, SNK, is exactly the sort of vibe that King of Fighters XII gives me when I play it – it’s as if, in your struggle to revamp the spritework, you completely forgot, or worse, disregarded, the less obvious, but just as vital, things that kept the series relevant for as long as it has been, even as it competed for years in the modern marketplace with sprites a decade old. It almost comes across to me that you’ve devoted more time and effort to building a storyline for yourselves than you did for your characters; I can almost hear the beleaguered moans emanating from SNK’s offices, as every last employee lays sprawled out on the floor, completely drained of energy from having put all they had to give into those shiny new pixel facades. “The…the animations…they’re all finished?” the fallen heroes wheeze: “Don’t worry about us – just go, release it! There’s no way we could summon the energy to put anything else into the game, even basic accoutrements from previous entries – seriously, we’re so totally spent! But fear not, we have no regrets – for…for the dear, dear fans *cough, wheeze* it’s the least we can do.”

Once again, as much as I admire the efforts that have gone into certain aspects of this title, there’s no way I’m going to label the gaping holes in the finished product as evidence of some sort of martyrs’ nobility on your part – you have no idea how much I want to believe that this game is some sort of deliberate, benign “trial by fire” for your “true” fans, who will see past the inky, pessimistic smokescreen of the doubters and justly praise the game for its “purity” and “renewed focus on the bare essentials”, but I just can’t do it. Oh, and as a personal favor to you I’ll avoid going too deeply into my fears as to what sort of blackmail-worthy DLC I fear is headed our way before much more time has passed – as nothing has appeared yet I’ll hold my tongue for now, but rest assured that I’ll be watching your actions hence very, very closely.

To conclude, one of the write-ups I cite near the top of this article calls King of Fighters XII “a savory steak, served on a plain paper plate” or something along those lines – I can see where this analogy comes from, and agree with it to a point, but allow me to take it a step further, to drive my overall viewpoint home. I’ll readily admit that the “core” of the game does indeed resemble the proverbial Filet Mignon, cooked the way I like it, though some of the frills, like the thin, juice-soaked plate barely separating it from the table, don’t exactly inspire. Beyond that, though, I might also note that this full-priced steak dinner is not only lacking in visual presentation, but in bothering to provide the customer with any sort of sauce, or even some simple salt and pepper shakers, off to the side in case you wanted to add a little extra flavor – it’s just assumed that you prefer your cut plain, or at least that you’re too polite (or starving) to raise a ruckus about it. Moreover, I also can’t help but notice that the establishment at which we’ve chosen to dine has neglected to supply us with any sort of well-sharpened cutlery to truly delve into the savory offering with, instead tossing over, at best, a plastic fork and knife from a cheap picnic set to make do with as best we can – after all, the lion’s share of the cost has gone into the steak itself, and we should be grateful for that. In addition I see no signs of any side dishes to complement the central platter’s strengths, nor a glass of anything refreshing to wash it all down with – though I get the sinking feeling that I’m about to be handed an exorbitantly expensive dessert menu crammed with unnecessary, empty calories in their places.

In short, the food is good, but notwithstanding, can you really say that you’re fully enjoying the meal?

Some of you, I’m sure, will say without hesitation, “Hells yeah – in fact, you know what? I’ll pick up that steak with my bare hands, tear into it like a wolf at the kill, let the runoff dribble all over the place (I can lick it up later), and pick the bones clean with my teeth. And after that I’ll eat the damn bones too – you can KEEP all your fancy-schmancy sauces and silverware and side dishes, I sure as all heck don’t need ‘em.” If this is your honest answer, then obviously none of this piece’s arguments are likely to apply to you – if you’re satisfied with KoF XII as it is, then I’ve got no right or reason to insist that you think otherwise. And moreover I’ll happily offer a closing disclaimer, namely that, while I don’t think the game can be considered in the same class as what’s on tap via Street Fighter IV and BlazBlue (or even some of the older SNK compilations released earlier in the year) I don’t think that the game is a total failure – after all, if nothing else, you might say that I’ve already paid for my steak, and definitely plan on eating my fill.

All that said, though, I still maintain, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that my dining experience at Chez SNK these days is far from complete. Moreover, as much as I like the guy, my waiter has another thing coming if he’s expecting a big tip from the likes of me tonight, let alone a smiling, genteel request to give my compliments to the chef.