Version tested: Xbox 360
The current decade has been an interesting time for SNK and The King of Fighters series. After the lacklustre Capcom Fighting Jam in 2004, it seemed Capcom had bowed out of the 2D fighter race, and from then on the only serious competition SNK faced was from Guilty Gear - although both Melty Blood and Arcana Heart get props for spicing things up. But now in 2009 everything has changed. Capcom has exploded back onto the scene with Street Fighter IV, and Arc System has answered with the seminal BlazBlue. From SNK Playmore's own mouth "the fight has evolved", but despite all the hype, The King of Fighters XII doesn't feel like much of an evolution.
The King of Fighters main arcade series - spanning 10 games on the ancient Neo Geo and one on the Atomiswave - has traditionally focused on gradual progression. Each new instalment would jostle the roster and trial a new mechanic or two, but crucially retain the series' inherent style and feel. But with the 12th instalment SNK has finally decided to rework the stagnating series from the ground up. All the characters in XII have had their sprites redrawn by hand and are now larger and vastly more detailed.
SNK has opted to keep each pixel visible as opposed to hidden behind filters. So although some diehard fans will lament the loss of the older sprites, XII nonetheless retains the classic SNK style - albeit in high-definition. Character animation is also more convincing than in previous iterations and although not the best out there, certainly does a good job of bringing the fighters to life. Plus, rather than being static the camera adapts to the state of play. If you're pummelling your opponent in the corner, it zooms in on the action, but if you're trading different-coloured projectiles at a distance, it pans out.
Whilst other developers have relented, SNK - at least in the main series - still refuses to give an inch, because once the fists start flying in XII there isn't a polygon in sight. All the arenas are high-resolution and contain some impressive pixelation effects - including a 3D-looking blimp which circles the Dome stage. But such devotion to 2D seems to have come at the cost of variety. The King of Fighters XII has only six stages to its name, and one of these is just a night variation of the Dome stage with added fireworks.
Further reductions are found on the character-select screen as XII only has 22 to choose from - that's less than the original King of Fighters game from 1994. Most of the A-list cast are present including Kyo Kusanagi, Ryo Sakazaki, Athena and the "legendary hungry wolf" himself, Terry Bogard. But although we get Leona and console exclusives Elisabeth and Mature duking it out for the girls, where the hell is Mai Shiranui? Why SNK chose to leave out the leading lady in favour of Shen Woo and Raiden remains a mystery. However, it appears much of XII's cast is taken from the original Orochi saga ('95, '96 and '97), so fan favourites like K' are glaringly absent.
The King of Fighters XII retains the series signature four-button setup of light and heavy punches and kicks, and although no substitute for a good arcade stick, the PS3 pad proves more than adequate. The basic combo system is quite flexible with many options to chain basic and specials attacks together. XII also places a strong focus on command moves - i.e. standard attacks which can be performed by pressing an attack button and direction together. As an example, Terry can combo his jumping heavy kick into his standing heavy punch, which hits twice, followed by his Rising Upper command punch and finished with a light Burning Knuckle. Doing slightly over a quarter of full damage, this is a good example of a bread-and-butter King of Fighters combo.
Although XII feels slower than the recent King of Fighters games, and certainly slower than BlazBlue, it's still faster and more combo-heavy than the likes of Street Fighter IV. Further tech is added with the Emergency Evasion, Guard Attack, Blow Back Attack and Critical Counter systems. Emergency Evasion allows you to forward or back roll by pressing both lights. This can be used to avoid an attack but is easy to counter with a well-timed throw. The Guard Attack works like a parry, and if you time it perfectly, will knock back an attacking opponent. But it does minor damage and doesn't seem to be combo-able, so its use beyond escaping the corner is limited.
The Blow Back Attack, however, offers slightly more versatility. By pressing both heavies you can knock the opponent clean off their feet, and as this can often be done mid-combo, is a useful tool for certain characters to cancel into their supers. But the Blow Back Attack can also be charged. A full charge will crumple the opponent, making them fall defencelessly to their knees, giving the player a brief window to dish out some punishment. It's similar to the Focus Attack in Street Fighter IV, but without the ability to absorb a hit it isn't as useful.
Finally, we have the Critical Counter. By doing or taking damage the Critical Counter gauge will gradually fill, and once maxed the player will be put into a Critical Counter state which will last for about 12 seconds. If during this time the player lands a strong punch/kick counter hit, the opponent will be rendered immobile for about three seconds allowing the player to bash out a custom combo. Normal attacks do less damage during a Critical Counter but they can be connected in rapid succession and without knocking the opponent back. By ending a Critical Counter with a super it's possible for a skilled player to punish a mistake with a devastating 20+ hit combo.
Despite some interesting (if not massively original) mechanics, there are elements to XII which feel disappointingly regressive. As a series that has always been about picking a team of three fighters, rather than the more lonely one-on-one bouts of Street Fighter II, it was a welcome addition when The King of Fighters 2003 and XI included the Shift system - allowing players to tag out mid-match as had been popularised with the Marvel vs. Capcom series. But for XII, SNK has brought back the old "take it in turns" system. Players pick their three fighters, choose the order they fight in and then battle till either side is completely annihilated. Classic it may be, but a team battle without a tag system feels like a wasted opportunity.
Elsewhere, the character move-lists feel more sparse than usual. King of Taekwondo Kim Kaphwan has completely lost his Ryuusei Raku charge attack - no longer able to slide across the ground for an overhead kick. With only four special attacks, two less than in XI, Kim isn't even able to perform a follow-up hit after his rip-off of Guile's Flash Kick. This isn't an isolated case as other characters have been watered down too. Terry has the Power Wave and Crack Shoot... but no Power Dunk? Also, Iori Yagami players beware as the Orochi demon has no projectile attacks and now plays quite differently.
Having played BlazBlue I was impressed by how much Arc System had gone above and beyond with all the added extras. By comparison, it seems SNK has tried to scrape by with the bare minimum. What is labelled as the arcade mode actually turns out to be a five-stage time trial. You pick your three fighters and then face off against five other teams before... no wait, that's it. There isn't even a masochistically hard boss to fight, just a few brief cut-scenes featuring some generic news reporters and terrible voice acting. It seems SNK has made this into a "Dream Match" like '98 and 2002, so apart from the usual dodgy win quotes, the narrative is all but absent.
Outside of arcade mode we get versus, practice, replay and gallery. How hard would it have been to at least include a survival mode? Thankfully SNK didn't leave out an online mode but the PlayStation Network netcode is pretty horrendous - even after downloading a compulsory 772MB patch. I managed to have one playable game against another European after creating a room called "euro_noobs", but against anyone from America the lag is generally so crippling it's like fighting in treacle. It's a real shame as, although the matchmaking options are pretty basic, the ability to create your own clan and have three-on-three battles sounds appealing.
The biggest problem with The King of Fighters XII is that it feels unfinished. The combat is fun and robust but not particularly innovative. The Critical Counter system feels like an afterthought and doesn't really compare favourably to Street Fighter IV's Focus Attack or BlazBlue's Drive System. Also, whether because of time constraints or an attempt at accessibility, many of the characters feel a tad diluted. So with Capcom offering more accessibility and Arc System more innovation, it would be hard to recommend XII to casual or hardcore fighter fans that might only have time for one game. It'll be interesting to see what SNK can achieve with a little more time. "Are you okkkayyyy!?!" Yes, but you could've done better mister wolf.
7 / 10