Between Mortal Kombat, Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition and not one, but two versions of Marvel vs. Capcom 3, it's been a good year for fans of 2D fighting games. Not to be outdone, SNK Playmore (with the help of Atlus) has released the biggest and best version of The King of Fighters yet. The King of Fighters XIII may not reinvent the franchise, but it does make a strong argument why SNK was so widely praised for their high quality fighting games.
By now you know the set-up: A bunch of SNK's biggest characters come together in one crazy game full of team-based fighting action. We see mainstays from Fatal Fury (Mai Shiranui, Terry Bogard, Joe Higashi), Art of Fighting (Ryo Sakazaki,Takuma Sakazaki, Robert Garcia), Ikari Warriors (Ralf Jones, Clark Still, Leona Heidern) and any other popular franchise SNK could liberally pull from. The result is a roster of more than 30 characters, each with their own style, moves and combos.
Like past installments, you take part in a three-on-three team bout. This is not a tag team event like Marvel vs. Capcom orTekken Tag Tournament, instead you use a character until they either get knocked out or win the whole thing. This places a lot of importance to who you select and in what order they fight. Of course, players not looking for the team gameplay can switch to a standard one-on-one mode.
While a lot of fighters this year attempted to offer a more accessible game to draw in new fans, SNK has taken a different route. The King of Fighters XIII is a dense sequel that pulls from two decades worth of fighting game experience and iterations. There's an overwhelming amount of moves, combos, systems and cancels to learn in order to stand a chance. Couple that with the dozens of characters and teams and you have a game that will take some time to truly master. The King of Fighters XIII is for a sub-set of hardcore fighting fan that is looking for a real challenge.
Thankfully the game does an excellent job of explaining the differences between the power moves, drive moves, desperation moves, EX special moves, NEO MAX and max cancel moves. Not only does the game come with an 85 page long instruction manual (by far the largest manual I've ever seen packaged with this style of game), but the in-game tutorial is deep and thorough. For as daunting as the game seems at first, there's more than enough content to keep gamers of all ability levels entertained.
The big change this year is the introduction of a dedicated story mode. Here you'll find a series of branching stories that attempt to tell the King of Fighters narrative. They do this by showing you good looking animated cinemas that set up conflicts. The story and cut scenes change depending on who you select and how well you perform. The goal here is to see all of the cut scenes and fill in the full story. This gives the player an incentive to go back and try to fill in all the story pieces, something that turns out to be a rather addictive activity.
While I applaud the effort involved in making these good looking cut scenes, I found the narrative structure extremely hard to follow. What's more, there's no voice acting in the cinemas. Instead we are given subtitles while the characters flap their lips. This is extremely disconcerting. It's not that I need voice acting in games, but there's something troubling about seeing people talk but not hearing any sounds come out of their mouth. Even if they didn't want to re-record the dialog using American voice actors, I would have still preferred some sort of sound to come out of their silent mouths.
The King of Fighters XIII also gives you a piece of the story for simply playing the arcade mode. Before each match you'll be treated to a lengthy back and forth between combatants, adding a lot of depth to the characters. Sadly, some of the writing is clunky and the character's motivation is often questionable. However, even with some localization issues, I appreciated the attempt to make these battles be about something.
Beyond the arcade and story modes, The King of Fighter packages in a lot of other modes you've come to expect from modern fighting games. You'll find a Time Attack mode, Survival mode, Trial mode, Practice mode and more. Players are even able to customize their own characters, adding colors and details to their design. While none of these are as substantial as the story and arcade modes, they help round out a nice package.
There's also an online mode that will let you take on SNK fans from across the world. Unfortunately many of the matches I played were plagued by lagging issues and disconnections. This is something that other fighting franchises have had to deal with in the past, so I hope that SNK figures out a way to resolve these problems with title updates. On the other hand, it's always more fun to go head-to-head against your friends on the same system.
A few minor issues aside, this is a complete turnaround from 2010's King of Fighters XII. While I was impressed with the game's high definition visuals and solid gameplay, I was underwhelmed by the lack of characters and modes. Thankfully SNK got it right this time around. The game is full of single- and multiplayer modes, has a huge roster to choose from and, most importantly, retains the graphics and solid gameplay. This is the King of Fighters sequel we've all been waiting for.
Not enough can be said about how good this game looks. With all of the other fighters opting for polygonal graphics (albeit in a 2D setting), The King of Fighters XIII really stands out with its traditional sprites. The characters looks hand drawn; they really shine on a high definition display. A lot of attention has also gone into making the special moves (drive moves, desperation moves, EX special moves, NEO MAX, etc.) look extra special. You'll want to do the moves over and over to see the effect, something I haven't done since playing the original DarkStalkers in the arcade.
But as good as the characters and special moves look, they are overshadowed by the many backgrounds the game offers. Even if the locations don't sound especially fresh (London streets, high rise building, African tribe, India, etc.), the developers have found a way to make you remember each and every one of them. You'll fight at the top of an unfinished building, overlooking what must be miles of cityscape. You'll be surrounded by enormous elephants in a level that puts Dhalsim's stage from Street Fighter II to shame. These stages are filled with an attention to detail you don't normally see in a fighting game, making this one of the best looking 2D games of the year.
It's worth noting that most (if not all) versions of the game come packaged with an impressive four-disc CD soundtrack chronicling the last two decades of The King of Fighters franchise. You get more than 100 tracks from the annual series, including nearly 30 tracks just from The King of Fighter XIII. If you're already leaning towards picking up this incredible fighting game, this CD box set should make that decision a lot easier.
The King of Fighter XIII is more than another solid entry in into the series; it's one of the best installments yet. SNK has really figured out what people wanted, which includes a large roster, amazing backgrounds and tons of modes. At the same time it's a deep fighter that will entice anybody who graduated from the recent Mortal Kombat and Marvel vs. Capcom games. It has a few issues, but this SNK fighter is the perfect cap to an incredible year for fighting games.