FEATURE: "The King of Fighters XIII" Review

The king of classic, hardcore fighting action returns in style, but remembers its roots

I love fighting games.  While I'm more of a Capcom guy than anything else, I have a strong attachment towards SNK and its stable of brawlers, especially The King of Fighters.  The first game in the series, The King of Fighters '94, brought characters together from SNK's Fatal Fury, Art of Fighting, Psycho Soldier, and Ikari Warriors arcade games along with a new lead character in Kyo Kusanagi and his Team Japan, organized all of them into teams of three and let them fight it out.

 

Since then, a lot of changes have been made to the series.  While you originally had to choose set-in-stone teams of three, KoF '95 introduced Team Edit, which allowed you to mix and match characters from different teams to create your own optimal team.  '95 also introduced Iori Yagami as a rival for Kyo, and since then the series' story has revolved around their rivalry and the various tournament-running lunatics, servants and descendants of the dark god Orochi, and criminal groups who love making clones of Kyo.

 

In 2009, The King of Fighters XII brought the series into HD, with stunning new sprites, but the game failed to perform well.  Sloppy netcode, no new characters, and no character or team endings made all the graphical improvements feel hollow.  SNK (now SNK Playmore) promised to make The King of Fighters XIII worthy of what fans wanted... and they've succeeded far beyond my expectations.

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The King of Fighters XIII brings together 33 total characters from previous King of Fighters games including new boss character Saiki.  Almost everyone here is a familiar face, but it's nice to see the return of early-series characters like Chin Gentsai, along with Mature and newer characters like K' and Shen Woo who were absent from KoF XII.

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While previous games just kept adding moves until some characters could completely dominate others, XIII has scaled down the abilities of certain characters, meaning you'll have to work for your victories.  Terry Bogard doesn't have Power Dunk, which threw off my game and forced me to re-learn how to play one of my mains.  The system is deliberately old-school compared to newer fighters: juggles are limited, there are no OTGs that allow you to continue or reset combos after someone has been knocked down and there is no comeback mechanic other than pure skill.

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Just as much care has been given to the characters themselves--while the animated intros of previous games are gone, there's unique dialogue with every pairing of fighters, even mirror matches.  You can play in a standard Arcade Mode where you fight through the tournament until you face the usual brutally cheap final boss (complete with Target Actions that help you practice skills and break up the monotony of fighting the CPU), but there is also a fully fleshed-out Story Mode.  While some people may be put off by the fact that there's no spoken dialogue, it retains the old-school feel and the beautiful animation more than makes up for it.  Plus: no terrible voice acting!  Much like visual-novel type games like Phoenix Wright, a lot of the story is told through (beautifully-drawn) stills with occasional animation.  While I don't have a problem with this, some people might find this very traditional feel rather off-putting.

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But something will inevitably come up that will separate this game from other modern fighting games: it's hard.  The two (yes, two) final bosses aren't quite as bad as, say, Goenitz or Igniz, but they'll take some effort to beat if you're going to be unlocking everything from the game's sizable Gallery.  Even if you tone the difficulty down, it's no cakewalk--I had a friend with very little fighting game experience play it on Very Easy mode, the lowest of the five difficulty settings, and she had to pass the controller over to me after dying several times at the very last boss--and I still had a hard time!

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The combat also requires precision that you don't normally need in today's fighting games.  King of Fighters has always been more about controlling space and delivering pinpoint counters than pulling off long chain combos, but with the addition of Hyper Drive mode and Drive Cancels, which allow you to pull off fast cancels from special to special (like Guilty Gear's Roman Cancels only much more forgiving), your timing will need to be perfect.  If you want to improve at this game, be prepared to put in long hours of practice.

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A faster to way to improve, of course, is to play against others online, and while KoF XIII has leagues-better netcode than XII, there are a few slight problems.  Playing it on the 360 (my preferred system for fighting games), I've noticed minor lag playing people from across the country, and a few brief hiccups as the game tried to optimize for my rather average connection.  2- and 3-bar matches work on the 360, but several friends of mine who bought this game for PS3 have noticed that anything under 4 bars ranges from frustrating to unacceptable.

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The King of Fighters XIII gives me more hope than you can imagine for classic-styled 2D fighting games.  Its smooth, hi-res character animation, attention to detail, and decidedly traditional combat make for one of the best purchases of the year.  It's made with hardcore fighting game fans in mind, but has enough variety and originality to satisfy lapsed fans, as well as give newer players a chance to experience one of the greats in fighting history.

 

Do we have any KoF fans here?  Who have you been using, and what do you think of some of the story developments?

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