Just because 2009 is the “year of the fighter,” it doesn’t mean that every fighting game released in 2009 will live up to expectations. In a year where we’ve been blown away by the airtight gameplay and wonderfully stylized visuals of Street Fighter IV, the gorgeous sprites and staggering depth of BlazBlue: Calamity Trigger, and the infinite online replayability of Marvel Vs. Capcom 2, one fighting game was bound to disappoint us. I just didn’t expect that one game to be King of Fighters XII.
As its name suggests, King of Fighters XII is the twelfth game in the KoF series. Surprisingly, it’s also the first real update to the series since its inception in 1994. For the first time, the franchise is treated to all new hand-drawn character sprites, backgrounds and move sets. When players are far apart, they show up on screen at about the size of the older games’ sprites, and they look fantastic. Most of the time, though, players are close together, showing up on screen much bigger than in most fighting games. The problem is that when viewed from up close, the characters are extremely pixilated. This makes the game look dated, despite its brand new, wonderfully animated characters. Level backgrounds have received an even more drastic upgrade, and are now extremely bright, colorful, and busy. Sadly, this actually acts as a detriment. There’s just so much movement and chaos going on back there that it can be a serious distraction. Certain levels try to add shadowing effects, which, at first glance, look very cool on 2D sprites, but the effect sometimes makes the entire scene too dark, further detracting from its already sub-par visual presentation.
If you’re a fan of offline 2-player matches, King of Fighters XII offers some worthwhile fighting action. The KoF series has always been known for its fluid controls and varied fighting styles, and XII delivers on both fronts…sort of. The franchise has also always been known for its great selection of playable fighters, but this time around, there are only 22 fighters available. In a 3-on-3 fighting game, this is simply too few characters. Likewise, there can only be so much variety of fighting styles with so few fighters. Luckily, with the exception of Mature, one of the two console-exclusive fighters, everyone seems well-balanced with no obviously gimped or overpowered characters.
Arcade mode is a far easier ordeal than it has ever been before in a King of Fighters game. Even on the harder settings, defeating the computer is pretty easy, but at least it allows you to learn different characters’ abilities, weaknesses and tendencies. Playing online, however, is an exercise in pure frustration. Latency isn’t just a common problem; it’s omnipresent. Every match plays at about 5 frames per second, meaning that full fights can take up to a half an hour to complete. Until a patch arrives, the online mode has to be considered broken. Even the online menus are an archaic, convoluted mess that make jumping into matches way more difficult than it should be. As a last example of how poorly the online features have been implemented, it is impossible to exit spectator mode without exiting to the Xbox 360 dashboard or turning the system off.
With only 22 characters, no unlockables, and a broken multiplayer component, King of Fighters isn’t just a feature-poor package, it’s an unfinished product. SNK Playmore is likely banking on their DLC packages to flesh out the roster and future patches to make the online functionality…functional, but charging $60 for an essentially incomplete game is a travesty. It doesn’t look anywhere near as good as promised, it features a paltry selection of fighters, no story, and one functioning game mode. The core of a good 2D fighter exists within the game, but there are so many inexcusable problems that King of Fighters XII shouldn’t be a purchase consideration for anyone, fan of the series or not.