This year has been littered with fighting games and really, it is quite hard to pay proper attention and respect to all of them. Focus Cancels, Guard Libra Gauge, Ultra Combos, Critical Counters, frame data. All of these things are different from game to game, so pardon me if I don't find time to grow proficient in all these games. Because, it's seriously a tough prospect and I just don't have the time to get to tournament level contention. Unfortunately, King of Fighters XII will not be one of those titles I decide to dedicate my time and energy to. After having an absolute blast with King of Fighters 2006 (or Maximum Impact 2 if you want to get really technical), I was absolutely shocked to see what a dead experience King of Fighters XII is. It's a game that is lacking in every area except graphics and gameplay. And that may leave you wondering, what the hell does everything else add to the game that makes King of Fighters XII such a colossal failure? The answer, is surprisingly, a lot. Without a lot of the soul that goes in to a King of Fighters game the whole experience of XII is depressingly hollow, and after all of the hype that went in to this game, that's not how this all should have gone down.
First of all, I want to say that King of Fighters XII is a very competent fighting game. It has always been that way, otherwise there wouldn't be a need for a twelfth version, people love this franchise, and it's easy to see why, it's got a massive roster of characters with a rich story universe to pull from, and there is more than likely going to be at least one person who plays to your style. King of Fighters XII is no exception and has a lot to offer with the new systems added to the series even if they seem curiously similar to aspects of other fighting games. First is the Blow Back attacks. The basic function of these attacks is to charge them and use them to put your opponent in to a stun state allowing you to begin a long combo string and can be likened to the Focus Attacks of Street Fighter 4 but without the ability to absorb an attack. Instead if you want to parry an attack you would perform a Guard Attack, which is similar to a Blow Back, in addition to holding the strong attack buttons, you also hold back to guard, and if an opponent attempts to attack while you are in this state they will be sent flying. Next up you have the Dead Lock system, this can be considered the more violent cousin of the Opposing Hit system from Guilty Gear. When two characters attack each other at the same time with the same strength attack, you can enter the Dead Lock state. When this happens, both characters take a little bit of damage from the hit and are reset to neutral status, this happens faster than a normal attack resolves, giving you a chance to instantly react offensively or defensively. Some characters can also use this system to destroy projectiles, keeping you safe from people who like to spam fireballs if you've got the skills for it.
The last new feature and probably the most important, is the Critical Counter system. Below each characters life bar is the Critical Counter gauge, and as you receive and deal damage this meter will fill. Upon completion your meter will glow, and your hard attacks will have a slight visual cue to it. If you manage to land a counter attack while in this state you will enter the Critical Combo state. This will allow you to deal out a custom combination for an incredible amount of damage if you can land the correct string of attacks. Those of you who have played Street Fighter Alpha 2 and beyond will be familiar with this system as it basically mirrors the custom combo mechanic. Putting this all together kind of gives you a who's who of fighting game aspects, married to the stuff you know and love with King of Fighters, Emergency Evades, super jumping, and hyper hopping are all here as well to help you mix up your game.
So with all these new systems in place, it's now time to find a character that works for you to play as them. Let's see, King, nope. Mai, missing. Uh, Angel? Gone. Rugal has to be here, maybe even Heidern. Nah, a bunch of the characters are sadly missing from this game. Instead you have a roster of twenty two characters which is a still a good collection, but you're still missing a lot of the eccentric characters who had a more unique approach to fighting, and in my case, almost all of the characters I enjoyed playing with are absent from the game. Overall the cast is solid, featuring mainstays like Terry and Andy Bogard, Iori Yagami, Kyo Kusanagi, and Athena Asamiya. But this is one of those times where I hope for DLC to come along and give me a chance to play as someone other than Kim or Ash Crimson. All of these characters have been giving a bit of a move set refinement and most noticeable of all, they have been giving incredible new art.By far, the biggest and most dramatic change to King of Fighters XII is the astounding hand drawn characters. Screen shots and youtube videos have sort of spoiled everyone on how good this game was going to look. There is a little pixelation to be seen in those sprites, but that's what happens when you make a game with sprites. This game still looks astonishing and easily trumps anything previously released in the KoF series. From the characters to the locales they fight in, you're going to be amazed at how much is going on in the heat of battle with no unintentional slowdown. The crowds are especially interesting, from a French dockside filled with women suspiciously shaped like pigs, to the South American Aztec looking ceremony with countless worshipers swaying to the sounds of battle. This really is a game you have to see in motion to appreciate how good it looks.
Audio on the other hand seems to be a bit of a mixed bag. The audio levels are all over the map in terms of volume. The crowd sound effects drown out pretty much everything, and then when you turn that down, everything else is too quiet to even hear it without turning the television volume up, and the music is completely forgettable and bland. The decision to include both English and Japanese voice acting is appreciated, but I'm not really sure if it was even necessary.
Here is where the game loses a ton of steam. The presentation is simply atrocious. From the get-go everything about this experience screams bare-bones. The menus are a bland shade of blue with plain text font. Navigating these things is nothing short of tedious, especially when trying to put up with the hit or miss online play. Your options for game play are extremely limited as well. You've got Time Attack mode, which offers you five matches, with the option to replay your last match to attempt to get a better time for the stage. Then there is the versus mode which offers three on three or one on one matches against local players or the computer. There is the bland training mode that just puts you in to a fight and lets you try to explore the move set for a character. That's about all this game has to offer, there is no story, which is the most damning aspect of how this game fails.
The King of Fighters universe feels devoid of life and energy that you would see in the previous games. There are no special character intros, there are no stories. There isn't even the (I guess previously requisite) insanely hard SNK boss that requires continue after continue to try and master. It feels like a really half-assed effort on the part of SNK and it is really disappointing, especially after the very strong single player efforts from Capcom and Arc Systems earlier this year. This just strikes me as odd because this is something that has always been present in the King of Fighters universe, and to have it absent just makes this game feel like a phony.
King of Fighters XII is up against stiff competition this year and Tekken 6 is on the horizon as well. Unfortunately it's not looking good for SNK thanks to the failure in presentation. The fighting is solid, and the graphics are hot stuff, but that's about it, and considering how much you're expected to put down for this game, it's a little insulting to pay so much and get such a disappointing experience, especially when you consider that there is nothing to unlock, what you see is what you get. Online play is nothing special and is loaded with lag, even post patch. King of Fighters fans are going to have to a hard time choking down this game. I know I am, after hoping this game would save me from the deluge of Street Fighter 4 crap I have to put up with being an Abel player. But no, SNK decided not to invite the KOF world to this game, and that's a damn shame because it would have made a huge difference. If you're a King of Fighters fan, you're better of trying to track down one of the old PS2 titles, you'll get a graphically inferior game, but at this point, I'd take that over what King of Fighters XII has to offer.