"Power. Thatís all itís really about, isnít it? Never mind the wealth. Forget the glory. The King of Fighters tournaments have and always will be a struggle for power. Some want it for good. Others want it for evil. Then there are guys like Ash Crimson. Heís out to steal the mystical flames of Kusanagi and Yagami Clans. Now that the tournament is starting up again, heís got his sights set on Kyo and Iori, the wielders of the powers heís after. Itís not like heís an utterly depraved villain..."
Power. Thatís all itís really about, isnít it? Never mind the wealth. Forget the glory. The King of Fighters tournaments have and always will be a struggle for power. Some want it for good. Others want it for evil. Then there are guys like Ash Crimson. Heís out to steal the mystical flames of Kusanagi and Yagami Clans. Now that the tournament is starting up again, heís got his sights set on Kyo and Iori, the wielders of the powers heís after. Itís not like heís an utterly depraved villain; by stealing from those two, heíll have rid the world of one of the deadliest rivalries in history. Of course, he doesnít seem to have much in the way of morals either, so itís up to you to decide how evil he is. Ethical ambiguity aside, heís laying a trap for the most powerful warriors in The King of Fighters XI. And maybe, just maybe, heíll get what he came forÖ
Meanwhile, everyone is too conveniently preoccupied to notice Ashís scheming. The King of Fighters may seem like a regular fighting tournament, but any vet of the series knows thereís more at stake here than just prize money. Something bad is going down behind the scenes, and several heroes have returned to stop it. If youíve played King of Fighters 2003, youíre going to recognize the majority of the fighters, even if their teams have been switched around a bit. While characters like Terry Bogard, Benimaru, the Ikari Warriors, and rest of the supporting cast are expected, itís the missing and extra characters that stand out the most. Chang, Joe, and Leona have been ditched in favor of some old fan favorites. Geese, Robert Garcia, Eiji, Duck King, Tung Fu Rue, and Mr. Big are all ready to kick ass. Thatís on top of the cameos from SNKís other titles; the main heroes and villains from Kizuna Encounter and Buriki-One are present as well. With nearly 50 playable characters, seasoned gamers and newcomers alike will have plenty to choose from.
Youíll have to choose carefully, too. The King of Fighters XI retains the same concept as its 2003 predecessor: three-person teams. There are already distinct teams laid out for the sake of plot progression and continuity, but that doesnít stop you from making your own dream lineup. Imagine joining mortal enemies like Terry and Geese together, or having Ash work with the people heís trying to rob. Or how about Ryo, Robert, and Mr. Big, just for old times sake? Thereís more to team selection than mere nostalgia, however; to have a well-balanced group, youíre going to need to know the strengths and weaknesses of each character. Do you think you can get by with just a team of grapple-happy warriors? What about characters that focus more on fast-paced close-ranged assaults, or those that rely more on projectiles? Thereís a lot to think about when youíre looking at the massive character selection screen. Even if the gameís learning curve is fairly forgiving, youíll get your ass kicked quickly if you donít know what youíre doing.
Even if you get to choose the order of your charactersí appearances before each battle, it wonít matter much. Youíll be able to tag between characters with a push of a button, thus ensuring that unevenly matched characters donít necessarily have to fight each other. There are a few obligatory tag combos and moves associated with the switch as well. The tag system isnít some kind of broken escape from a tough situation, though. Thereís a delay before the tag that leaves the onscreen character wide open to attack. Considering how brutal some of these opponents can be, youíd better be sure thereís enough time to tag out, lest your fighter get slaughtered for your negligence. The trick is learning how to use the tagging system effectively in terms of both character matchups and attack combos; a King of Fighters veteran will likely enjoy the little nuances and changes from the tag-team gameplay of the 2003 version.
Thatís on top of all the other technical mumbo jumbo that comes with the gameplay. These characters are armed with a slew of attacks of varying strengths, priorities, and ranges. There are also multiple projectiles, burning fists, electrical charges, Magical Playing Cards of Death, and several other special attacks with which to contend. Combined with some health bar-shattering supermoves and special commands, itís pretty clear that these fighters have plenty of tricks up their sleeves. But what you might not notice are the subtle technical maneuvers. Youíll be able to perform defensive rolls, counter certain attacks, break through blocking attempts, cancel moves for the sake of leading into a follow-up combo, and other abilities from previous titles. Even the tag-team system has its own hidden tactics; depending on the combo, youíll be able to switch characters quickly and continue your onslaught. Like any other ability in the game, however, this specialized tagging consumes the energy gauge that you build during a match. Since the characters can only hold so much energy at a time, this prevents any really broken combos and helps balance out the gameplay.
You wonít actually need to know all of that stuff, by the way. You can get by with just learning a selection of your charactersí moves and trudging through the Arcade, Team, Single, VS, and survival modes. But if you intend to complete the Challenge Mode, youíre going to need to learn every minor detail possible. This 40-Mission test isnít for a beginner; between performing several Recovery Rolls, defeating an enemy with a 20-hit combo, winning a battle where a single hit can kill you, and taking on multiple gauntlets of opponents, youíre going to learn just how skilled of fighting game fan you are. Beating these challenges wonít just give you bragging rights, either; some of them yield the secret characters that can be used to unlock special endings, illustrations, and other bonuses. With a massive gallery of unlockables, extensive color editing, and other options to contend with, thereís a ton of extra content to acquire and enjoy.
That unlockable artwork is probably the prettiest thing youíll ever see in the game, though. Itís not that the characters look terrible Ė SNK is usually great with their sprites and animations Ė but these fighters look a bit grainy and dated. If youíve played The King of Fighters 2003, you wonít see much change in the returning characters. The movements are still as lively as ever, though; newcomer Shion can shift from holding a lance to a throwing dart to a Kung Fu stance with remarkable fluidity. Then there are guys like Oswald, whose flying card tricks and smooth dodging moves make him look like a demented Fred Astaire. Besides, nothing brings on the nostalgia like watching Duck King breakdance his foes into submission. Even if these charactersí imagery canít compete with likes of 2D works of art like Guilty Gear Accent Core or Odin Sphere, their shortcomings donít hinder the gameplay from being more fast-paced and demanding than ever before.
That said, The King of Fighters XI is one of the best installments in the series. The sheer amount of playable characters, dated or otherwise, ensures that youíll find someone that fits your playing styles. The tagging system has been greatly refined and rebalanced, thus making the game more fun and challenging at the same time. For the veterans of older SNK games like Art of Fighting and Fatal Fury, be prepared for some awesome bonus characters and other fanservice. The combat is fierce, quick, and challenging, but crafted well enough to keep you coming back for more. While there are multiple gameplay modes to try, the Challenge Mode sets itself apart as a real test of your skill. With tons of unlockable content and bonus options, there will be plenty of reasons to keep playing long after youíve beaten the horribly cheap boss. The King of Fighters XI not only serves as an example of an excellent fighting game, but as a reminder of how great 2D gaming still is.
Community review by disco (January 03, 2008)
Disco is a San Francisco Bay Area native, whose gaming repertoire spans nearly three decades and hundreds of titles. He loves fighting games, traveling the world, learning new things, writing, photography, and tea. Not necessarily in that order.
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