"The first and most obvious stumble is the limited character roster, which perhaps wouldn't be a problem except that some of the very most important fighters are missing in action. In particular, there's little presence from the female side of the crowd. Mai, best known for her heaving bosom but also for her acrobatic and lethal attack style, is nowhere to be seen. Somehow The King of Fighters feels wrong without her, like a Street Fighter game with no Chun-Li or a Dead or Alive game with no Kasumi. Mary didn't make the cut, either, nor did plenty of beefcakes."
Five words immediately leap to mind when I think about The King of Fighters XII for the PlayStation 3: "Why didn't they finish it?" Other phrases also occur to me after awhile, things like "The sprites sure are pretty!" and "I should play it again." Those are more favorable, of course, and I wish they could come first. They just don't
You've perhaps heard by now that The King of Fighters XII is a beautiful game. That's true. Press materials stress how every single sprite that franchise fans have been enjoying for years was redrawn for this important new outing. That's true also and it makes me very happy. Under your control, fighters will slink, stomp and leap across the arenas with fluid and precise movements more spectacular than anything previously seen in the series. The fighters look so amazing every step of the way that for a second, you might forget that you're even playing.
Stage backgrounds are a mixed bag, as always, but the selection skews more regularly toward excellence than it did in some of the previous installments. There's some vibrant imagery on display and a lot more movement as the artists play around with beefier hardware. Crowds sway hypnotically in a volcanic cavern. Thousands of bits of confetti twirl under stadium lights. Then there are the more comical trappings you'd expect from an SNK fighter... like pigs that wander across the foreground while people in a market cheer from behind the safety of crates overflowing with fruit, or another scene where fat ladies in neon dresses head bang and box as behind them killer whales splash in water tanks. The way that detail, depth and humor come together feels precisely like it should while looking better than it ever has before. That's a feat worth celebrating.
The powerful visuals may be a huge selling point for The King of Fighters XII, but they wouldn't have amounted to much if they'd simply been slapped onto the old combat engine. Fortunately, that's not the case. Fights are now more satisfying than ever before, with leaps and charges lent new versatility and many of the flashiest attacks more naturally fitting into combos a veteran player might choose to execute. Not that I can lay claim to such a label myself. I'm familiar enough with things to notice that move priority seems to have been tweaked, but not devoted enough to quote numbers and distances. Just know that if you go into things expecting your same old tactics to carry you easily to victory, you could be in for a bit of a surprise as you find yourself on the wrong side of a kick to the face that you thought would never reach you. The resulting benefit is that the available moves do a better job of distinguishing one memorable character from the next.
Since the game gets all of those important things right, you might be wondering where it goes astray.
The first and most obvious stumble is the limited character roster, which perhaps wouldn't be a problem except that some of the very most important fighters are missing in action. In particular, there's little presence from the female side of the crowd. Mai, best known for her heaving bosom but also for her acrobatic and lethal attack style, is nowhere to be seen. Somehow The King of Fighters feels wrong without her, like a Street Fighter game with no Chun-Li or a Dead or Alive game with no Kasumi. Mary didn't make the cut, either, nor did plenty of beefcakes. The absence of such beloved warriors will surely leave some long-time fans crying "foul," as will the realization that characters have been stripped of some of their specials.
Some of the disappointment from the trimmed roster and move sets is at least nullified by the more than 20 quality fighters that are represented so spectacularly, but there are omissions elsewhere that are just plain baffling. Chief among these is the complete lack of any sort of "Story" mode. You get to play through a five-round tournament that keeps track of your total clear time. Then a generic picture displays for a moment before everything goes black and credits roll while you enter your initials. That's it. There's no boss (not entirely a bad thing, given SNK's record of courting cheapness), no sense of closure and no reason to play again except to earn a better time and ranking, though I must admit that I did become addicted to seeing how low I could get my overall time. It's not long at all before that shift in focus turns your thoughts from questions like "can I beat these guys?" to "how can I maximize the damage I inflict to get rid of this chump more quickly?" That's not an altogether bad change and it does keep things interesting, but a few narrative incentives still wouldn't have gone astray.
Online play could have been fantastic and might even have made up for single-player shortcomings, but that's not yet the case. During one match that was to prove typical of my experience as a whole, each passing second on the in-game timer took closer to twice that amount of time to transpire. After I dealt a particularly lethargic series of blows, my opponent countered my offense with a flurry of wild kicks. Just as my fighter began to back away, everything froze and the word "Synchronizing" flashed on the screen, then stayed there for 10 or 15 seconds before my opponent resumed an assault that I had no possible way of blocking in my lagged state. I would have been pretty upset over the whole ordeal if the lag hadn't already done everything it could to remove my sense of involvement. As things stood, I had no reason to do anything but shrug. Even when a match goes well and has no apparent lag, opponents abandon games just before a winner is declared, whether because they timed out or were just afraid to lose I can't really say.
Though the game is brand new, issues such as those that I've noted above have already prompted the release of a patch. You'll be required to download it almost the minute you insert the game, which makes sense given your likely experience without the content. Unfortunately, the file is 772MB large and presently takes more than an hour to arrive from the hammered server. After that wait, the package tweaks only minor issues while failing to properly address the substantial lag. At this point, we're probably still a few downloads from a game that works like it should have right from the start. Rumors of an upcoming patch that will rectify everything persist, but we've already heard that once before. Until those files arrive on our systems and actually work as promised, who's to say that they'll ever materialize?
For SNK Playmore, The King of Fighters XII is an important game and the franchise's overdue first step into the new generation. Possible future titles and downloadable content should build on what has been started here, refining the project and adding to it until someday we have a worthwhile experience every bit as thrilling and robust as the best two-dimensional fighting games from our youth. That day is not today, however, even though--online play excepted--everything that's actually included is fantastic. Here's hoping that the people at SNK Playmore have the luxury of a redo and that the results turn out as awesome as this current release could have been. Here's hoping that they get to finish what they started.
Staff review by Jason Venter (July 28, 2009)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
If you enjoyed this The King of Fighters XII review, you're encouraged to discuss it with the author and with other members of the site's community. If you don't already have an HonestGamers account, you can sign up for one in a snap. Thank you for reading!