In my favoritism of Street Fighter, I may at times give the impression that I am less than fond of its would-be rival, SNK's King of Fighters. That's not true. I've played every release in the main series, and I even still play and beat the single-player of KoF '95 once a year just for its hilarious ending. While the earlier titles had many faults, 2003 and XI were legitimately well-made fighting games. Seeing SNK Playmore putting real effort into rejuvenating the series with The King of Fighters XII, I was more hyped than I'd ever been for a KoF game. Unfortunately, the "finished" product makes me sad in so many ways.
Let's start with the updated visuals, which were by far the game's most advertised asset. KoF XII runs at about double the resolution of the old Neo-Geo games. Unfortunately, while that was impressive back when Guilty Gear X did it in 2000, the recently released BlazBlue is about double that, and Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix is sharper still. In other words, KoF XII's much hyped new graphics were obsolete long before the game ever came out. Why didn't anybody complain about this during all those enthusiastic previews, you ask? Well, the game truly looked amazing in screenshots and video at its native resolution. Blow them up on that HD set at home, however, and pixelation rears its ugly head. As a result, KoF looks once again less than cutting edge next to its more distinguished peers.
Now, if you've kept up with the KoF series through all its iterations, as I have, then you'll likely still be astounded at how much bigger and sharper these sprites are. But consider how SNK has operated in the past, and the disappointing prospect we then face is that these already outdated graphics may be reused and rehashed for the next several years.
The once annual KoF took a four-year hiatus because SNK Playmore knew it had finally gotten all the mileage it could out of the old sprites. For those four years, the developer was supposed to be working feverishly to give KoF a new lease on life by starting from scratch to painstakingly redraw all the art by hand. So why would they have spent all that work seemingly just to commit the series to obsolete sprites for the next several entries? Well, KoF XI came out in 2005. At the time, the highest res 2-D fighter was still Guilty Gear X. Perhaps SNK Playmore began work on KoF XII right then, setting GGX as the goal, and, by the time HD Remix and BlazBlue raised the bar again, it was too late to react.
The other theory is that KoF XII was held back by the same constraint that has resulted in so many compromised home versions of past 2-D fighters. Namely, current disc-based consoles may not have the RAM to load in the massive amounts of data, in this case constituted by the multitudinous animation frames of this size. You see, the increased resolution was only one side of the makeover. KoF XII also aimed for and here achieved Street Fighter III-caliber animation smoothness. Yes, now every character animates just as silkily as Kim (formerly Kim Kaphwan, now apparently just "Kim") has for the last three installments. For comparison, HD Remix is exactly as choppy as the 1994 game whose sprites it traced over, while BlazBlue is, like Guilty Gear, inconsistent and, even at its best, never close to being on the same level as Street Fighter III. Thus, while those other games may look better in stills, I would insist that no purely 2-D game impresses more in motion than KoF XII.
While the sub-HD sprites are disappointing, and the slick animation cannot wash that away, I might still have unenthusiastically handed KoF XII the title of "current best-looking hand-drawn 2-D video game," based on the unprecedented sum of its resolution and animation. Alas, it's still not that simple. For me, the actual design component may be what is most lacking.
I've remarked previously about KoF's curious preference for dandy men in glam runway outfits that have never seemed appropriate as combat apparel. But that's a large part of KoF's identity; its fans would demand nothing less. I'll also readily admit that I have no fashion sense, so I don't even know if these designs are ahead of or behind the times. What I expect fans will be less pleased about is how barely recognizable so many characters have become. The art has gone from the quasi-realistic look, which distinguished the early installments from the more stylized Capcom titles of the time, to something more exaggeratedly cartoonish, and a lot of characters have undergone drastic transformations. Mature has gone from seductress to freaky, one-eyed wench. Clark looks like he's on a triple dose of that Resident Evil 5 Chris Redfield juice. And Athena looks like a ten-year-old.
Part of the problem is that a lot of my favorite characters are plain missing, so I'm more critical of the select few who did make the cut. Because it took so much work this time to create each character's animations from scratch, KoF XII includes a mere 22 fighters. That would be plenty in almost any other game, but this is a team-based series that began in '94 with 24 characters and has, over ten sequels, grown to include more than 50. 22 slots isn't enough now to contain even just what might be considered all the core characters.
Of course, Kyo Kusanagi, Iori Yagami, Terry Bogard, and Ryo Sakazaki are all in. Andy Bogard, Joe Higashi, Robert Garcia, and Leona also make their triumphant returns here. But, for the second straight installment, Mai Shiranui, probably the most recognizable SNK character to Western players, is nowhere to be seen. In fact, this time, not a single member of the Women's Team made it in--no King, Yuri Sakazaki, Kasumi Todoh, Chizuru, Li Xiangfei, Hinako Shijou, or Blue Mary. Also absent are K' and any of his '99-2001 era cohorts. What do we get instead? Raiden? Chin Gentsai?! Really? Nor is this a calculated paring down and return to the classics, as seen by the inclusions of Elisabeth Branctorche (formerly Blanctorche) and the entire 2003 Hero Team (Ash Crimson, Duo Lon, Shen Woo).
KoF has always been a niche title that appeals, not even to the already hardcore audience of fighting game fans, but really only to SNK and KoF fans. For this series and this developer, the drive to design a mechanically sound competitive game has seemingly always been of secondary importance, while the emphasis on style is exactly what series loyalists appreciate. In addition to the losses of popular characters and recognizable designs, however, KoF XII is lacking surprisingly a lot of what won those fans in previous installments. There are no intro animations whatsoever for any of the characters. Even though it's still a team-based fighter, there are no more official teams, since there aren't enough characters to divide meaningfully.
There is no story. No, this is not a "dream match" like '98 or 2002; except for Mature, they didn't bring back any dead characters. The plot is just one more thing that SNK Playmore didn't have time for. There's not even a final boss. The single-player just has you fighting through five rounds of "time trials," as you aim to clear the arcade mode as quickly as possible. There are no survival or challenge modes, nor any unlockables, so the only thing for the lone player to do is go for the fastest time in arcade mode. My personal best of 3:13 with Leona put me at #48 out of 9999 on the online rankings as of last Sunday. I've probably dropped some spots since, and while I'm sure I could shave a few seconds off that time, there's nothing more to gain from it, now that I've already gotten my gold PSN trophy.
In the unlikely event that you can find worthwhile human competition, the core game does play well. Movement is tight, controls are responsive, and it feels overall as a top-of-the-line Street Fighter derivative should. The intriguing "Critical Counter" system is like custom combos, but its use is shrewdly restricted to keep it from becoming exploited like similar systems in other games.
Something that has always annoyed me about this series has been its willingness to suddenly and extensively overhaul characters' move sets--not just adding, but also removing--to the extent that returning fighters may as well not even be the same characters. This time around, Ash has lost the super-slow version of his sonic boom. Iori Yagami, since '95 the most stalwart fireball-uppercut character in KoF, now has neither fireball nor uppercut. Why? Well, Ash did do a number on him at the end of KoF XI. But XII doesn't pick up that story in any other way, so who the hell knows what the deal is. And while I have, in the past, accused KoF of including too many useless attacks that only exist to look cool, I really do miss Terry Bogard's "Power Dunk."
Lastly, I want to mention the audio. Like many recent fighters, KoF XII includes both Japanese and English voices. Oddly, on the English track, many characters, such as Athena, still speak with Japanese accents. Since Athena's moves have English names to begin with ("Psycho Swooord!"), I at first thought that maybe they decided not to bother rerecording that audio. But the clips are definitely different between the Japanese and English Athena. Mind you, I'm not even complaining. For someone accustomed to two decades of Japanese voices, the recent trend of providing new English voices in titles like The King of Fighters: Maximum Impact and Street Fighter IV has produced jarring results. KoF XII's English track, on the other hand, sounds quite natural. But what's the deal with that blonde reporter lady in the arcade mode cut scene, who speaks the English with an outrageous Japanese accent?
KoF XII obviously won't replace Street Fighter IV as the top fighter on the competitive circuit, nor does it offer the depth of BlazBlue to appeal to the hardcore scene. But the beginnings of a potentially excellent game are there. It's just a shame that, in the backs of our minds more than anything else, I suspect we're all hoping that SNK Playmore starts over again to give us the real HD graphics next time.