Two years ago, KoF XII hit shelves and thoroughly disappointed long-time fans of the series. It wasn’t a bad game in the traditional sense since it delivered the series‘ usual gameplay, and was in fact a gorgeous game since it was the first entry completely redrawn for HD displays, but it was so lean on characters, features, and overall content that it felt like a glorified demo with a $50 price tag. Now, SNK Playmore has returned and done justice to the series with this entry. Instead of just being limited to a time trial and practice mode (seriously, that’s all KoF XII offered for single-player modes), you’ve got a ton of things to do.
There’s the traditional arcade mode, which includes the usual 3-on-3 battles and some pretty funny banter between the fighters, usually reflecting their relationships with the opponent and/or their clone in the best dialog exchanges I’ve seen in an SNK fighter. It also gives you in-fight targets to reach, like using a 3-hit combo, a special move, EX special, and so on and so forth. Reaching the targets isn’t a requirement to win, but clearing them will give you bonus points for your post-fight rankings and also boost up your power gauge faster, so there are tangible in-game benefits to accomplishing them beyond achievement points and trophies. Then there’s the story mode, about some evil organization and a conspiracy…there’s backstabbing… and yeah it’s basically just kinda there. It’s not particularly compelling and the cut scenes can be time-consuming, even if they do serve as a break from fighting, However, they’re also skippable, so they don’t really do any harm and they are pretty to look at. Unlike KoF XII, this game allows you to have BOSS BATTLES! I never thought I’d be thankful for those in an SNK fighter given how difficult they usually are, but the ones here are quite good and hard enough to challenge you without making you want to throw your controller across the room.
Beyond that, you’ve got practice and training modes, and a mission mode containing time attack and survival modes, along with a trial mode to try and improve your skills with each fighter one at a time by conquering various challenges. Online mode is done fairly well and unlike many past SNK fighters, lag isn’t a big problem. Unfortunately, there’s still no tournament mode available, but honestly, given how grateful I am just to have smooth online play, I don’t really mind it too much. The replay saving feature is really well-done too.
The core game is a blast to play either off or online. Series vets know what to expect from it - this is a team-based fighter that doesn’t allow you to just tag in and out at will. Instead, you go through opponents one at a time, only using your partners if they’re needed. Gameplay hasn’t changed a whole lot over the years, but this entry does add the EX Special system, and brings back the use of multiple power meters on-screen. The EX special moves, for example, use up one full bar of the bottom-left power bar, but dole out tons of damage compared to their normal counterparts. However, if they’re blocked, you’ve got to build the entire power bar back and can’t use EX specials or super moves until then.
The risk/reward system works nicely at balancing the gameplay and prevents players from just spamming super-powered attacks all the time. There’s a lot of depth in the gameplay, but it’s accessible enough to where you can just pick up and play the game with at least some success if you know your way around fighting games in general. The included 80+ page manual (half in English and half in French) does a fantastic job of explaining the intricacies of the gameplay and even gives you a reference guide to a half-dozen of each character’s special moves. It’s a great way to help new players learn moves when there isn’t time to use the practice or training modes, or you don’t want to break up the gameplay with the pause menu’s command listing.
KoF XII’s roster of 22 was the leanest in series history, and gave you about half as many characters as KoF XI did. Now, the number of playable characters has been bumped up to over 30, and while that’s not quite as high as its peak, it’s still a huge step in the right direction. Now you have enough people on the roster to make diverse teams with ease and not feel like you’re stuck using a character you don’t want to simply because one of your favorites isn’t available. Now, fan-favorites like Billy Kane and Mai are back, and making their high-res debuts looking better than one could’ve imagined. Of course, it isn’t all just how good the sprites look in still - animation is a huge part of how good a fighting game looks. XIII delivers really solid animation all around. It’s not the smoothest I’ve ever seen, but it’s certainly very good.
KoF XIII follows XII’s lead with its graphics. The same redrawn sprites are used for characters in both games, and despite two years passing, they still look tremendous. Of course, the new characters done in that same style look outstanding as well. Character animation is also quite smooth, and yet not so smooth that it causes the action to slow due to its fluidity. The backgrounds looked incredible in XII because they were so full of detail, but were too few in number. Now, there are far more backgrounds to fight in and some actually affect more than just the visuals. There’s one underground stage that has a unique echo whenever you perform an attack in it. It’s not a huge deal, but it’s a nice little touch that shows the attention to detail that has gone into crafting the stages. XIII also features the most amazing use of elephants in a background since Dhalsim’s SF II stage. The entire backdrop is littered with them and they look almost photo-realistic. It’s quite a stunning stage to fight in.
As evidenced by pre-ordered copies four-CD best of soundtrack, the KoF series has had some tremendous songs in its library, and XIII is no different. In fact, its soundtrack makes for over a quarter of the total content on that compilation, and while that is no doubt due to it being a XIII tie-in, it’s also a sign of just how good the music is. There’s quite a bit of variety here, so fans of heavy metal, slower metal, and even orchestral music will be satisfied. My favorite tracks are the ‘80s rock-styled “Tame a Bad Boy”, the epic symphonic metal song “Fate”, and the incredibly fast-paced “Each Promise“ that sounds like something out of Sonic the Hedgehog 2. The sound effects are also pretty good. The smack of kicks and punches gets across their damage nicely, while ambient background noises add to the atmosphere and help each stage stand out.
King of Fighters XIII is clearly SNK Playmore’s attempt to make good on the disappointing KoF XII and succeeds wonderfully. The offline modes are plentiful and fun, while online is actually handled pretty well. It’s lean on bells and whistles but delivers a pretty smooth experience. It’s exactly what long-time players expected the series to be in the modern HD era, and while it’s a shame it took two games for it to happen, I’m glad to see it happen at all. Series vets should pick this up ASAP, but newcomers should definitely either buy past entries (the PS2/Wii compilation shouldn’t cost more than $15 now) before buying this, or rent this, because the series isn’t for everyone. If you’ve ever liked it, you’ll like this, and if you haven’t, then this probably won’t change your mind.
Atlus went above and beyond with the pre-order four-CD set too. For the added cost of nothing, you get four discs with 101 songs total. I really enjoyed just listening to the discs on their own because there’s a big difference between having the music as background music in a game where you’re trying to do something else and then listening to it on its own. Music in a game can be held to a lower standard because of that, so I was pleasantly surprised to see just how much of the music holds up really well when it’s the only thing you‘re listening to.
The discs themselves appear well-made, with nice art on each one - they certainly didn’t cheap out on them. They’re contained in their own folding sleeve, each with different art on it. The packaging looks great, although you have to carefully pull the discs out of the paper or else you’ll either dent the paper or risk scratching the discs trying to pull them out with too much force. As long as you’re careful though, there shouldn’t be any problems. While on the subject of packaging, I’d also like to compliment Atlus for a beautiful FULL COLOR manual using a plethora of character art, including some wacky super-deformed designs that are pretty funny. It’s one of the better-looking manuals I’ve seen in quite some time.