Since its inception in 1994, the King of Fighters series has provided high-quality team-based fighting action and has evolved with every installment. The twelfth main series entry brings with it the greatest visual overhaul yet since the graphics have been given a high-res overhaul, allowing it to look far better than past entries on HDTVs and also features more changes to the gameplay and character roster. The former changes are positive, but the latter one is a massive negative.
As the premier team-based fighter on the market, the KOFs have routinely featured a robust roster that enabled players who enjoyed any play style to play the game as they wish. Here though, your options are a bit more limited as the game only features 22 fighters - about half the number of past entries. The change is apparently due to SNK having to build the characters up from scratch for its HD-optimized debut, but the radical drop in roster count is jarring and certainly not to the game’s benefit even though the redone graphics are.
Single player action as a whole is a massive letdown - it feels like there should be a lot more here then what’s presented. For one thing, the only single player mode aside from practice is a time trial mode. I can’t even remember a game with such a lean offering - there isn’t even a boss fight at the end. You just have five fights and that’s it. Now, granted these are three-on-three fights, but it still feels all too brief. The game ends, you get a “congratulations” screen, and you can then replay it in order to beat your best time for either personal glory or trophies/achievements. There isn’t even an end boss to fight, which isn’t an altogether bad thing as SNK’s tend to be maddening, but it still seems odd to have a fighting game lack one.
Fortunately, KOF XII isn’t a completely lost cause. The gameplay is still rock-solid and plays faster and smoother than it ever has before. It also brings with it the debuts of the critical counter system, which allows a player to land a counter attack, opening the door to more attacks being strung together, and a new guard attack that allows you to intercept attacking foes and strike back with a powerful blow of their own - also leaving the victim open for an onslaught. These new elements mesh well together and add more dimensions to the combat. They’re also pretty easy techniques to do, but difficult to implement into a fight until you’ve got some practice in. While it can be a bit frustrating to fail along the way, it shouldn’t prove to be too frustrating, and the time spent will result in you being a more well-rounded fighter.
Everything is so smooth here that it’s pretty much impossible to go back to older KOF entries and not view them as vastly inferior - even if they’re still fine games in their own right. Throughout its run, the KOFs have been known for having responsive control, and this installment is no different. The PS3’s pad works very well for the game, and there’s a simplified control scheme, ala Capcom vs. SNK 2, that allows special moves to be far more easily. It’s a good mode of play for beginners, or people who just want to see a bunch of special moves in each fight - this is an easy way to ensure that happens, especially in multi-player sessions.
Sadly, the exciting offline play doesn’t translate well online. Online play is limited to either team or one-on-one fights, without a tournament option (something available in some original Xbox fighters) and play is also horrendously laggy. I’ve never played a fighter online that was this laggy - even Guilty Gear X2 on the original Xbox ran far better than this. Fortunately, more people play it online than the old SNK fighters on the Xbox, which had next to no one play them, and seriously diminished the games’ replay value. Frighteningly, these issues are horrendous even with a new patch. However, this game’s replay value is crippled due to the poor online play and minimalist single player modes, so unless you’ve got friends who love the series, you’re not likely going to get much out of this game.
Visually, KOF XII is the most beautiful 2D fighter I‘ve laid eyes on. The characters and backgrounds are all full of details and upon seeing the game for the first time in motion, I had to stare in disbelief in how gorgeous every single part of the game was. The characters have more detail than I’ve ever seen in a 2D fighter - including the previous benchmark in Super Street Fighter II HD Remix. The fighting areas are also fewer in number than past games, but have a staggering amount of detail. There’s a flaming temple area with a handful of large fire-filled goblets shooting amazing-looking flames into the air at intervals that is jaw-dropping. Another one of my favorites is the daytime stadium area with a giant video wall and inflatable cars in the foreground, while a bustling amusement park is featured in the background; the night time variant of it is also nice-looking, with a full fireworks display in the sky and a sea of people lighting up the screen with camera flashes.
The audio is a mixed bag, with some good music, excellent sound effects, but lousy voice work. Musically, what’s here is pretty good and the rock songs fit the action well enough, but they just aren’t all that catchy. The English voice work is atrocious, with many words being almost impossible to understand - even with the subtitles on. Fortunately, the Japanese voices are included, which makes for a nice change when the English ones become a bit too grating, and to be fair, the butchered English voices do tend to add a layer of comedy to the proceedings. The sound effects are largely excellent, and are boisterous, realistic, and do a great job of conveying the damage done by attacks. They’re definitely a cut above the stuff used in other series entries.
In the end, KOF XII is a well-made, but altogether lacking and incomplete experience. The kind of game that, if it was in a multi-game collection, would probably get played a few times and then you’d quickly move onto the newer installments afterwards because it’s too bare-bones to offer long-term play. Right now, there’s way too little here to recommend a full-price purchase to anyone. Die-hards should only buy it when it hits the $20-30 range, and everyone else will likely be satiated by a rental. What’s here is done quite well, but there just isn’t enough of it.