It might be the King of Fighters, but uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.
Unlike most fighting games which track the progress of a single fighter against increasingly challenging opponents, King of Fighters XII is team-based. The 22 character roster covers the spectrum of martial arts from Muay Thai to Drunken Boxing and features members of the expanded KoF family like the Bogard brothers, Joe Higashi and Goro Daimon. Players pick three fighters and either face an opposing team in an online or offline versus mode, or go up against five waves of teams in the single player Arcade mode’s time trial.
King of Fighters XII has the typical array of heavy and light kicks and punches which can be stringed into combos and special moves. New features include a critical counter system – which can quickly turn the tide of a battle, guard attacks – quick counters – and blow back attacks which occur when two attacks cancel each other out.
With the “time trial” arcade mode being the whole of the single player experience it's hard not to feel underwhelmed by King of Fighters XII. Twenty-two characters would be sufficient for many games, but since you’re going through it three characters at a time, it doesn’t take long before you’ve seen everyone.
In the single-player mode, there's no strategic advantage to picking a balanced team or even spending time on determining the order of your fighters. Although it’s technically 3-on-3 combat, battles are fought one fighter at a time with fallen fighters being replaced by the remaining teammates. There’s no tag system, buffs or assists.
The single player mode is so lacking, it feels incomplete. There’s no narrative, no boss battles, no challenges, no triumphant ending and no unlockables other than artwork. But! – skeptics will say – this is a game that’s meant to be played online.
Even after patching, I can’t recommend playing King of Fighters online. The lobby system will have you staring at a menu screen for at least five minutes and then you’re thrust into an appalling level of lag. There’s nothing more frustrating than launching a ranged attack only to watch it stutter across the screen. I have no doubts that this is a problem which can be solved, but there are too many competent fighting games available to advise waiting for this one to get better.
King of Fighters XII is a 2D fighting game and has a long legacy – both factors point to this game having a built in audience. I don’t believe there’s anything here which will draw a wider appeal, which is a shame because when everything is working, it’s a competent fighter.
A final note about the graphics: King of Fighters XII features handdrawn graphics which gives the game a distinct look. Animations are amazingly fluid and there’s good detail, but the sprite-based graphics result in heavy pixilation. This may be intentionally retro, but it comes off as a misstep for a franchise making its first HD appearance.
And you will get tired of seeing the same six stages. Even if you don’t read ethnic stereotypes into them, stages like China and Egypt manage to be simultaneously over-animated and uninspired. France in particular freaks me out.