For far too long, SNK’s The King of Fighters series has had the misfortune of playing second fiddle to whatever the current generation’s most popular, widely respected fighting game title just happened to be. Whether it was the latest Street Fighter installment, or one of Capcom’s anticipated crossover efforts, KoF was repeatedly left in the dust by the supreme, across-the-board attention to detail and loads of fan-service provided by those games. In 2009, SNK aimed to change all that with the release of The King of Fighters XII, an unarguably gorgeous fighter that, unfortunately, fell short in nearly every other department subject to scrutiny, leading many to believe that the franchise’s health bar had all but completely drained out. Lucky for KoF devotees, though, SNK isn’t one to back down from a daunting challenge; The King of Fighters XIII may not be the optimum choice over Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 for the most refined fighter of late 2011, but it’s definitely the recipient of the Most Improved award, and damn-near the best KoF since the series’s heyday.
KoF has never been known to skimp on sleek, eye-popping visuals, and this latest installment earns high marks in that category. The game’s balanced blend of nuanced 2D character models with beautifully rendered 3D combat environments amounts to an expert take on the 2.5D format; fan-favorite fighters like Terry Bogard and Joe Higashi have never looked better in KoF’s glorious hand-drawn aesthetic, their movements playing out in the foreground of cinematic stages that evoke a specific type of hyped-up energy that adds another degree of intensity and polish to each round of battle. In modern fighting games, smooth graphics have become increasingly important, but if an innovative, intuitive control system isn’t in place to spawn long-term addictiveness and a replay value approaching endless, the entire experience is a wash. Fortunately, SNK has made some lengthy strides away from the mistakes of the previous installment, resulting in a fighter that deserves to be in contention for the distinction of king.
Three-on-three, elimination-style combat (which means no switching out on the fly) is the name of the game in KoF XIII, and the overall flow of each duel isn’t as frantic or, let’s face it, luck-based as UMvC3 or something like a version of BlazBlue. Although decidedly speedier than Super Street Fighter IV, KoF XIII requires much more precision and skillful timing in order to pull off punishing attacks. With handy Drive Cancels, Max Cancels, and NEO MAX retaliations, there’s much less room for cheapish strategies like edge-cornering, juggling, or escapist multi-jumps, but linking combos is slightly easier and the ability for two-or-three button chain attacks is replaced by the necessity to string a close-knit sequence of calculated small-scale maneuvers together to provide a much larger, gratifying tactical assault. Two all-significant status meters—Hyperdrive, which allows for longer, more intricate combo chains, and Power, which allocates EX-mode supers—progressively fill up as combat persists, and you’ll need to keep a guarded watch on these especially when encountering the game’s conclusively tricky final bosses, each of which continually displays the WTF-ish, screen-covering, ball-busting specials SNK fighters are known for.
Not to be outdone by the winning track record of their developer rivals, SNK has packed a heft of absorbing features into KoF XIII. Time Attack, Survival, and Mission Modes are all well-executed and harbor enough incentive for the player to delve into each one to its fullest extent. In addition to over 30 obtainable playable characters, the virgin inclusion of a Story Mode on top of the already solid standard Arcade Mode is a pleasant surprise, adding subsequent layers of depth to novelized arcs that aren’t necessarily known for being wholly memorable. The narrative picks up on the tale revolving around antagonist Ash Crimson, who originated in The King of Fighters 2003, and while it’s interesting to see how the several hero-versus-villain factions relate to each other in between pummeling matchups, ultimately the mundane textbox presentation and lack of voiceover substantially detracts from the entertainment value of unearthing numerous revealing storyline twists. Thankfully, for newcomers to the franchise, SNK does a commendable job of roping in outsiders with a layered, informative tutorial mode and proper online options that, while not masterful, depict a vast advancement from the lousy cumulative PvP battles available in the previous installment (some laggy sections come and go, but they’re quite an anomaly).
With KoF XIII, SNK has proven that they’ve retired from the role of jester in Capcom’s court, demonstrating how closely they paid attention to the heap of hatred brought on by the face-plant that was KoF XII. Graphically stunning, stacked with creditable content, and, chiefly, a blast to play, KoF XIII is a formidable opponent for any of the most praised fighters presently on the market.