King of Fighters XIII review: Sweep the leg

Jordan Mallory
J. Mallory|11.24.11

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It's tough living in someone else's shadow. Your achievements may be numerous and impressive, but existing outside of the limelight can be disheartening after a while. Constantly fighting for relevance in a crowded genre is a consuming, arduous fight; one that SNK Playmore has waged ever since Fatal Fury: King of Fighters went toe to toe with Street Fighter II in 1991.

The result of that fight may be contentious in the mind of the fighting game community, but Joe Public and his Mortal Kombat Blu-ray feel otherwise; while series like Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat invaded American pop-culture and became household names, King of Fighters continued to toil away in obscurity, releasing game after game for its dedicated cult following.

Things are different now, though. Street Fighter IV kick-started a renaissance in fighting games, reigniting the mainstream consumer's interest in the genre, which paved the way for impossibilities like Marvel vs. Capcom 3 and the incredibly successful rebirth of Mortal Kombat. In this new age of fighters, could it finally be SNK Playmore's time to shine? Will their latest entry, King of Fighters XIII, capture the minds and hearts of those unfamiliar with series?

Probably not. SNK Playmore remains so unplugged from what is happening in the rest of the genre that its latest excursion feels like an old friend, rather than a revolution. Because of this, however, King of Fighters XIII is the best KOF game ever made, despite the fact that it isn't as flashy or user friendly as its contemporaries.%Gallery-126135%Now, by "isn't as flashy," I don't mean that KOFXIII is an ugly or visually uninteresting game. Quite the oposite, in fact; KOFXIII's stages are fantastically well drawn, taking your team of fighters to locations that rapidly fluctuate between the absurdly hilarious and the strikingly beautiful. The art design may not be at Blazblue: Continuum Shift levels of pomp and grandeur, but it's still impressive and interesting in a Dr.-Seuss-meets-Guillermo-del-Toro kind of way. The characters themselves are gorgeously animated as well; it's easy to see why SNK Playmore is one of the few developers left making proper 2D fighters.

The fact that KOFXIII is an old-school, legitimately two dimensional fighter is precisely what makes it less flashy, however. While Street Fighter, Marvel and Mortal Kombat have maintained a bi-axis foundation for their functionality, the games themselves are very much in the third dimension; a look which appears contemporary to the uninitiated consumer and therefore makes games like KOFXIII appear outdated by comparison. It lacks "curb appeal," to borrow a phrase from the house-hunting shows my mom loves, but despite that it still offers a rich visual experience for those with a sophisticated fighting-game palate.

The game's soundtrack is an unexpected surprise; while the KOF series' music has never been particularly bad, it has also never been anything to write home about either. KOFXIII changes that by way of an energetic power metal score that permeates the entire experience. Overblown guitar solos, tasty synths and flamenco-style acoustic jams add up to a truly exceptional composition. No joke, KOFXIII features the best music I've heard in a fighting game since 2003's Guilty Gear XX #Reload.

Mechanically, the game's overall feel isn't much of a departure from previous KOF games, which is a blessing for series veterans and somewhat of a curse for newcomers. A major reoccurring characteristic throughout this new generation of fighters has been accessibility; while high-level play still requires patience and expertise, games like Mortal Kombat and Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 are extremely easy to pick up and play. SNK Playmore, on the other hand, comes from a much older school of thought, and as a result KOFXIII has a much steeper learning curve.

Executing even basic combos requires precise timing, and the inputs required to pull off Super Special and NEO-MAX moves are as unforgivingly complex as they are satisfying to chain into. Again, it demonstrates that SNK Playmore subscribes to a slightly more archaic dogma when it comes to design, and in a world inundated with quarter-circle supers and cookie-cutter combos, the rigidity inherent to the system is a breath of fresh air. Or rather, a breath of old air.

That being said, a game like KOFXIII highlights how drastically under qualified the 360's D-pad is for hardcore 2D fighters. The title's 4 attack buttons map comfortably to the face of the controller, obviously, but inputting commands with the D-pad or analogue stick is a clumsy, inaccurate way to do things. It's annoying, but in actuality is of little consequence; anyone excited about a new KOF game likely owns their own fight stick.

Arcade mode is structured identically to KOFXIII's 2010 arcade release, including the cute-at-first-and-then-constantly-annoying conversations that proceed ever single round. It sounds minor, but having to skip what effectively amounts to a short cutscene every 40 seconds weighed on my patience after a while. I can see how Mai and Andy's cutesy couple banter could be entertaining to someone enthralled by KOF's incomprehensible mythos, but that's what Story Mode is for.

There's a fine line between being in a rut and being in the groove, and SNK Playmore's reluctance to join the new millenium of fighters prevents it from utilizing the advancements that have been made in the genre as much it preserves its old-world charm. Mission mode, for instance, lists the moves in a combo and then expects the player to work out the combo's timing themselves. In a game like UMvC3 that works fine, but KOFXIII's combo system relies heavily on accurate, frame-specific inputs; information that is not communicated by the interface. This would have been an exceptional learning tool 6 years ago, but now it feels like a missed opportunity.

Similarly, online play sticks to the basics and doesn't try anything fancy; anyone who's played a Capcom fighter in the last 3 years will know exactly what to expect. It's adequate, as far as matchmaking is concerned, and while the matches I played suffered from little to no noteworthy lag, it's extremely difficult to know whether or not that will continue be the case post launch. All things considered, it was good enough to get the job done.

Despite its small annoyances and ancillary shortcomings, King of Fighters XIII is hands down the best, most polished and solidly constructed King of Fighters game there's ever been. SNK Playmore has had 20 years to iterate and improve on this concept, and it shows. I doubt KOF will ever penetrate the collective American consciousness like its competitors have, but I don't necessarily believe that it needs to either. Like a hipster's favorite band, KOFXIII's greatest asset is just how uncool it is.

This review is based on a retail copy of the 360 version of King of Fighters XIII provided by Atlas and SNK Playmore.

Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.
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