King of Fighters XIII is the latest entry in SNK’s long running fighting game franchise. It was originally conceived as something akin to Capcom’s Versus series. Characters from SNK's different franchises, such as the Art of Fighting and Fatal Fury, would compete. Over time it has become the main SNK fighter. I have no real history with KoF or any of the series that feed into it and I am a fairly casual fighting game fan, but I really enjoyed this game and it stands out in a year that has been filled with amazing fighting games. The complex combo and timing-based gameplay and average single-player content makes it a poor introduction to the genre, but anybody familiar with fighting games should definitely consider picking it up.
There are over 30 characters in King of Fighters XIII. Series mainstays such as Kyo, Terry Bogart, and Robert all return. The game is 2D and most of the characters moves use a dragon punch, fireball, and hurricane kick system very similar to previous entries in the series. If you have played Street Fighter, the inputs will be familiar to you although the actual moves that they result in and the general feel of the game will take some getting used to. Other than the inputs, there are surface similarities to other fighting games, but the intricacies of the gameplay are quite unique. Special moves do considerably less damage then regular attacks and are used more to string long combos together rather than as the end of a combo in their own right. There are three different types of jumps in the game, but I never really bothered worrying about which one I was using usually just performing standard jumps. Rolls are also a factor and they allow you to move through opponents and dodge attacks, but again, I found little use for them at my level of play. There are two meters in addition to your health bar that you need to manage. One allows you to perform more powerful version of special moves, called EX moves, or activate desperation moves, which are the games version of supers. There are different levels of supers as well and even EX versions. In addition, there is the drive gauge that builds during the course of the match. When you activate it, your character can better execute cancels as well as a NEO Max desperation move. If all that sounds confusing, it is because you are still sane. Anyway, the tutorial does an average job of explaining all these different mechanics to new players, but it will take a lot of playing time before you are able to put these concepts into practice. High-level play of King of Fighters seems to make good use of all these features, so if you intend to master this game, it will take quite a bit of time and effort. Even though it sounds intimidating, it is still easy to have fun with the game even if you are no fighting-game master.
The main competitive formula is three on three matchups. Unlike the Versus series, however, you cannot tag in characters during the course of the match. Instead, the match is elimination style, with the winning player keeping their character in play and restoring some of their health bar before the next match. This formula extends across the single and multiplayer modes, though one-on-one fights are available. The story and arcade modes feature the bulk of the single-player content, and they provide a good place to test your skills before playing against real people. Both modes feature cut scenes, though that is a somewhat generous description as they are barely animated and do not have voice acting. The arcade mode only has a few of these scenes to outline the story behind the King of Fighters tournament, while the actual story mode has far more in between matches. You can choose different paths and teams during the course of the story, so in order to see all the cut scenes in the game you will need to play through it multiple times, but the story itself is pretty awful and confusing, so there is no real reason to. Both of the games end bosses are very difficult and casually break the rules of the game with screen-filling desperation moves and attacks that freeze you until the boss can unleash some crazy combo that saps half your life bar. Once you finish with arcade and story mode there is a mission mode which essentially lets you choose a character and practice pre-set combos. It is a nice addition because the combos seem like they could be very useful in a match, but they were too difficult for me and I was not able to really do any of them despite on screen prompts and demo videos.
All the single-player content is nice, but it is the multiplayer, both local and online, that really makes this game worth purchasing. The local versus mode works perfectly and is a blast. Unfortunately, the online is hit or miss, with some matches going fine and others disconnecting or lagging badly enough to affect the game. Most of the time it wavers somewhere in the middle, with slight input delays, and is generally a decent substitute to local play.
I have a real soft spot for presentation of sprite-based fighters and this game has a pretty awesome aesthetic. The character sprites are wonderful to look at and each model looks phenomenal. While some body types are used several times, each character has unique details and colors, which you can customize, that makes them stand out. The models are extremely well animated and move smoothly. The game also has great effects, especially the fire, that really add a lot to the experience. The stages also deserve special mention as they are dynamic and excellently made. They are crazy and active and make a perfect background to the over-the-top fighting taking place in front of them. The music, like the backgrounds, may not grab your attention but it works with all the other elements in the game to make a very positive impression.
As it makes apparent in its tutorial, KoF is not an easy or simple game, but it is still fun to play at any level. Like any fighting game, your enjoyment of it will depend largely upon your ability to find others of equal skill level. I'm fortunate enough to know such people, so I quite enjoyed the gameplay, but even when I would lose online I still had a lot of fun and I was able to learn why I lost/ There was noticeable improvement in my online play over time. As I got better I had more fun, but you will certainly have a better experience if you can find a group of people to play with locally.
King of Fighters is a great game. The core fighting system is one of the best I have seen in a long time and, while extremely complicated, it is really a lot of fun to play. Its presentation is equally impressive in both how it looks and sounds, although the cutscenes are disappointing, especially considering how the rest of the game looks. The game has a lot of decent single-player content, but the real draw is the competitive multiplayer. Some unfortunate issues with the online multiplayer, frustrating bosses, and a tutorial that is merely average prevent it from being the dominant fighting game it could have been.