Another year, another King of Fighters game. The type of game that brings about a certain breed of gamer. They mostly appeal to hardcore 2D gamers or those who have been into the series for years and with how little they have changed they don't really draw in much in the ways of new players. Yet somehow they still see a constant widespread release each year like clock work, almost as reliably as an EA Sports game series. It's almost mind boggling at how long this series has survived with so little ever changing beyond a few small details.
Most fighting games have a storyline that exists simply to make an excuse for people to punch each others heads in. That's not so with the King of Fighters series of games, they are almost as well known for their storylines as their combat mechanics. KoF XI continues the story that began in the last game providing us with the next installment in the Ash Saga. The mysterious fighter, Ash Crimson, is still in pursuit of the three sacred treasures that comprise the seal of Orochi. In the last game he stole Chizura's mirror and in this game he is in pursuit of the wild warrior Iori Yagami and his magatama (sacred flame).
That's all fine and dandy but there's one major thing missing in the story here: Progression. This game series is going absolutely nowhere really fast. Whereas in the previous games each one comprised a single chapter in the storyline these past two games have been like baby steps in comparison. Two games later and we still have no idea who Ash is, why he is after these sacred items and whether he is really even a good guy or bad guy. I'm all for leaving some things up in the air but they're answering absolutely nothing and it is really killing the story. What happened to the glory days of the NESTS and Orochi sagas? It's fairly disappointing to see a story that is crawling so slowly along.
Moving on to the combat, there have been three changes, two of importance and one that is negligible in impact on the game. The negligible one is the Judgment Bar, a new system of determining a victor in the case of time running out. Rather than health determining who wins this gauges the victor by usage of things such as who performed successful combos and super attacks as well while things such as having team mates knocked out penalizes you. Who ever has the bar on their side wins the match, simple as that.
The other new aspects are linked: Skill Stocks and the Dream Cancel ability. Skill Stocks are used for things such as Guard Evasions and things such as the Tactical Shift System (more on that below). So the typical power bar is used for things such as Desperation moves while the Skill Stocks are used on the more defensive options. Dream Cancel is the biggest change to the battle system. You can use these to turn Desperation Moves into LDM's which are incredibly devastating and allow you to wreck some serious havoc on your opposition.
The Tactical Shift System makes a return here, acting as a cheap mans version of the team switching in the Marvel vs. Capcom series. In the last game you could switch team members on the fly but they simply swapped places and were left incredibly vulnerable. Here you can use some special shifts with the Skill Stocks such as using the Quick Shift in the middle of a combo to cause your teammate to jump in and continue the combo for you. It makes the system a lot more manageable so long as you are using a team you know how to manage and don't need to swap them around too often.
But the graphics and audio are still left in the past a good five or six years. In the least they could touch up the character sprites and make them look at least PS2 generation quality. These would look about standard on the PlayStation One so they look seriously out of place on the PS2.
Then again this likely doesn't matter to anyone interested in this game. The King of Fighters fans out there are going to run for the game regardless of how it looks or sounds so long as it plays just fine. Nobody is going to be converted to this game series by this entry, it doesn't offer anything phenomenal to gamers. With games such as Virtua Fighter 5 going online, Soul Calibur is as fun as ever and Tekken 5 introducing some new, interesting characters this game doesn't offer much of anything. Keep this one for the fans only and look forward to the next game in the series.