Who would have thought that after all these years there would be some fighting games still pushing out sequels? In the mid-1990s, Street Fighter 2 and Mortal Kombat were the undeniable kingpins of the fighting game Underworld. Beneath them, were the henchmen in the form of one-off titles from companies looking to make a quick buck and a name for themselves only to fade off into obscurity. One company however wouldn't go away; SNK (Now SNK-Playmore) carved their own niche with a collection of different fighting games. However it was the King of Fighters series that helped change the genre in an evolutionary way.
The King of Fighters 1994 was novel when it was released. It introduced three-on-three fighting but more importantly, it brought fighters from multiple franchises together allowing gamers to create and play out matches that were previously fantasy fare, if not a figment of their imagination. If one needs further proof as to how significant this was to the genre, look no further than all the cross promotional fighters that have and are still coming out. The King of the Fighters got it started and has persevered with what is now the thirteenth entry in the series. Take a second to process the previous sentence. How many games have had the panache to go thirteen strong? How many games have a thirteen at the end of the title?
The King of the Fighters XIII (KOF XIII) looks to continue to combat the Street Fighters and Mortal Kombats of today (along with some fresh, new competition). While the latest entry in the KOF universe is a decent two-dimensional fighter, stiff controls and a mediocre single-player experience prevent the franchise from gaining any ground. If anything, KOF XIII drops the franchise to the henchman status that befell so many long forgotten fighting games over a decade ago.
Right off the bat, KOF XIII provides gamers with considerably more modes of play than its predecessor. Arcade Mode pits the gamers' threesome of fighters versus a series of AI controlled teams. Along the way, a new challenger will interfere. Among the surprise entrants are Fatal Fury alum Billy Kane and two individuals who make up the final bosses, Ash Crimson and Saiki. Successfully defeat them and they become playable characters. For gamers having difficulty getting through the Arcade Mode, SNK-Playmore tosses them a bone with handicaps. While some are nice such as starting the bout with full Power and HD (Hyper Drive) Gauges, there is really only one handicap worth choosing and that's giving the AI 25% of their Health for the next fight. Is this cheap? Without question it is, but rest assured this handicap will save some gamers a lot of frustration and possibly reduce the likelihood of broken controllers or strings of obscenities.
Other modes of play include the mission mode, which is broken up into Time Attack and Survival modes but also includes the Trial mode. Here gamers select a fighter and then are given the task of inputting and completing combos of increasing difficulty. A handy demonstration option shows how the combos should look, along with an input display to track player movements but pulling off these combos is difficult enough not taking into account using the XBox 360 d-pad or analog stick. KOF XIII plays better with an Arcade stick, but executing these combos against a stationary character is one thing. Doing it against AI that will spam special moves relentlessly is another thing all together. There are tutorial and practice modes available to further assist the amateur, the overwhelmed and the expert who trolls XBox Live looking for poor victims to decimate by executing one long, (albeit visually captivating), devastating combo.
The Story mode starts off peculiar enough. Gamers select their team and the first bout can best be described as a battle of Machismo, where one fighter squares off against one of their teammates. No explanation is given for this but the real story begins to unfold thereafter. The story in itself is a mishmash of revenge, infiltration and supernatural occurrences that run the risk of the King of Fighters tournament from being held. From out of nowhere, a mysterious party steps up to take control and promote the latest tournament. The Master of Ceremonies is one Rose Bernstein and it is revealed that her "family" is responsible for sponsoring the tournament.
In between the fights, there are a string of cut-scenes providing the gamer with a bit of insight to what's going on behind the scenes of the Tournament. These scenes are all excellently portrayed with hand-drawn visuals. As gamers progress through the story mode, these scenes are unlocked. Gamers will be quick to notice after they complete a playthrough (or lose) that there are numerous scenes to unlock, requiring repeated playthroughs to get the entire story. Gamers however are welcome to start the Story again from any unlocked scene thus making the task less cumbersome each time. It is just unfortunate that the Story mode is punctuated with an expectedly, cheap boss fight. Depending on the path the gamer takes they may have the dubious privilege of engaging in two cheap boss battles. Ash Crimson and Saiki take a page out of the Geese Howard playbook. They don't play nice and make a three on one fight still seem like a handicap against the gamer.
While cheap boss battles, and repetitive AI are sore spots, the stiff control is really what drags KOF XIII down. The game goes overboard with the number of special moves and techniques. This does allow for some advanced strategy beyond using projectiles and constantly throwing opponents but the XBox 360 controllers makes performing these actions frustrating. Having a Power gauge (to perform EX Special moves, Desperation Special moves, Guard Cancels) and an HD gauge (to perform Drive Cancels, Super Cancels, and NEO Max Special moves) is plenty. Dashing, back steps, forward and backward rolls, hops, hyper hops, throw breaks and fall breakers provide more versatility than a fighter needs, and for a gamer to remember. The specials and cancels are nothing new and compared to Street Fighter 4 and Mortal Kombat, they are not as user friendly in KOF XIII.
Playing on XBox live works fairly well where there are few instances of freezing and lag to hamper the gameplay. Gamers can customize their team with fighters of their choosing and add icons that are accessible when unlocked. All things considering, there is a nice assortment of items to unlock and achievements to acquire within the game, not to mention downloadable content. There is also a colour-edit feature which is little more than a palette swap of the characters and a Gallery which stores all the unlocked pictures, videos and sounds. There is even a special Invitation picture that gamers can systematically unlock piece by piece that showcases the game's beautiful artistic style.
The visuals in KOF XIII are a treat for the eyes. While fighters may appear a bit on the small side, the incorporation of some shading and dark tones gives each character a mysterious look to them while they fight. This is in complete contrast to the pre-fight and post-fight visuals where each fighter is gorgeously portrayed in sharp detail. The banter between the fighters is various and entertaining, with a special nod going to Joe Higashi for some true "shake my head" inducing comments. All of the characters shine with distinct personalities and quips. The female fighters are still stereotypically arch-typed with either cute and bubbly or tough and rugged qualities. Mai Shiranui, after all these years is bouncy enough to the point that her fellow combatants acknowledge it within the game. The audio compliments the visuals with a variety of different tunes for each stage. The gallery lists these and many more sounds accordingly.
One would think that after twelve previous versions, SNK-Playmore would give gamers a radically improved game; a game that removed all the quirks that the other games carried, while adding enough new and exciting content to make it fun to play. KOF XIII gives gamers their money's worth in terms of content; match-types, characters, unlockables and visuals, but fails in an area where neither of these attributes can truly help, gameplay. Playing with the Xbox 360 controller is a challenge beyond the challenge gamers face with AI that spams special attacks or just outright doesn't fight fair. KOF XIII tries to emulate Street Fighter 4 and Mortal Kombat but both of those titles outright just handle better. The King of Fighters deserves credit for staying in the fight for as long as it has, but while Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat have progressed, KOF XIII shows the series is still stuck in neutral.