The King of Fighters XIII Review
When I first started playing fighting games, it was always the offerings from Capcom that managed to grab my attention. The memorable characters from legendary titles such as Street Fighter II and Marvel vs Capcom 2 made for hours of practice and gameplay, whether alone or with friends.
The King of Fighters series was always that “other series" -- the one that I'd heard of, saw a little bit of, but was never really interested in playing. As the fighting game scene died along with my interest, I found myself coming back to the genre with the release of titles such as Street Fighter IV and Marvel vs Capcom 3. I was in a fighting game frenzy again, playing into the early morning hours with friends and finding my favorite fighter. The sense of competition and fun was back.
It was during this time I found myself in possession of King of Fighters XIII. My thirst for more fighting games combined with my interest in getting into SNK-themed fighters led to the purchase. Not only would this be my first non-Capcom-produced fighter, it would be my first KOF fighter.
Never having played KOF titles, my take is that of a novice. Hardcore fans: This review is not for you. Newcomers and casuals fans of KOF will be happy to know that KOF XIII is a balanced 2-D fighter with a wide variety of characters, gorgeous hand-drawn visuals, and a variety of modes that will take weeks to complete.
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The gameplay is a standard 2-D fighting game mainstay. Two characters square off against each other using a variety of moves until one's health is depleted. Similar to Marvel vs Capcom 3, you assemble a team of three fighters to fight against your foes. Unlike MvC3, your characters cannot tag out or switch in the middle of battle. This makes the character choice very important and forces you to devise a team that works together in a completely different way from MvC3. Who you send into battle and when you send them can make all the difference between complete domination or a painful uphill battle.
Character moves are performed with the standard joystick and attack buttons. Special moves can also be performed, and -- similar to Street Fighter IV -- the amount in your power gauge will determine the strength of your attack.
Your power gauge plays a much more important role than in other 2-D games. It is essential to understand it if you hope to pull off more than a few wins. Your gauge and its stock can be used for both special attacks and certain evasion techniques that not only let you evade attacks but also allow you to start a new combo.
You also have a hyperdrive gauge which, when filled, can allow you everything from canceling special moves to entering hyperdrive mode, allowing you to pull off more than one combo (which in turn leaves you open for other attacks) or allowing you to perform a NEO MAX Special, a super powerful attack capable of nearly obliterating any opponent.
The game's deceptively simply moveset is hidden under a mountain of gauges and their abilities. It adds an incredible amount of nuance and opportunities for new strategies and mind games that players -- who invest a serious amount of time -- will spend weeks perfecting. Casual fighting game fans will most likely be turned away, but those who stick with it will be rewarded.
The visuals are one of the strongest parts of KOF XIII. The large and colorful character sprites and vividly animated backgrounds provide an incredible amount of eye candy and spectacle. The character movements are silky smooth, as are the animated backgrounds, looking like an animated feature come to life. There were times I found myself spending several minutes looking at the background activity or watching a character's idle stance.
For those who aren't interested in studying gauges or counting frames, there are a variety of modes and unlockables to stay entertained. In addition to a story mode, arcade mode, practice mode, versus mode, and online gameplay, there is also an excellent tutorial mode that helps new players learn the ropes of the game's fighting system along with a color edit mode to change and customize your character's colors and team icons. Finally, there is a mission mode in which a player is tasked with finishing a time attack, survival, or trial (in which a character has to perform a certain combo in order to move on).
Out of all of these modes, story mode and online mode were the weakest experiences. The story mode is a series of themed fights with a still image and some storyline-related text shown before and after each match, similar to a visual novel. While this is probably a nice touch for old fans of the series, the story is very confusing for newcomers, with characters popping in and out at random and no explanation on the buildup to the events in this game. I understand this was meant for the fans, but a quick backstory on the characters and setting would have been nice for newcomers to the series. Mortal Kombat did it, Tekken did it, and even Soul Calibur did it. Why a AAA series like KOF can't is somewhat bewildering.
The online portion of the game is a lag-ridden mess with some matches coming to a jarring halt as the lag sets in and the frames slow down. In a genre where timing down the frame of animation for each character is essential to winning matches, the slightest bit of lag is a huge disadvantage. In a 2-D fighting game like KOF XIII, it's unthinkable and was present in nearly 90 percent of the matches I played. Like many fighting games, however, results work out best when playing with another human being sitting right next to you. Also like many fighting games, this option was smooth and lag free.
KOF XIII is a fighting game that requires learning and dedication to do moderately well. It's a game that relies heavily on strategy, mind games, and exploits (Yuri's dashing grab, for example) to win. It's a fighting game that isn't an easy-to-learn, hard-to-master game like Street Fighter but rather a hard-to-learn and slightly harder-to-master game. It's a game that is not accessible but doesn't need to be. It's made for those who think, those who plan, and those who like having options built in. It's not something I will break out at a party, but it's a game I can seem myself sticking with for a decent amount of time. Judging by its recent appearance at EVO, many other people feel the same way.
Note: This was played on a PlayStation 3 console.