If you're reading this, there's a good chance you're familiar with the King of Fighters fighting game series, and we're going to assume you're familiar with head-to-head fighting games in general. So, you know that the King of Fighters series from developer SNK Playmore has been around for 15 years, starting in 1994, as team-based fighting games that let you pick three different characters and let you play as all three in a single session against other teams of three. We recently had a chance to hunker down with the console versions of The King of Fighters XII and have some new details to discuss.
Even though the KOF series has been around for 15 years, the appearance of its characters has remained more or less constant. Yes, all character sprites were made larger in KOF '96, and many of the characters have had other visual retouches, but they've otherwise still been the same old sprites with tweaks made here and there. KOFXII has the distinction of being the first game in the entire series to have a complete visual overhaul. It replaces the original 2D "sprites" (the two-dimensional graphics that represent each game character) of the series to date with all-new, much-bigger, more-detailed, well-animated sprites.
The game also has brand-new background stages that are very busy and have tons of animated characters milling around. Unfortunately, this visual overhaul comes at a price. Though recent games in the series have typically more than 30 playable characters, the original arcade version of KOFXII has only 20 characters, and the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions offer a total of 22. The console versions of the game have two exclusive characters, the evil secretary Mature and the riding-crop-wielding Elizabeth Branctorche (yes, that's actually how her name is spelled) from KOFXI. The single-player arcade version of the game has no "boss" character to challenge, either.
The art has been designed by SNK artist NONA, whose previous credits include the more-recent installments of the KOF series, from about 2000 onward. If you're a longtime KOF player, you'll probably pick up immediately on NONA's strong use of contrasting solid colors and sometimes-exaggerated character sizes, especially for the characters Ralf and Clark (the Ikari Warriors, who originally debuted in the arcade game of the same name), who are huge, bulky musclemen now. And like previous KOF games that bear NONA's artwork, KOFXII also has a darker, more-shadowy color palette than its brighter predecessors, such as KOF '95 and KOF '98.
But you probably already knew that, assuming you've been keeping up with the new releases of screenshots, trailers, and arcade gameplay videos trickling out of Japan and the precious few other locations in the world that have the arcade version of the game available for public play. So you probably also know that most of the game's older characters have had their list of fighting maneuvers changed and in many cases have been bumped back to older versions of themselves.
For instance, Robert Garcia--a character who has been reinvented multiple times over the years--has more or less been bumped back to his KOF '95 appearance (brown vest, straight hair, white pants, saddle shoes, and all) and fighting maneuvers. Terry Bogard has basically been bumped back to his KOF '94 version (complete with his old red jacket, cap, and blue jeans), though he also has his KOF '95 backfist attack. Even the mighty Kyo Kusanagi, who was ostensibly the series' main character for quite some time, has had his fighting moves bumped back to his KOF '95 arsenal. Some of the KOF faithful may find these changes puzzling, especially if they've gotten used to using their favorite characters' newer tricks in KOF 2002-2003 on up through KOFXI, but most of the game's characters seem instantly recognizable when you pick them up and play them. Terry plays pretty much like Terry. Kyo plays pretty much like Kyo. About the only exception here is Iori Yagami, Kyo's archenemy from KOF '95, who has lost nearly his entire arsenal in favor of a handful of close-range attacks. The console-exclusive Mature seems pretty similar to her older versions, minus a few tricks--she still has her running slash attack, as well as her hopping attack, though she no longer seems to have her triple slash attack. Elizabeth seems fairly similar to her KOFXI version, also minus a trick or two, though both characters' sprites are well detailed and well animated and seem to fit in just fine with the rest of the cast.
In terms of gameplay changes from previous games in the series, KOFXII does not have any kind of tag-out system to switch characters in the middle of the match, such as in KOFXI, nor does it have multiple levels of superattack--your character can store only one level, so the flashy leader attacks and hyper attacks of previous years are gone. In addition, you can still use the more recent games' system of short "hop" jumps and longer jumps. KOF XII also has a KOF '97-style forward and backward roll, plus a recovery roll after being knocked down--and you can perform any roll by tapping the light punch and light kick buttons together. One of KOFXII's new gameplay features is the ability to press (and hold) the strong punch and strong kick buttons together to initiate a ground-based attack that, when fully "charged" by holding the buttons down long enough, will perform an unblockable strike that can set your opponent up for a follow-up attack.
And of course, KOFXII's most visible new gameplay change is the critical counter system, which works off of a separate counter meter that gradually fills up as you fight and will, when filled, let you interrupt an opponent's attack (if you time your own attack properly), opening your foe up to an extended series of free hits. Critical counters seem difficult to time properly and sometimes seem like they happen almost randomly--and getting hit by one won't exactly make your day. And as we've mentioned in our previous coverage, KOFXII's other jarring gameplay change is that standard throw grapples now require you to press two buttons (both punch buttons together), rather than just one. Then again, KOFXII's gameplay still seems to move about as quickly as more-recent KOFs and seems to have plenty of opportunities to perform "juggle" attacks on airborne opponents. Serious players will want to hunker down with their favorite characters and figure out the best juggle setups.
You'll have an opportunity to do this with the game's single-player modes, though curiously there's only an arcade mode (which puts you in five time-trial matches that, again, have no boss fight) and a practice mode. There's no survival mode, a standard feature in previous home versions of KOF, and no KOFXI-style challenge mode. Otherwise, you can play the game against another player in your living room or online using Xbox Live or PSN, check a "gallery" mode for portraits, purchase items from your console's online service, and fiddle with the game's options, including a visual "soft filter" that will antialias the characters up to three passes, taking some of the edge off the originally jagged arcade sprites if you wish. KOFXII ships out at the end of July.