King of Fighters XII, released in 2009, was notable for administering a much-needed graphical overhaul, something the 15-year-old series was sorely in need of. While it had the looks, it came up short on content, eschewing any story element whatsoever and, among other things, limping in with a paltry 22 characters, one of the lowest in the franchise’s history. Two years later and King of Fighters XIII is upon us. Has developer SNK learned anything? The answer is a resounding “Yes!”

Expanded roster and gameplay

King of Fighters XIII boasts a serviceable roster of 31 characters, plus a few new console-exclusives over the arcade version. Whereas its predecessor inexplicably eschewed longtime series mainstay Mai Shiranu, this title wisely brings her back along with a number of other welcome, familiar faces. Even with an expanded selection of combatants, it’s likely that one of your favorites may still be missing, as KOFXIII is a far cry from the 66 that were featured in King of Fighters 2002 Unlimited Match. Downloadale content (DLC) has been announced, but so far it seems primarily focused on delivering variations of already included characters.

Regardless, SNK has clearly put a lot of effort into ensuring that fighters have been designed and fine-tuned to provide a broad spectrum of interesting and enjoyable styles. Official teams also make their return, pairing up certain characters in groups of three contextual to the story, but you’re free to mix-and-match as you see fit should one of these not fulfill your needs. Battles play out in a three-on-three match, with each round restricted to one-on-one face-offs. If you were forced to simply choose one character and were stuck with them and them alone, the limited movesets would eventually become a concern. Thankfully, the current setup allows you to create teams of characters that keep the game from getting stale. The ability to switch teammates on the fly has been removed (last seen in King of Fighters XI), and especially compared to games like Marvel vs. Capcom 3 or Street Fighter X Tekken, its presence is definitely missed. Hopefully that’s something SNK considers resurrecting for the next installment.

The Guard Attack, Critical Counter, and Clash system have also been removed since King of Fighters XII. In their place is the EX system. Similar to Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter IV, players can use one bar of the power gauge to boost a special move, increasing its potency. There’s also the ability to cancel out of special and super attacks, which drastically increases combo potential. While this adds some excellent depth to the game, a lot of the bigger combos boil down to repeatedly canceling and spamming one of a character’s few special attacks, then ending it with a NEO MAX desperation move, the final gameplay addition. NEO MAX attacks are essentially ultra powerful super moves that require three bars of the power gauge. These allow players to finish combos and enemies off with impressively flashy and devastating attacks, lending the game some extra visual flair.

Marvelous 2D visuals

And while the game play is solid, it’s the visuals that really elevate King of Fighters XIII above the majority of aging 2D fighters on the market. Using a unique process where the art team creates the 2D, hand-drawn art from 3D models and lighting, SNK has effectively ushered in a new generation for the King of Fighters franchise. It’s about time, as they’d been milking the same tired, pixelated sprites for over a decade. The camera zoom from King of Fighters XII has mostly been removed, which is wise seeing as how the characters still get jaggy upon close examination. The visuals don’t quite give BlazBlue a run for its money, but it gets remarkably close.

King of Fighters has always had some of the best and most diverse character designs in the industry, and they’re really given the chance to shine here. Whether it’s Mai in all her bouncy, scantily-clad glory, or Iori, lurching menacingly as he shreds his foes with his bare hands, the HD animations are phenomenal. The impressive visuals extend beyond combatants, as the backgrounds are also an aesthetic delight. A few in particular have animated bystanders, usually cheering the fighters on as they pummel each other. These atmospheric touches are quite amusing and have been given higher attention to detail than you find in most fighting game backgrounds. The backdrops change slightly after each round, but it’s enough to keep things fresh and a notable touch that I definitely appreciate. Small touches like that make a sizable difference when considered cumulatively.

Bells and whistles (spoiler alert)

King of Fighters XII was also slammed for its anemic offering of modes, another flaw King of Fighters XIII dutifully remedies. There are the requisite Arcade, Time Trial, and Survival modes, as well as an expanded Tutorial and Practice mode for beginners. The two tutorials aren’t quite as robust as I would have liked, considering there are a lot of new gameplay elements to learn this time around. For advanced players there’s also a Trials mode which tasks you with 10 unique and increasingly difficult combos for each character. Even if you can’t pull them all off, you can skip to any trial and watch a demo of what you’re supposed to do. As you can see from this video, the combos get pretty insane, if repetitive as I’ve mentioned before. May God have mercy on your soul if you waltz into an online match against someone who has mastered one of the 100 percent damage NEO MAX combos…

Since King of Fighters XIII is the final entry in the current story arc, headlined by Ash Crimson, the game also includes a Story mode. Unfortunately, this offering isn’t quite as fleshed out or polished as those found in BlazBlue or Mortal Kombat, and the novel visual  approach to most of the cut scenes can be, to put it bluntly, rather boring. One of the first scenes involves the camera slowly (and I mean gruelingly slow) up a still image of a character’s body while several walls of text appear on the screen. There are a few animated cut scenes, but they too are of relatively low production values. As expected, the game ends with not one, but two obnoxiously overpowered bosses who spam projectiles and desperation moves. I discussed the long-running tradition of cheap bosses in fighting games earlier this year with Capcom’s Seth Killian, and I deeply believe there’s a difference between challenge and cheapness.

Although Story mode comes up a bit short, SNK has done a commendable job in delivering countless mini-stories. After all, these characters have been slapping each other around for 15 years now, so it makes sense that they shouldn’t just show up to battle a friend, family member, lover, or bitter rival, and have nothing to say. In almost every mode characters will exchange a short dialogue with each other that is surprisingly well-written and true to what fans have come to know and love about the King of Fighters lore. In Story mode the dialogue is focused mostly on the story arc, but in Arcade you’ll get unique discussions between active characters. My first playthrough was with the Team Women Fighters (Mai, King and Yuri), who basically teased everyone about relationships and crushes. I won’t spoil anything with specifics, but there’s some seriously witty dialogue here. Then for my Very Hard playthrough I chose Iori’s team, who are far darker and violent, so the tone of pre-battle chatter changed accordingly. Once you’ve seen the same chat there’ll be no reason to read it again, but with 30+ characters and unique dialogue for every conceivable match-up, it’ll be a long time before you’ve seen them all. An excellent, excellent touch.

Online multiplayer

I know I’ve started each section off with something fans disliked about the previous game, but that should be a testament to the fact that the developers really did listen to fans and take that feedback to heart, as King of Fighters XIII improves on its predecessor in every way. And what would a modern fighting game be without its online component? I’ve found King of Fighters XIII to be considerably more stable than XII, which was notorious for its severely laggy multiplayer. Now, as long as your opponent’s connection is strong you should be set for a smooth ride. Unfortunately, that means that bouts with anyone outside of your region will devolve into a slideshow. I’m not exactly eager to get demolished by Japanese players who have been mastering the game in the arcades for over a year now, but I’d still like to be able to step into the ring with them whenever I’m feeling brave. As it stands now, any game against a non-US player was outright unplayable for me due to crushing lag. Your results may vary.

The selection of multiplayer modes are fairly straightforward. There’s Player and Ranked matches as well as Xbox Live party lobbies for you and friends. In Ranked matches, you have the choice to play Arcade or Practice mode while you wait for a challenger. This was popularized in Street Fighter IV, and I’m glad to see it becoming a standard feature in fighting games. You can also change settings such as time limit, rounds, and opponent skill, but it’d be nice if you could toggle some of the more interesting dip switches (such as aerial guards, tactical shifts, and critical counters) as you can in Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike Online.

The final major component of King of Fighters XIII is customization, which allows you to edit the colors of any character. Want Mai to have red hair and a yellow tunic? Done. Want to change your entire team to don a hideous pink/green color pattern? Go for it. You can even discover some minor outfit variations such as Yuri’s leggings and Kula’s ice form, though there’s not much the developers could really do given the 2D nature of the visuals. Still, this adds a sizable layer to the game, and it will also help when playing online by providing distinctive avatars. And the best bit it is, it’s included in the game free (yes Capcom, that was aimed in your direction.)

Conclusion

Even as a peripheral fan of the series (I’ve played them all, though Tekken and BlazBlue are usually more my speed), this game is almost everything I’ve ever wanted from the King of Fighters franchise. There’s definitely room for improvement, and I hope that SNK will continue to experiment with the gameplay and fill the roster with MIA characters either through DLC or a worthwhile sequel in a year or two. That being said, this is one of the strongest and most relevant entries in the 15-year franchise. I won’t lie, the upgraded visuals are a substantial driving force in my championing of this game, but there’s also an undeniably deep and more importantly, enjoyable, experience under the surface. I believe that not only will fans love it, but it may be the game that finally snags a few newcomers as well. 85 out of 100

King of Fighters XIII was released on November 22, 2011, for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. This review is for the Xbox 360 version.