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.