If you’re reading this, chances are you know enough about fighting games to be familiar with KoF’s troubled history in the U.S.; it has always been more of an international game. I’m not going to waste your time with that history lesson, since what really matters is that The King of Fighters XIII is a wonderful game that any fan of 2D fighters should enjoy.
Like most games in the series, KoF XIII pits teams of three fighters against each other. You can’t tag out to another character and there are no assist attacks, so these are played as a series of normal one-on-one fights. This makes picking a well-rounded team important, which is pretty easy to do with a roster of about thirty characters. Nearly every character archetype is covered to some extent, so you’re sure to find a few that fit your style and are fun to play. Even characters of similar types have meaningful differences between each other, so there aren’t many that you could really accuse of being ‘wasted slots.’
Some have described the game as playing like a middle ground between Street Fighter IV and BlazBlue, which is a surprisingly apt comparison. Between four different types of jumps and a roll that goes through projectiles but is vulnerable to throws, players are able to quickly get in on their opponent and keep the match moving at a fast pace. The two shortest jumps, often called hops, are what keep fights fast and exciting; they’re an excellent way to attack the opponent. Yet poorly planned hops can be stopped in some pretty easy ways, including a standing jab. While damage is normally fairly moderate, players can spend their ‘drive meter’ on various cancels and special options that enable stronger combos. It works out very well, allowing fights to mostly feature strong technical play punctuated by the occasional flashy, high-damage combo.
On the other hand, it’s not all about psychotic rush-down since fundamental skills such as strong spacing and timing with your normal attacks are very important. You also have to be able to block effectively, avoid throws, and there are some engine-level defensive maneuvers. These range from things like spending meter during block-stun to do a weak but effective ‘get off me’ attack or immediate roll to safety, to many characters having at least one normal attack that is ideal for stopping an opponent’s most common approaches. Like in any good fighting game, both players are constantly thinking and weighing options during a KoF XIII match.
Yet none of this would matter if a community can’t grow around it, which all but requires decent online play so you can compete with people outside your local scene. Thankfully, KoF XIII seems to deliver on this end. While this is admittedly a small sample size done in pre-release conditions, I was able to play several matches against an Atlus representative for this review and found the online play worked fairly well. Both of us were landing decent combos, able to react to hop attacks, block alternating high and low attacks reliably, and so on. These aren’t bad results for a match between two players halfway across the country from each other, so I suspect it will be at least passable for most people. It’s true that no online experience will be perfect (such is the nature of the beast) and this was a test under only one set of conditions, but the results were encouraging.
Most of what KoF XIII does wrong are the little things. There is no spectator mode, and you can only save replays of online matches. It also doesn’t explain certain things very well, such as the fact that it does have a select-screen button configuration menu. Players have to press B as if they wanted to exit out of the roster screen, and only then does the option appear. The lack of spectator functionality in online play is also disappointing, and the match replay feature is missing some functions you might expect. Players can only record online matches, and there doesn’t seem to be any convenient way for sharing them with others. These are strange things to leave out in a 2011 release, but their omission isn’t a deal-breaker.
Not everything in KoF XIII is meant for competitive purposes, as several bonuses have been included to celebrate the series’ strong music and character designs. The most notable of these include a four-disc soundtrack spanning the series’ history plus an in-game art gallery, both of which help bring out some of the ‘personality’ that makes King of Fighters so distinct. Finally, a color edit mode lets you change your characters’ appearance by replacing sections of the default colors with others of your choice. While that obviously won’t see much use in tournaments, it’s still neat to be able to color-coordinate your teams in casual play. None of these are essential to the game’s core, but they are nice extras to have.
While KoF XIII was originally an arcade release, this console version isn’t just a straight port. Numerous balance changes have been applied, and they’re a very interesting mix. Some of the more obvious and extremely powerful tactics have been toned down, but most of the changes revolve around a ‘buff up’ philosophy. The best part about this is that very few characters were ‘gutted’ in this way; if something abusive was taken away, the developers improved other aspects of that character in order to encourage more well-rounded play. That approach has allowed nearly every character to have something fun to work with, and is one of the most encouraging things about this console release. You can read up on some of these changes at the following links: part one, two, three, and four.
In the end, $50 will net you a fine 2D fighter with a varied roster, excellent pacing, and the inclusion of several ‘quality of life’ touches to make things easier for tournament play. The King of Fighters XIII can definitely hold its own against more established games in the genre, and deserves to be in your library.
Universal access to hops and other movement/attack options keeps matches moving quickly.
Effective defensive mechanics prevent fights from being about constant rush-down.
The drive/cancel system makes extremely powerful combos infrequent but not unheard of, keeping them exciting.
Lack of spectator mode, some missing options regarding match replays are disappointing.
The tutorial and trial modes only teach the bare minimum. Newcomers will need to do extra research online to truly learn KoF fundamentals and how each character plays.
A few characters require unlocking, which takes several minutes and a bit of planning to do a ‘Simon Says’ style run through single-player modes.
Verdict: An excellent fighting game, and definitely worth buying!