Review: The King of Fighters XIII
I love the King of Fighters series. It’s a love borne more out of what they’ve accomplished than the actual games, though, as I came to the series through Capcom vs. SNK and even now have played few of the iconic fighters themselves. But quality fighting games tend to age better than most genres, leaving me plenty of time to break back into the series. XIII is hardly the best place to start in terms of story or mechanics, but it’s a very rewarding one if you can hang with it. Solid presentation, incredible combat depth, and some of the finest pixel art in gaming await those willing to sink the time into this unlikely classic.
The King of Fighters tournament is an annual event ostensibly held to crown the strongest martial artist in the world. However, it has a tendency to get co-opted by megalomaniacs, demigods, and paramilitary groups for nefarious ends. This year is no different, with a shadowy cabal operating behind the glitzy scenes to once again summon the existential threat of Orochi. But this is a means to a very strange end, and more than just the eclectic fighters competing are involved in this plot. Whoever manages to best their opponents will face the true threat that’s been lurking within the tournament for years, and hopefully put an end to it.
KOF XIII is the culmination of the Ash Crimson trilogy, a series that began with KOF ’03 a full decade prior to this release. King of Fighters titles used to be yearly releases before SNK fell on hard times, leaving this particular trilogy hanging for ages. Don’t concern yourself too much about the prior games, though, because even playing those front to back isn’t going to fill you in on much. SNK games tend to have really interesting, complex stories that are told horribly by the games themselves, and XIII is no different. It’s almost an impressive feat to be as impenetrable as it is, because its main story mode features loads of lush anime cutscenes and long character monologues that muck up the plot with odd pacing and poor translations. They’re still a pleasure to experience just for the spectacle, and the story mode is clever enough to give you multiple routes through the tale, focusing on different teams and unlocking different scenes each time.
In terms of 2D fighters this is certainly one of the more feature-rich, and not just for its dense story mode. There’s the arcade mode which runs you through a highly abridged version of the plot, but still has time for charming incidental dialogues between every single character. The tutorial mode does an admirable job of attempting to ease new players into the mire of modern KOF mechanics, and the additional game modes help expand on those concepts with robust practice, time attacks, and the mind-bending combo trials. Beyond that there’s the gallery, a welcome addition for long-time fans of the series, a customization system where you can repaint any of the characters in remarkable detail, and local and online multiplayer. Don’t expect to find many people playing online these days, of course, and if you do they’re bound to be eldritch fusings of human and arcade stick that can combo you from full to dead with ancient, forbidden drive cancels. Also the netcode kinda sucks unless you have a really solid connection to the person selected to own you.
Still, what matters most in a fighting game is the fighting, and KOF XIII offers some of the wildest 2D action you can get outside of the Guilty Gear series, for a price. That price is patience, because nothing in this game comes easy to the player. Even compared to earlier KOF games, XIII has a steep, steep learning curve thanks to the depth and challenge of its cancel systems. A staggering number of moves can be canceled into other moves, opening up the possibility of 50+ hit combos and instant-death combos, but only for players willing to practice endlessly to nail the incredibly tight timings required to pull them off. Something like Guilty Gear has a sky-high skill ceiling but still lets newcomers do some wild-ass combos on the way up. XIII has a significantly higher floor for such antics, as you’ll surely discover when you pop into the combo trials and spend 20 minutes or more trying to nail the very first 5-hit combo.
That’s hardly the only reason to dig into the game either, particularly if you have any love for pixel art. KOF XIII is easily a contender for one of the the most detailed, beautifully-animated 2D games of all time. Each of the characters is lovingly rendered in silky-smooth cycles, from elaborate supers all the way down to their idle animations. Different stages cast different lighting effects on them as well, highlighting folds in clothes or the accents in their cheekbones. The stages themselves are like animated paintings of wild festivals and thoroughfares, and the combat effects and special moves are just as detailed as the rest. It all combines to form one of the finest examples of classic 2D fighting, criminally overlooked for its accomplishments yet undeniably challenging to break into. I’d say it’s entirely worth it though, just to see one of the most stories fighting game franchises at one of its peaks, or to appreciate a true accomplishment of art an animation.