The King of Fighters franchise is one of the most venerable in the fighting genre and it's now in its 15th year. As the name suggests, this version of King of Fighters is the twelfth edition, and in an attempt to try and revitalise the franchise, SNK Playmore took much longer to develop the title than would normally be expected - 4 years to be precise.
Probably the first thing to point out is that there is no story element to The King of Fighters XII. This means that the story left hanging in the balance at the end of The King of Fighters XI will be resolved in future editions. In an attempt to try and fill the void an arcade mode is present, which sees the typical 3-on-3 format play out through five rounds. The objective here is to try and complete the rounds as quickly as possible, so it's effectively a time attack mode. In an attempt to try and make it more engaging, there is a slight bit of interaction, which makes it appear as though the player is taking part in a King of Fighters tournament. Every few rounds players are greeted with some kind of news broadcast that reports their progress, but it's exactly the same every time.
Aside from the Arcade Mode, there is an offline Versus Mode, Practice Mode, and Online battling. It's not really a selection that's going to wet many people's appetites and it's a shame there isn't more on offer. The Arcade Mode is also rather short and can get repetitive very quickly. So, if there is no internet available and nobody to play against locally, there's pretty much only one option available, and that option isn't going to keep people occupied for very long.
This is a real shame, because the gameplay is extremely polished. There are twenty-two characters available in The King of Fighters XII, with two being hidden at the start, and they all feel great to control. It's clear to see that this was an area that SNK Playmore focused on in those many years of development. While the characters don't necessarily have many moves available, it doesn't really matter as combat just feels refreshing. This edition also has a few alterations from previous versions, as the Tactical Shift system has been replaced in favour of the Critical Counter system. This is much simpler to understand, and simply revolves around players hitting strong punches at close range. If successful, they enter Critical Counter Mode, which seems them being able to unleash a long combination of attacks that are unblockable.
Other new gameplay mechanics are the Guard Attack, a feature which allows players to block incoming moves using strikes, and Deadlock, which happens when two players attack at exactly the same time. This results in parity, which allows players to return to a neutral stance, with neither of them taking damage. All of these additions help the combat to flow much more easily and there always seems to be constant action.
Another area which has been majorly improved are the graphics. The game is still based in 2D, but all of the sprites have been completely redone. They do look a bit grainy when the action zooms in, but otherwise they look extremely crisp. The backgrounds are also equally as impressive, and together they make for a good combination. To aid this, the game runs extremely smoothly, and there just helps to enhance the combat experience. One element that deserves a special mention is the fire effects - they just look great.
With regards to the rest of the game's presentation, the menus look a bit dated. The voice acting is also rather suspect, as the majority of it sounds like Japanese English, as opposed to traditional English. It may have been done for effect, but it ends up just sounding tacky. It is possible to select the traditional Japanese voices though, if authenticity is required.
As previously mentioned, there is a full online mode, which on the PlayStation 3 version also offers clan support. However, the system used for match making is rather archiac, so actually entering into a match can take much longer than it should. More time is spent waiting around for someone to fight against than actually fighting, which is clearly not what's intended. There is also a gallery, which features unlockable elements and of course, two characters to unlock. However, these features don't necessarily allow the game to represent itself as a title with longevity.
The King of Fighters XII succeeds in revitalising the franchise in some respects, but falls severely short in others. The omission of any kind of story is a big oversight and the lack of modes, coupled with a frustrating online multiplayer, bring down all the good work that has been done with regards to the actual gameplay. The re-developed combat system is great and makes the fights much more fast paced and engaging, while the new artwork looks extremely crisp, but it's not enough to mask the deficiencies that are present elsewhere. Hopefully there is a much better balance in the next edition to the series.