“King of Fighters XIII’ a worthy contender

The “King of Fighters” series has never quite been able to seize the fighting game throne. The game has lived perpetually in the shadow of “Street Fighter,” despite annual sequels for nearly a decade. While “King of Fighters XII” brought the series’ 2-D graphics into the modern era with HD sprites, the gameplay just didn’t have much fight in it. Thankfully, “XIII” proves that the series doesn’t just have staying power, it’s got real comeback potential.

Fighting games are notorious for having storylines more laughable than Mike Tyson’s facial tattoo, and many games don’t even bother to include some sort of story mode. “King of Fighters XIII” essentially gives players two separate story modes to mess around with, though the plot, which involves a cabal of time-traveling villains called Those From the Past, is poorly explained. Even fans who have played the previous games might be scratching their heads during simultaneously verbose and vague cutscenes that play out like a visual novel. The branching paths feel like an afterthought, and don’t have as much variety as the ones in “Blazblue,” but they’re better than making the player stick to just one path.

The real story is conveyed through pre-fight banter between the combatants, which is surprisingly amusing. You’ll learn about the rivalries, love interests, and personalities of the cast, and this dialogue is present in both the Story and Arcade modes. “Street Fighter” would do well to copy this example.

The gameplay is a mix of old and new with 2-D sprites fighting it out in three-on-three team battles. The awkward gameplay systems of “XII” have been replaced with EX moves, which are beefed-up special moves at the cost of extra energy. There are also NeoMax moves, which are screen-filling pyrotechnic attacks that are as jaw-droppingly cool as they are jaw-crushingly damaging. In addition to these, there is HD mode, which allows the player to cancel one special move into another for a lower cost than usual. “Cancel” means to stop doing one move and immediately begin another. If all of this sounds technical, it is. “XIII” makes no apologies for being a hardcore gamer’s fighting game, and though there are some basic tutorials to get first-time pugilists up to speed, players who want to learn the difference between a Drive-canceled Ura 111 Shiki: Ama no Murakumo and a Super Argentine Backbreaker will need to hit the practice mode and the online strategy forums for the game.

The feel of the gameplay is somewhere between “Street Fighter” and “Marvel vs. Capcom.” Though there are teams of three, there’s no tagging or team hyper combos. The focus is on aggressive, in-your-face action instead of keeping the opponent away with fireballs. (I’m looking at you, Ryu!) Though the timing on combos is quite strict and the game makes few concessions for beginners, “XIII” provides a unique, challenging, and rewarding fighting engine.

“XIII” misses the knockout punch by featuring online play that is mediocre at best. The netplay can be so slow at times that it seems as though your character is fighting underwater, and while players with great internet connections can steer clear of laggy games by being selective with their opponents, “XIII” is not as popular as the other fighting games of the day, so finding a worthy opponent is a battle in itself. If you don’t have any friends to come over and play with, this could be a real problem.

Two unlockable characters, tons of unlockable artwork, and a respectable color-edit mode to tweak your character’s appearance help provide some extra incentive to keep fighting. The requisite time attack and survival modes also make an appearance.

“XIII” is the prettiest 2-D fighting game of all time. The animation is much smoother than the fellow 2-D series “Blazblue,” and each of the backgrounds are pretty enough to hang in a museum. The soundtrack succeeds most when it deviates from too-frequent wailing guitars to include accents of Japanese flute, violins, and ethnic touches. While the Japanese voices suit the characters well, there’s no option for English voices, which puts “XIII” a step behind the competition.

Does “King of Fighters XIII” steal “Street Fighter’s” crown? Not entirely, but its got enough standout features to make it a worthy contender. Though it may never become as popular as its rival, anyone with a fighting spirit and thumbs of iron owe it to themselves to try one of the best 2-D fighters in years.

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