Reviews  |  Atomiswave

The King of Fighters XI

By Lukus LaDwonn Allen and Alex Kierkegaard / November 11, 2007

Mukai, a member of a mysterious group, stole the Orochi seal. Taking advantage of all the confusion caused by this, Ash stole the Yata Mirror from Chizuru. In the advent of the new tournament new faces are handed invitations while old ones, such as Eiji Kisaragi, make their return to the ring. Among the new KOF participants are Oswald, Duck King (a Southtown veteran himself), Momoko and Elisabeth. All these fighters will find themselves in a tournament full of mysteries and secrets started by motives they had ignored. Behind this fierce competitive spirit lies a hidden force called "People from the Past", biding its time and pursuing its own objectives...


KOF 2003 had signaled the beginning of a new era for the KOF series with the much-anticipated arrival of tag combat; however, since this was something new for SNK, it's understandable that the first go-round wasn't entirely pleasant. So after the brief interlude of Neowave, SNK returned to the tag system in order to get it right. To avoid the pressure of the rigorous release schedule which had led to half-baked installments in the past, they dropped the year designation from the title and took their time to make KOF XI. The result -- upscaled, filtered sprites aside -- is one of the most complex and at the same time one of the most balanced entries in the series.

And yeah, once again, it's a real shame about the sprites, but what're you gonna do? If they are not ready to move on they are not ready, and whining endlessly about it will not make them ready. And even if it did, you know what, we've done enough whining -- let someone else take over for a while. So of course we'd have preferred everything to be either in low res or true high res, but forcing ourselves to look on the positive side -- at least backgrounds, character portraits and menu-screens are delicious (some consolation -- we know). Certainly, presentation-wise the game is faultless, and it's all rounded out by Hiroaki's fancy artwork and by a range of BGM tracks by Sha-V (the very same who composed/arranged the awesome 2k soundtrack), who does a great job of mixing the electronic sounds of 2k3 with his usual guitar-heavy rock tracks.


The huge roster is certainly one of the attractions here, as it was with Tenka. Though some old favorites have been removed (no comeback for Andy; and Mai, Joe, Leona and Chang are gone), many others have been added either as default characters or hidden sub-bosses, picked out from a range of old SNK fighters: Garou Densetsu (Fatal Fury), Mark of the Wolves, Buriki One and Fu'un Super Tag Battle (Kizuna Encounter).

System-wise, there are some pretty freaking huge changes. Everything from the way tagging works, to not one but TWO new bars to keep an eye on, and to a range of subtler changes, KOF XI, well... almost doesn't feel like KOF. And that's a good thing, at least for those who've played the crap out of previous installments and are looking to dig down on something new. For everyone else, well, it only means there's now a wider range of KOF games to choose from.


Getting into details, the tagging system takes a Marvel-like character this time around, giving you the option of the so-called Quick Shift maneuver, which is tagging in the middle of a combo, prolonging it, or in the middle of an attack, regardless of whether it was blocked or not, and canceling the frames of animation of the attack if necessary; and the Saving Shift, which allows you to take out a character while he is being hit, or at any other time (on the ground ONLY). Both these additions are welcome: the Quick Shift helps speed up the pace of the game, and the Saving Shift is a great way to end many combos which would otherwise deal a lot of damage, while eliminating the possibility of infinites (excluding aerial juggles). (Note however that the Saving Shift will not get you out of Desperation Moves, which is how it should be.)

Now this is where one of the two new bars comes into play. You now have a separate Skill/Tag bar which determines how you can execute these maneuvers. This is another excellent addition to KOF, in that instead of tagging actually costing Super bar like in practically ALL OTHER TAG GAMES, it only costs part of this Skill bar, which you can build up to two stocks max. These so-called Skill Stocks fill up on their own, independent of the Super meter, and you use up one for the Quick Shift, two for the Saving Shift. Note that there is NO way to build up this meter like the Super Meter, so no Skill Stock Battery!


Of course Power Stocks are still present, and purely offensive maneuvers such as Guard Cancels, Tag Attacks and Desperation Moves continue to use them. However, more defensive or tactical maneuvers such as the Quick Shift, Saving Shift and Guard Evasion all use Skill Stocks. Naturally, this division significantly complicates the mechanics of KOF. Being aware at any given moment of your stock availability, and therefore of your available options, takes some practice, to say the least...

Yet another great addition is the Dream Cancel. This works similarly to the Super Cancel that first appeared in KOF '99, allowing you to use stocks to interrupt a move in the midst of its execution with a more powerful one, enabling devastating combos. Dream cancelling is even deadlier though, allowing your Leader to combo into their Leader Super via ANOTHER Super, at the expense of two Power Stocks and one Skill Stock. The reason it's called Dream Cancel is because you can practically DREAM UP your way of comboing into this super...


The last major new feature of KOF XI is the Judgment bar, which acts as a quantifier for the relative skill level of the players. If the timer runs down in a match, winner is now declared the player who has this bar towards his side, and not the one who has the most remaining life (as in practically all other fighting games). In rare cases, if the bar is exactly at center, the match will end in a draw. The Judgment bar is affected by the attacks and combos the players land, and moreover the defeat of a character results in a big readjustment against the losing player. All this has the effect of adding yet another layer of strategy to the game's already deep tag system, since now keeping all your characters alive becomes more important than ever (though ignoring this bar altogether and simply "going for broke" is of course a valid strategy, especially for beginners and mid-level players).

There are a couple other important changes worth mentioning. One of them is the return of the CD Attacks. They were not in 2k3, though some appeared in the form of normals like Athena's etc., but now there is one button specifically denoted for them: the E Button. CD Attacks are Knockdown attacks, ground or air, that are normals, can be karacancelled, and if you get counterhit off of them you can follow up with specials and other things like supers etc. In previous games CD Attacks had their moments; in KOF '96, for example, the strategy with Mature was to whore her ground CD Attack all day -- it really was THAT GOOD, and broken.

Another welcome change is that they got rid of one of 2k3's biggest quirks: the fact that tagging was done via A+D or B+C. In contrast, XI's tagging with A+C or B+D feels far more natural.


Balance-wise? It must've certainly been a tough job integrating and balacing nearly fifty characters, especially with all of KOF XI's new system additions to take into account, but SNK did a helluva a job, and they certainly pulled it off far better than in 2k3. KOF 2003 had a major problem that turned people off of it rather quickly: the fact that Duo Lon was insanely overpowered, God tier by himself. Matter of fact, he was the second most overpowered default character in SNK history -- he was that bad. Second only to 2001's Foxy. Now we don't have such godly broken characters here, but we do have a top tier in KGO, or Kula, Gato, Oswald. Any one of them can be an effective Leader, but Gato is the best character in the game and arguably the best Leader, though Kula and Oswald are close, Kula moreso than Oswald.

To go into a bit more detail about the few things that are broken in KOF XI, take Kula first. What is broken about Kula? She has too much priority on Hyperhop C, which is the longest it's EVER been in a KOF; too much frame advantage on Hyperhop C, Dragon Punch+C, and Relect is too good. She fits the system of Hyperhopping in the game quite well. This is one of XI's flaws: unlike many past KOFs, Hyperhops dominate. What are Hyperhops? Shadow Short jumps! Not regular Short jumps, Shadow Short jumps! On top of this Oswald is not balanced well, and Gato, well, he has even more priority than Kula, he has priority on basically ALL his normals, and moreover his Leader Super breaks the Guard of his opponent EVERY TIME, as well as doing more damage for doing something SO SIMPLE...


Yet another change concerns the controls. SNK's fighters are not known for having the easiest controls around; Neowave was basically 2k2 but with a touch lighter controls, but still too much for the average Street Fighter player to bother messing with because it wasn't "Street Fighter-friendly". KOF XI bridges that gap by going further than Neowave, sporting much looser controls that make the game feel about how Street Fighter feels. It' a subtle change, but an important one to long-time KOF players.

Taking into account all the above, KOF XI is clearly for the new-schoolers in KOF. Because if all the new complexities of the system were not enough to turn off the old-schoolers (which, in many cases, they are), the new feel of the controls makes this a game that fans of the series will outright either love or hate. That KOF XI -- taken on its own -- is a great fighting game, there's no question. The only question left is: which of the two schools do YOU belong in?

Lukus LaDwonn Allen (aka Dark Geese) is among the top ten KOF XI players in the West, and reigning North American champion in several other fighters, including Samurai Spirits: Tenkaichi Kenkakuden, Ninja Master's and Waku Waku 7.

Alex Kierkegaard (aka icycalm) is among the top ten slackers in the West, and reigning North American champion in... reviewing videogames.