King of Fighters is a household name when it comes to fighting games. It'd have to be, if this is the thirteenth one. While I'm not a fighting game grognard or whatever the term is, I do know what I enjoy in fighting games – and as they go, this game will serve as your old-school beat-em-up fun.
The plot is pretty basic. Rose Bernstein, the traditional high-society young girl with ridiculous drill-shaped hair, is hosting a King of Fighter's tournament, with people from all across the world fighting for the title. Meanwhile, a guy who I honestly thought was a girl works with another guy who I thought was a girl (Ash Crimson and Saiki, respectively), to try and resurrect Orochi, this source of unspeakable world-shattering power that spends most of its time glowing ominously. The Story Mode details this in semi-animated cutscenes, featuring plenty of distinct characters (including fighters from previous games), who mostly just talk about how much they hate what's going on or how they're manipulating everything. The scenes move slowly, and pressing any button skips them outright, rather than accelerating the text. Pre-fight banter dialogue is more entertaining, if pretty typical (“hey Mai, you sure are pornily dressed” “What, why, I'll kill you”). It feels more like a visual novel with fighting games in between; I'm not certain this is a good thing.
Actual fights on normal difficulty are pretty challenging. You usually fight in teams of three, with fighters subbing out as they're beaten, but you can do one-on-one in Versus. You can pause the game to look at moves at any time, but most fighters have similar attack patterns. Every move is a pattern of 'roll down from left to right or vice-versa, and then kick or punch', to provide a variety of moves. The game doesn't actually tell you what the moves are beyond the names; experimentation is the key. I played it with a friend in multiplayer, and his comments was that the controls were pretty responsive. I'd say too responsive at times, preventing you from pull off moves if you accidentally tap the Dpad too hard. The different fighters play differently, with different reaches and attack variations that you need to learn to best use them.
Or you can always button-mash. Generally you can pull off most basic moves with little coordination; the power moves are less simple, and reward players who manage to actually master the timing necessary to pull it off. However, against the AI at its best (especially against bosses), you're going to have a tough time. The final boss is pretty cheap, sticking you in place and repeatedly grabbing you. He's the only time I got really, painfully frustrated with the AI; this was all on normal difficulty, so you can adjust it on the options screen.
Aside from standard Arcade mode, the Story and Versus mode, there's also a tutorial that teaches you how to pull off certain moves (some are much harder than others), a Practice mode where you can teach yourself how to pull of combos (you'll need it against bosses); and a Mission mode where you can do challenges like Time Attack or Survival. Playing unlocks character art, as well as cutscenes (which lets you skip to certain battles in Story mode), and you can check your stats. I'm sure more characters will be available online, giving some of the cutscene-only characters some play-time.
Graphically, it's quite good. The sprites are well-animated, with multiple frames even when they're standing still. The cutscenes are brightly coloured, and though they're often clearly partially-animated still images, the effect works. I think they might have put too much animation detail in some characters (not to mention a certain exclusively-female tendency to suffer clothing damage if killed with super move), but I'm not complaining. It's nice to see sprite animation attempt to advance rather than simply become static in the face of 3D images. The backgrounds are nice and colourful, and have plenty of things going on that wind up distracting me (Why are there pigs?! What's a little girl doing there!). Think of it as 'Where's Waldo' as you get beaten on by a creepy eyepatch woman. I would go as far to say that it is a beautiful game to play.
The character voices have no English localization, so you're using the original dialogue in fights, which is the only place where there's recorded dialogue. 'Engrish' is common in the battle quips, though the actual translations in cutscenes seem pretty solid and coherent. The music, a mix of ominous classical and rock guitar riffs, is fine but not particularly noticeable.
Try this out. You'll have fun if you take the time to practice, and play against your friends. It's a decent game to have out for when you're playing around after work.