Two of the biggest fighting franchises collide — wait, haven't we been here before? Over ten years ago SNK and Capcom crossed over to create a series of fighters that, however entertaining, ultimately failed to become more than the mere sum of their parts. Now Capcom's back in full-on synergy mode with Street Fighter X Tekken, but it's a glancing blow, not a hard K.O.
The real drawback of SFxTK is that it's a slave to two masters: the nuanced back-and-forth of Super Street Fighter IV and the less subtle juggle circus that is Tekken 6. Scaling Tekken's predominantly punchy pugilists to fit in with SF's over the top world of fireballs and teleportation involves bringing them both closer to the middle instead of celebrating their extremities.
The tag system straddles the centre between Tekken Tag Tournament 2 and Marvel vs. Capcom 3: you pick two fighters to tag in and out at will, but if one energy bar is fully depleted you lose the round in a best two out of three format. There're no assists, but you have a number of crossover commands at your disposal to make the most of your partner's abilities.
Chaining a normal attack into a heavier one and finishing with a heavy punch or heavy kick launches your opponent and automatically calls in your team mate, setting up juggles aplenty in SFxTK's biggest Tekken influence. It's here the game shines; ripe with combo potential for the imaginative and manually dexterous, it's dialled down from the aerial raves seen in other crossover games but is no less satisfying. It also forms the backbone of discovering which teams work well together, and by setting a universal launcher (HP + HK) for all characters it levels the playing field — you're just as likely to get a strong juggle with Zangief as you are Jin.
These combos also contribute to the strongest sense of team strategy. An off-screen fighter will recover some health, but you can't juggle your opponent without switching, necessitating some judicious risk vs. reward — go for the spectacular and sacrifice recovery or play it safe and rebuild. It's an intriguing part of the flow of battle, if nothing else.
There are other double-up moves too: Cross Arts are team Super Arts and use three bars of your gauge, and Cross Assaults pull both of your characters on-screen at once for a chaotic homage to Street Fighter Alpha's Dramatic Battle mode, though it rarely achieves what it promises when playing with a CPU colleague; human partners fare better. You can also tag your opponent in mid-combo at the cost of one bar, setting up lengthy combos for the adept, or pull a straight switch for no gauge cost.
The gauge also forms the basis of the EX and Super Art systems, which survive mostly intact from SSFIV with one important difference. Super Arts are now seen as 'fully-charged' versions of special moves, and you can hold punch to charge Ryu's Hadouken into EX Hadouken and finally Shinku Hadouken without using up your meter, or charge more quickly from EX to Super for one bar. The charging delay is perfectly judged to make you weigh up each decision carefully — to risk a Super or go for the safer EX move.
It's full of attacking options but suffers in the defensive game. There's none of SSFIV's Focus moves or Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike's exceptional parry system; your only real option is to press F + HP + HK while blocking to use up one bar for a launcher. Tagging in your teammate like this could save your bacon if you're taking a hammering, but it lacks the finesse of the other titles' defensive systems.
Not that you'll need to defend much in offline play, as the game's too easy even on the hardest difficulty setting: we breezed past the end boss with a Perfect in one round without even playing particularly well.
Should your fighting skills not be quite as polished as ours, you can deploy perhaps SFxTK's most controversial feature: Gems. These add-ons come in two flavours — Boost gems grant you extra strength, speed, defensive power and other bonuses when you fulfil certain conditions in battles, such as blocking five hits, connecting with two special moves and so on. Assist gems are more passive, and step in to help out with blocking and throw escapes when required, though these cost gauge energy.
For all the uproar in the fighting game community about gems, they're more optional than integral; you can comfortably make it through the game without them, and they rarely — if ever — give the CPU an unfair advantage. Perhaps they'd be more important if they were better implemented: you must manually define each fighter's gem sets instead of being able to create general sets and alternate them between characters as you see fit. It's a minor niggle, but one that keeps gems from taking front and centre.
The mismanagement of gems is almost indicative of the game as a whole: there are plenty of good ideas here, and everything works as it should, but there's a spark missing. It doesn't seem as rewarding to learn as SSFIV, where each match teaches you something new about your chosen character; here fighters share so many commonalities you can choose most fighters and win with the exact same button presses and strategy. Akuma still feels like Akuma and Paul is still Paul, but the game itself is less sure of its identity: it shoots for smart yet simple but only achieves the latter. Without the controlled chaos of Capcom's other crossovers or the technical command of SSFIV and Tekken, it lands somewhere in the middle ground.
There's plenty to enjoy in SFxTK: the cast is second-to-none, it's vibrant and never takes itself too seriously, but you almost wish it would. There was an opportunity for a truly great technical fighter in combining Street Fighter and Tekken, but it's denied in favour of a strategy-light, juggle-heavy scrapper that — like Capcom's other cross-company crossover all those years ago — never quite satisfies.