There was a time when the fighting game scene was defined by two companies: Capcom and SNK. Street Fighter is far more well known by the mainstream gaming audience, but SNK's King of Fighters, was regarded just as highly by fans of the genre. Funnily enough, both series' genesis can be attributed to the same man, Takashi Nishiyama. He developed the original Street Fighter, left to run SNK's development team and brought forth the King of Fighters series. The two companies traded blows throughout the 90's and pushed each other in the field. The result was a golden age of 2D fighters that pitted the technical intricacies of KoF versus the cast of characters known the world over in the Street Fighter series. The KoF series is known for its fast play style, 3-on-3 team selections, gorgeous sprite-based artwork with emotive characters and stellar music. After years of spent in the pachinko mines, SNK has emerged with King of Fighters XIV for PlayStation 4.
What happened? Where are the incredibly expressive 2D characters with detailed backgrounds? Why is everything terrible?! Don't throw away your Geese Howard plushie just yet (Does that exist? I want one.) as the sky is not falling. The hardcore set that has stuck by KoF since the 1990's turned on this latest iteration with surprising vitriol. There are so many factors to consider in regards to how this game looks outside of the mainline series turning to 3D for the first time. The biggest of them, sadly, is budgetary. SNK has had a long, tough road to get to this point. Bankruptcy and acquisition lead to relegating their roster of memorable characters to pachinko slot machines. Mobile games followed, then another buyout that saw SNK Playmore wanting to re-enter the games market. What was unveiled in October of 2015 was, for all intents and purposes, fairly rough. "PS2 graphics" was a constant refrain, and many had already begun to write it off.
I am so happy to report back that King of Fighters XIV is every bit the KoF game that fans could hope for. Terry Bogard plays like Terry Bogard is supposed to. Kyo Kusanagi still melts faces with deadly efficiency, and the title's stacked roster offers a dizzying amount of options when constructing your team of choice. The visuals are not as "awful" as many thought they would be. They do leave room for improvement, but it's a good start considering that it's SNK's first attempt at transitioning the series to 3D character models. KoF14 shines with its gameplay, its feature-complete feel and its ability to work well in the online space. The net code is pretty solid as I've had zero issues with it thus far with lobbies or ranked matches. The soundtrack, much like the rest of the series before it, is god tier as well.
King of Fighters has always been a series that prides itself on being mechanically deep, and that has, in the past, alienated those new to the series. In the past, It has not been a series I would have recommended to someone brand new to fighting games. King of Fighters XIV does its best to help educate those who have never touched a fight stick before with a tutorial that, frankly, works better than its nearest competitor, Street Fighter V. That being said, it still leaves quite a bit to desire in comparison to Guilty Gear Xrd Revelator or Skullgirls' approach to teaching players the ins and outs of its systems.
For fighting game veterans, there is nothing out of the ordinary here, and most all of the returning characters have their bread and butter moves. KoF is a four button fighter (Light Punch, Heavy Punch, Light Kick and Heavy Kick) and Super Moves are powered by the Maximum Gage (akin to the EX Meter in Street Fighter). Players can make use of the banked meter to execute Super Special Moves, fully-stocked Climax Super Special moves or power themselves up with MAX Mode. This makes all moves EX versions for a short amount of time, and it can serve as a way to turn the tide if one's back is against the wall.
Fighting games are a genre that requires a lot of technical precision. They can be downright intimidating to newcomers, but even the greenest of rookies can still pull off solid starter combos thanks to Rush Mode. Consecutive presses of Light Punch in proximity to an opponent will execute a basic combo with no other motions required. If a stock of Maximum Gauge is stocked when kicking off a 6-7 hit Rush Mode combo then it will automatically end with a Super Special move. That paired with a larger input buffer offers those unfamiliar with the genre a way to at least compete with their more seasoned friends and online competitors. Accessibility is essential to gain new audiences for a genre that is notorious for not being welcoming to newbies, so the Rush Mode combo is a necessity to ease new folks into a character's natural progression.
Of course, the opposite end of the spectrum is catered to as well with Climax Super Specials that require two quarter circle motions forward or back and two attack buttons to execute. That paired with the ability to cancel combos into special moves and further improvise on strings means that those on the high-end can mix things up with their favorite team.
There are numerous movement options for every character including dashing, variable distance jumps (depending on the motion of the analog stick) along with Emergency Evasion rolls. There's even a way to create space between the two fighters with Blowback moves that can lead to potential resets and further combo options. The breadth of choices for a player to dig into is massive. It should make the competitive scene a blast to watch, but it will probably be hellacious for commentators to keep up with. Each character has new levels to unearth as more and more layers of motion, cancels, and combo strings are thrown in, each emphasizing just how much precision is necessary to play this game at a high level.
The biggest takeaway from all of that? King of Fighters XIV feels great. It moves at a brisk pace, meter builds quickly, and executing a Power Geyser, Buster Wolf or Burning Knuckle feels just as good as it did back in 1998. It feels like the King of Fighters you know and love with just enough new touches to imbue it with a new shine. If only the visuals could have made the same transition.
The transition from full 2D sprites (among the very best) to 3D has been a bit rocky. The expressive nature of the hallmark KoF style isn't totally gone, but the soul of some of the characters is simply not present. The cast of fifty fighters (including two boss characters) is all over the map in regards to design with some of the returning fighters looking great while others don't fare so well. Kyo, for example, doesn't look much like the fire-wielding Kusanagi I've used for years. Terry, meanwhile, survived the transition far better as did Clark and some of the other fan-favorites (No worries boys, Mai looks fine). The newer characters (seventeen in all) are where the design choices start to veer wildly with some characters almost taking on a Street Fighter-esque approach to their look while others are more in-line with the sensibilities of the SNK style. It's nothing so crazy that it prevents one from enjoying some of the new characters but it's noticeable. The attack effects that go along with special moves and the like are, similarly, serviceable at times while other attacks look fantastic.
SNK did a great job with imbuing many of the fighters with that extra bit of characterization within their Super Special Moves. King of Fighters XIV, similar to the way Street Fighter frames its Critical Arts, slows the game down to highlight the combos on display. This will usually result in a flourish of motion or gesture, random line from the fighter, that helps to give the somewhat plastic look of many of the warriors a bit of heart. There is, however, one major beef I have with the overall presentation.
Menus. It might not seem that important if the gameplay is solid but user interface and menus are something that is ever-present in-match and out. The overall approach is a bit bland from the MAX Mode gauge to the somewhat confusing layout of some of the online match options. The lobby options, in particular, aren't laid out in a particularly logical fashion and can result in some minor confusion when first jumping into the 12-man lobby system. One strange choice is that even after an online match has begun from a lobby, a small window remains on the screen showing the two players and their chat status. It's translucent so it doesn't outright block the view of characters in motion, but it seems unnecessary to show. A small gripe but worth noting either way.
The game's story mode isn't much more than a classic style ten stage arcade romp that ends with a cut scene that will change depending on the team used. It is great that the game has it at launch as compared to Street Fighter V, but it feels rather archaic in this day and age of games attempting to have a more fleshed our narrative. Be sure to complete it once, as it unlocks both boss characters for use in other modes.
The net code for KoF XII was abysmal on consoles and only slightly improved in the follow-up, KoF XIII. King of Fighters XIV, on the other hand, immediately felt rock-solid during "Free Play." This allows players to search for and join custom lobbies with up to twelve foes to battle against. The code was so crisp during these sessions that I found myself comparing it heavily to the offline experience with fellow friends. Ranked Matches, however, are another story. Pre-release matches were relatively latency-free but post-launch there were noticeable differences even when sorting opponents by higher-speed connections and region. SNK was quick to get out in front of the complaints and let fans known that a fix is incoming to remedy the situation. Free Play worked like a dream, but Ranked Matches were painfully slow at their worst as my team of Kyo, Daimon and Benimaru moved like tugboats submerged in molasses. The Ranked Matches problem aside, the game's online play is leagues better at launch than even Capcom's flagship title was when it hit shelves in February.
This is a great time for King of Fighters XIV to enter the scene honestly. The visibility of SFV has only gotten bigger as the year has worn on and more eyes are turning towards fighting games in general. Its attempts to be more accessible work, for the most part, and it feels like a far more feature-complete game at launch than its nearest Capcom-made competitor did for sure. There are quite a few options to keep a single-player fighter busy, especially if working in the lab on tech for characters is your jam. This, much as the others have been before it, remains the more technical fighting game with nuances that will surprise and delight. There is a lot of great things to find in King of Fighters XIV so long as you can look past a less than stellar visual presentation. It is a worthy entry into the series and should get fans excited for what is coming down the line from the newly resurrected SNK. More importantly, it's a great fighting game.
King of Fighters XIV brings one of the genre's longest running franchises to the current generation with mixed results visually. The gameplay is deep should players want to explore it and friendly to newcomers just jumping on with the series. The soundtrack is fantastic and the net code is far improved over its predecessor. We have a winner folks.