The King of Fighters XIV is a brilliantly complex fighting game that manages to push and renew a long-running and time-honored series.
It’s been a long time since I woke up thinking about a fighting game. Not since my glory days ascending the global ranks in Soul Calibur IV have I been so consumed by the urge to power on my console for “one more match” which, inevitably, turns into several more matches.
The King of Fighters XIV is easily the best fighting game I’ve played since then. It’s basically everything I wanted Street Fighter V to be. That’s not so much a dig on Street Fighter as it is high praise for KoF XIV (okay, it was a bit of a dig).
Something old, something new
As a newcomer to the franchise, I felt that I had missed the best of what SNK had to offer. Where are the brilliantly animated 2D sprites and lush, pixel-rich backgrounds? If you’re a series veteran, then you’re likely echoing my concerns with due outrage. You’ll be pleased to know that the transition to 3D character models and backgrounds has been a pleasant and seamless one.
This is a point of sharp disagreement among players, but I love the way this game looks. While it’s true that at first glance you’d believe you were looking at a PS3 game, what KoF XIV lacks in sheer polygon count and shaders, it more than makes up for in style and presentation. Animations are fast and fluid; each character moves, attacks and celebrates in their own charming way; and the majority of the stages you’ll be fighting on are vibrant and full of life. There are some goose eggs, but overall, I’ve been amazed by the heart and soul the shines through in each moment.
There’s also a great sense of continuity and legacy here. Matches are still set up as a brawl between two teams of three. You’ll pick your three fighters and the order that you’d like to deploy them, and before moving on to the next match you’ll have to defeat three opponents. It was nice to see that when certain characters are matched against each other, a short dialogue sequence will play out as they banter, tease or challenge one another like old friends. It really speaks to the longevity of the series and the stories it’s told, and long-time players will no doubt find these exchanges hugely significant or otherwise endearing.
Let’s get swingin’
When it’s time to boogie, sometimes your front-runner will steal the show and breeze through all three rounds with barely a scratch, but by the end of Story Mode, you’ll find that you’re salvaging a win with barely a sliver of health left to your final combatant.
The single-player difficulty ramps up really naturally, though by the time you’re facing the end-game and thinking about Time Trial and Survival modes, you’ll need a core team of three with whom you feel totally confident.
That confidence is hard to come by, especially for a series newcomer like me. Thankfully KoF XIV comes fully-loaded with a comprehensive suite of training options.
When you decide you’d like to learn a character, the song and dance goes like this: First, you’ll want to complete the tutorial which will show you the basics of movement, jumping, attacking, blocking and dodging. That may sound trivial, but there are complexities unique to this iteration of The King of Fighters, like the rush attack for example, that even veterans will need catching up on.
Rush attacks allow you to execute a long combo when standing right next to your opponent by rapidly pressing the light-punch button. For the novice, it provides a simple way to execute a fun and flashy combo, and for hardcore players, it provides the means to quickly punish their opponents’ mistakes at close range.
Once you’ve got the basics down, you’ll want to head over to the Trials. Every one of the game’s 50 playable characters has their own set of trials, which will show you how to link their unique moves and specials into devastating combos. This is where things can get a bit overwhelming. Regular attacks can chain into special moves, which can be canceled with the proper inputs to chain into super special moves, which in turn can be canceled mid-way to chain into a climax super special move.
By the time you reach each character’s final trial you’ll glance up at the command prompt and see more arrows coming at you than a Dance Dance Revolution professional playing doubles. Just be patient, and each trial will prepare you for the next. Soon, you’ll be feeling rather competent. Cocky, even. Once you’ve toppled Story Mode and powered through a few trials you’ll be saying to yourself, “What the hell, I’m ready for some online action!”
It’s a ping thing
The online multiplayer experience here is serviceable but will no doubt see some patching and improvement. You’ll enter into a player-hosted lobby which can accommodate up to 12 players. Within the lobby are six rooms into which players can split off to face each other 1 on 1. This is the perfect setup for when you want to host a tournament, but there are some quirks and downfalls you’ll need to deal with.
A player’s connection bars don’t seem to be a great indication of anything. I’ve been in a full lobby of 12, facing off against an opponent with three bars, and everything swam along at 60 FPS with no input lag. I’ve also joined a two-man room and faced off against a player with four bars, and we decided to stop playing together after two matches; the lag was terrible. We know it’s a priority for SNK, and they’ll be paying close attention to performance and player feedback.
It’s also pretty annoying, and you should be aware, that when the player who created a lobby leaves, all 12 players are kicked from the game without warning. When playing online against randoms, that can lead to some infuriating interruptions. When everything works, this is a blast to play online. You’ll learn very quickly just how many incredibly devoted KoF players there are out there, so be prepared.
The King of Fighters XIV is a brilliantly complex fighting game that manages to push and renew a long-running and time-honored series. Not for a single moment does the game take itself seriously. From the ridiculous Story Mode that rivals the campiest B-movie, to the 50+ hit combos you’ll be pulling off regularly with a bit of practice, to Mai’s “chest-biscuits,” which still hang and flop about like they have minds of their own … this is a bizarre and rewarding experience that you won’t soon forget.
Returning fans will be delighted to see their favorite characters’ personalities come through for the first time in 3D, and series virgins will be find themselves checking the time and justifying their decision to play “one more match” which, again, will turn into several more matches.
- A roster of 50 unique and unforgettable fighters
- Presentation is stylish and lighthearted
- Tutorials, trials, and training offer excellent schooling for newbies
- Fighting mechanics are complex and satisfying
- Learning curve can be daunting for newcomers
- Online play and lobbies need some work
- Dated visuals may bother some