Technically difficult, but incredibly fun.
The King of Fighters XIV on PS4
The King of Fighters is a series steeped in history dating all the way back to 1994. With over 21 years under their belt, these games have become consistently well-known for providing a technically challenging, yet incredibly rewarding competitive experience. With a lengthy six year hiatus, SNK has officially brought the next installment, The King of Fighters XIV, to the new generation table.
Easily one of the largest changes to KOF XIV is the visual upgrade it has received in its jump to the PS4 and I use the term ‘upgrade’ very loosely. Traditionally, each other game in the series has featured a 2D stylization, however KOF XIV is the first in the franchise to replace the 2D character sprites with full 3D models, while continuing with a 2D fighting plane. The issue here stems from the fact that the 3D models just don’t look all that great, especially when compared with the wonderfully crafted stage backgrounds and overall flashy, but fun combat animations. It almost feels as though the dev team spent more time polishing the world the characters would fight in, rather than the actual fighters themselves, which comes off as a real shame and certainly a missed opportunity. And although I do rather enjoy the fresh take and new style, I sometimes found myself longing for the beautifully detailed 2D sprites of KOF games gone by.
The story mode also makes its return to KOF XIV, albeit in a not-so-big way. The story comes off fairly standard: an eccentric Russian billionaire, named Antonov, decides to throw a new King of Fighters tournament, because as we know from real world experience, that’s just what Russian billionaires love to do in their off time. It’s best to try and like Antonov as much as you can as well, because you are going to be seeing a lot of him throughout the story. While you’re able to pick a fighting team of any 3 characters, much of the game’s story is spent with very little character interactions and instead is replaced by oddly placed cutscenes involving the self-proclaimed “Champion,” Antonov himself. It is alright though, as the cutscenes don’t spend time with the boring stuff, like fleshing out characters and developing a plot, but instead focusing on Antonov’s love of sad puppy movies and horrible overestimations of the world’s population.
Overall, the story mode feels like yet another wasted opportunity, which is unfortunate because there definitely seems to be a story tucked somewhere very far underneath it all. Though you can choose any three characters in a huge cast of 50 to complete the story with, by choosing a specific set of characters, like Team Japan: Kyo, Benimaru, and Goro, you will receive small additional story bits that are actually quite interesting. On top of that, when two specific characters meet each other in combat it will prompt an exceedingly rare quick dialogue before the match between them where they express anything from friendly rivalries to mutual hatred of one another to just general confusion. When unlocked, the cutscenes for the game are saved and viewable anytime, which is a nice touch for those seeking to jigsaw their way into a less convoluted story that makes any form of sense.
The actual gameplay is where KOF XIV starts to feel much more at home. Similar to its predecessors, KOF XIV is a 3-on-3 team-based fighter wherein each player chooses three characters and their fighting order to take into battle. Traditional fighting game round systems are instead replaced by a fluid subsequent character system that has each individual character’s life acting as a single round. When one character is defeated, the next character in line will step up to the plate and begin a new round until one player’s team is completely knocked out. The winner of each round will have a small amount of health restored to their fighter as a win bonus and any super meter filled will carry over too. Rolling, Blowback Attacks, and the Guard Meter all make their return as well, creating a deep combat system that is especially enjoyable to explore.
Also making its return from previous titles in the series is a newer version of the “MAX Mode” system. By expending a single bar of super, your character enters a special state that allows for unlimited EX moves for a short period of time. You can also cancel a normal move with “MAX Mode” and continue the combo, however this results in a greatly reduced mode time. Each character now also has three types of supers: Super Special Moves, MAX Super Special Moves, and Climax Super Special Moves. MAX Super Special Moves are an enhanced form of your standard Special Moves, however they require two bars of super instead of the standard one and are more powerful, while Climax Super Special Moves are the most powerful and require a whopping three bars (two with “MAX Mode” on) to initiate.
The newest mechanical addition to combat is the introduction of Rush combos. Rush attacks act as the game’s form of a combo assist where repeatedly tapping Light Punch when next to your opponent will engage your character’s full Rush combo. If your meter has at least one bar, a super will be automatically cancelled into at the end of a Rush, substantially increasing the damage dished out. Rush combos do significantly less damage when compared with full technical combos, but they are easier to use and intended to ease newer players into the game.
A large criticism for the KOF series is that it has never been a particularly easy fighter for newcomers to break into. The game is incredibly technical and stringing together large combos consistently can take hours of practice to learn and ten times as long to master. Despite this, KOF XIV seems to try and create a less intimidating environment in an attempt to bring in a new crowd but unfortunately, I don’t believe it quite hit the mark. At first glance, the Rush system seems like a fantastic addition for new players, however it doesn’t actually serve to teach the player anything about the game’s combo system and instead acts as a crutch for the player to stand on. And because the Rush system can’t be turned off, it ended up becoming more of an annoyance than anything else when I found myself attempting to pick up new combos.
The intricate technicalities of the game are still there in full force and while this game may be easier to learn, the difference is measured in kilometers rather than miles. For veteran fighting game players, KOF XIV stands tall as a mechanically sound and well put together fighter, however due to SNK attempting to find the middle-ground, some may find the game a bit on the less challenging side compared to its brethren.
KOF XIV also features multiple other game modes: Character Trials, Time Attack, and Survival. Time Attack and Survival are fairly standard modes with the former pitting you in a 1-on-1 gauntlet against 10 CPU fighters in an attempt to clock your best time and the ladder acting as another 1-on-1 mode where the only goal is to continue fighting through opponents at all costs. Character Trials are much more forgiving this time around, following in line with the attempt to reach out to newer players, however in many ways the mode seems to fall short. Trials are meant to introduce and teach the player about specific characters and while these Trials show the player a single bread-and-butter combo (in rare cases maybe two), it fails to deeply show off individual characters’ strengths and abilities.
The online mode for the game feels far better constructed than previous games and I rarely found myself experiencing slow down and only in cases where our connection was poor. However, despite a generally positive online experience, it did tend to feel sluggish at times. But with some work, KOF XIV’s netcode could easily compare with some of the best fighters currently out there.
At its worst, The King of Fighters XIV feels like a game of missed opportunities loaded to the brim with potential and at its best, an incredibly well-built fighter that is sure to please longtime fans of the series and veteran fighting game players alike. Even though the game feels bogged down by a poorly constructed story, weak character models, and a slightly off putting over-pandering to new players, there is still so much about KOF XIV that feels genuine and unique. Even with a huge cast of characters, each one still feels distinct and different to play, with characters ranging from elegant, projectile-heavy wonders to beastly grappling monsters. In the end, it’s hard to deny that KOF XIV is just simply fun to play, however if you’re looking for a fighter that’s easy to get into and learn, you’re probably better off looking elsewhere.
Score: 3.5/5 – FAIR