The King of Fighters XIV Review: The Future is Now?

From the moment you press start The King of Fighters XIV pays respect to the series’ over twenty two year legacy playing the same insert coin soundbite ripped straight from a big red NEO GEO arcade cabinet. It's a small, easily missed piece of fanservice for those fortunate enough to have ever dropped a fistful of quarters at an arcade or struggled to grip the greasy joysticks at any legitimate pizza joint but its thoughtful nuances like these that have helped the King of Fighters keep its crown since 1994. Gone are the arcades of yesteryears, gone are the unrivaled 2D sprites but back is the series’ emphasis on three on three battles, layers of deep but accessible mechanics, and a game worthy of the return of SNK...whiffing a few missed punches.

If you’ve never vied to become the King of Fighters before, here’s the basics: three on three team battles in one on one matches until all the fighters on either side are KO’d. Despite the move to 3D visuals, The King of Fighters XIV’s battles remain strictly 2D. Couple this with frankly overwhelming team combination possibilities, an assortment of advanced subsystems like super cancelling, and it’s no wonder why it’s been almost six years since The King of Fighters XIII.

Fifty playable fighters makes XIV not only the largest launch cast in KOF history (sparing the technicality of KOF 2002: Unlimited Match) but each character plays distinct and are well balanced, complimenting almost any play style. Terry still BUSTA wolves, Iori sweeps with purple flames, and while the old guard have all received some stylish redesigns visually, it's the newcomers that should make the transition to 3D graphics a little less jarring to series vets. No less than eighteen new characters assemble for this year's tournament, from the coolly conservative to the downright bizarre. The cloaked Kukri bends sand to trap his opponents while keeping them at a distance. South America Team’s Zarina deals damage high and low with her dancing kicks and flowery specials. While Sylvie, the eccentric Jpop idol, provides not only one of the most zany fighters in recent memory but also tremendous combo potential when properly feeding from her electric specials into normal chains.

All the characters burn bright on screen with charming personalities and striking designs in line with SNK tradition but it's a shame the game’s decidedly poor visuals betray said tradition, easily where the King of Fighters XIV falters most. Character models in motion animate fluidly enough but are low in detail, faces reflective with a plastic sheen. Shoddy texture work on clothing and even jaggy hair looks plain, porcelain-like rather than high fidelity polygons. Super Specials, on the other hand, do share that same screen shattering splash of colors from XIII while some dynamic camera panning around characters during specials certainly does make admirable use of the added 3D perspective.

Nippon Ichi!

Nippon Ichi!

Many of the nineteen stages you’ll do battle on endeavor to utilize the new dimension as well, but, while impressive in visual variety, are also muddied by the same low quality texture work present in the models. Neo Esaka, bathed in neon lights, is a veritable Easter egg hunt with plenty of referential signage but still pales to the detail drenched Esaka of the older titles. New stages like team Mexico's spectator engulfed arena emulates the NPC density and celebratory atmosphere of past KOF but no amount of dilapidated cathedrals or elaborate masquerade ballrooms are enough to salvage the overall lackluster presentation in XIV.

On the whole, the graphics are neither Maximum Impact nor PlayStation 2 era visuals but it's not the generations far removed you would expect to see in 2016. This is supremely disappointing not only because the 3D visuals are nothing near SNK’s pixelart pedigree but, where the visuals fall short, the music in XIV challenges its predecessors. From the jazzy fusion of Iori’s saxophone singles to Athena’s remixed but all the more energetic track, from rock to techno, every tune in XIV is as diverse as its fighters, capturing the character of the various teams where the visuals more often than not failed to.

Thankfully, while performing poorly visually, the game itself stays a steady sixty FPS during local matches and the sheer size of the newcomer roster alone topples most contemporary fighters. In fact, fans will be pleased to know, returning characters in The King of Fighters XIV maintain the majority of their move sets but all have sustained some level of streamlining. Either missing the quantity of moves or specials in prior entries, the limited move sets for some characters like the absence of King’s double venom strike, while potentially disappointing, is ultimately offset by the immense quantity of said characters to practice with. The game encourages experimentation with varied team trios, inviting old players to try newcomers and newcomers to try KOF as XIV, on a fundamental gameplay level, has made it easier than ever to actually play the game.

Andy is well rounded for all offenses. Even if his cool factor is mostly bogarded by his big brother...

Andy is well rounded for all offenses. Even if his cool factor is mostly bogarded by his big brother...

Historically there's a reason why The King of Fighters has a hardcore reputation: It's unabashedly difficult. Even among fighting games KOF has been both heralded and hated for its demanding skill as well as system complexity. There are infamously four jumps to effectively hop at high level play but that shouldn't scare anyone from jumping into this one. With XIV, KOF has lowered its barrier of entry. Inputs have been simplified in that they are perceptively less strict in execution times. Even when compared to the particularly accessible likes of XIII there is now a generous open window for special inputs, stringing three hit combo attacks made a relatively simple affair. Tapping light punch back to back, for example, lets loose XIV’s all new Rush combo attack, an auto combo of punches that will culminate in an effortless super special against any foe. You can't coast on it at higher levels of competition, as it leaves you vulnerable to any manner of counter attacks, but its accessibility moves like these that illustrate at a design level an effort to invite new players to The King of Fighters XIV.

As much as there is an extended window for special inputs, the adjusted speed of battles in XIV immediately alters the game flow. Director Yasayuki Oda and battle planner Hidetoshi Ishizawa (Neo_G), the former behind legendary titles like Garou: Mark of the Wolves and the latter almost all of Capcom’s most renowned late nineties fighters like Street Fighter III: Third Strike, must have been informed from their collective experiences while developing XIV because battles are considerably slower but no less fierce than past KOF titles. Reading opposing attacks are clearer to follow, making it easier to plan your own. In the past I often found myself struggling to survive against a barrage obscenely fast combos but in XIV I found the challenge shifted from reading to executing attacks, specials, combos, multiple moves ahead of my opponent’s. However heretical, XIV’s speed is indeed more in line with a Street Fighter pacing than say KOF 2003’s near breakneck hyper fighting or the comparatively faster XIII, though none of this prevented SNK from implementing older mechanics into XIV. 

KOF subscribes to the feathered theory.

KOF subscribes to the feathered theory.

Joining the new Rush combo’s simplicity, XIV adopts a simplified MAX mode from earlier entries in the series. Like the Hyper Drive gauge in XIII, tapping Light Punch + Heavy Punch will activate the golden aura of Max mode (using one full power gauge stock in the process) but XIV’s iteration of Max mode enables unlimited access to EX moves. Faster recovery while hitting at higher damage output, EX attacks can be critical to securing a definitive victory or turning the tide of a losing battle which Max mode also readily aids by expediting the use of desperation moves known this time around as Super Climax specials. Easily the most powerful and flashiest attacks in the game, normally Super Climax moves require at least three power gauge bars to unleash but, within Max mode, only two need be used. Similar to XIII, Super Climax moves will be instantly familiar to any players who used Neo Max moves in the last game, if only the similarities stopped there when comparing the game’s online play.

The King of Fighters XIII infamously struggled with netplay and, six years later, XIV struggles still. It would not be hyperbole to say at least a quarter of my matches over the past two weeks have been riddled with some degree of network complications. Searching and syncing to matches is slow, chugging along for upwards of a minute in the worst cases when you’re lucky to find a lobby that isn't locked or inactive. Thankfully matchmaking issues are becoming rarer since the initial launch period patches but are compounded in many cases nonetheless. I’ve had fights with lag so severe that a single round became a good three minutes of stuttering punches and haphazard kicks, lost inputs or horribly delayed ones that will cost you points in the game’s ranked matches. With the nature of disparate network setups your mileage may vary but, in the metropolitan San Francisco Bay Area via Ethernet connection at all times during this review, it's safe to say the current online competitive experience in the King of Fighters XIV fails to actually compete.

Example of online lobby in Party VS

Example of online lobby in Party VS

When XIV’s matchmaking does work, however, it often does so flawlessly and SNK should be commended for it. You have the staples of course: team match, single battles, an ambitious online training mode that suffers from the same dodgy netcode, but it's the new Party mode, wherein two teams of three players duke it out till all the players on either team are defeated, that is a revelation for the King of Fighters online multiplayer. Nothing compares to the rush of narrowly winning against that player who just bulldozed through my entire team or, when it’s not my turn, cheering on the anonymous ally battling it out for our collective efforts. Sharing the victories, or abject defeats, party mode offers a shared immediacy for my actions like no other fighting game has this generation. It combines the beloved spectator sport that is a hallmark of the genre while directly challenging you to fight for a team, share meter, support or carry your party to victory or, more often in my case, numerous losses. Here, more than ranked matches, individual performance matters. Its high risk, high stress, but at its heights easily the most rewarding new addition to The King of Fighters XIV’s online suite.

If you're too faint of heart to venture online, the traditional bevy of offline content should satisfy. Time attack and Survival mode are standard fare but the individual character challenge modes, while no Netherrealm fighter in terms of robust training options, make up for a meek story mode offering. Gone with the 2D sprites apparently, the visual novel worth of text walls within KOF XIII’s story mode are no more, replaced by a ten round arcade mode in disguise. Where battles in XIII were prefaced by lighthearted, reference laden dialogue between your fighters, in XIV you’ll be lucky if even one of your characters pauses for a comparatively shallow exchange.

It's no power dunk but it will do.

It's no power dunk but it will do.

The easy AI action is interrupted by some CGI cutscenes, where midboss Antonov is the saving grace but no amount of weeping muscles can make this story coherent, thin if only to justify Samurai Shodown’s Nakoruru making an appearance (not that I’m complaining). For a series famous for its elaborate, albeit entertaining, brand of nonsense plot-lines and endearing team side stories, the story mode in XIV is less like the beginning of a new KOF saga and more like rushed filler content to tack on the back of the box. Say what you will about the nature of fighting game storytelling but as a fan of SNK’s fluff, particularly the deceptive depth of the Orochi arc, with a little more emphasis on character interaction and narrative alongside the worldclass gameplay and the game would easily vie for the throne of best King of Fighters, and really this is the story of The King of Fighters XIV.

Before being rechristened only recently, Playmore had always been perceived as somewhat of an unwelcomed shadow skittering under the much larger one of the former SNK. Decried as SNK in name and name only, I tend to agree, Playmore was never and will never be the SNK of the nineties, but this, The King of Fighters XIV is unquestionably KOF. There is a respect for the series history, each battle ending with copious concept art unlocks from the series past, catering to fans but never letting it stifle creativity or mechanical experimentation. As a package it stumbles with netcode and takes a backstep in graphics compared to previous entries but the gameplay is polished, fifty characters suffering nothing from the transition to 3D. It not the best KOF but it makes the case that, though they may not be around anymore, The King of Fighters XIV is still a worthy king in your or any arcade and one that makes me excited for the future of KOF, let alone, SNK.