SNK’s fall from grace as a legitimate rival to Capcom in the fighting game stakes is one of the many storied tales of once-proud game companies losing their luster. Still, while so many other former software giants have allowed their franchises to crumble away with them (Sega *cough* Sonic *cough*), the company that gave us the Neo Geo have at least managed to continue carrying a few of the titles that adorned their flagship console with some pride. The King of Fighters series (KOF for short) definitely packed a punch capable of rocking the mighty Street Fighter back in the day - both its insistence on combos over flashy special moves, and the streetwise cool it lent to so many of its character designs, made it a consistently refreshing alternative to all the Hadoukens and Spinning Bird Kicks that had started to grow repetitive by the time Capcom’s franchise started to go into full spin-off mode.
23 years on from its first instalment, the KOF series still enjoys a respectable reputation among fighting game fanatics, and this 14th entry into the legacy is determined to uphold that particular trend, while trying to keep pace with some others. KOF XIV marks the first time since 2006 that the series has employed full 3-D graphics, and in traditional fashion, it also boasts a generous roster of 50 fighters to throw down with. One might wonder how a game of less glamourous stature these days could technically achieve this, given Street Fighter V’s paltry offering of just over half that amount when factoring in DLC. The answers to such a mystery becomes glaringly obvious not long into booting up the game - but despite it ultimately failing to trouble its still-considered rival, KOF XIV still provides plenty of bone-cracking fun, and is a deeply satisfying continuation of the franchise, either for series veterans or beginners experiencing it for the first time.
First of all, let’s just mention that roster again, shall we? 50 different characters, 48 of which are playable right on start: if that isn’t meant as two fingers up to the DLC-flaunting rip-off merchants dominating the fighting games market these days, I don’t know what is. It’s also an assembly that’ll surprise and please some of the older fans too. All the expected usual characters are present - Kyo, Iori, Mai and K’ (yep, that’s pronounced K-dash) are all present and available - but KOF XIV also marks the returns of eye-patched luchadore Ramon (last seen in KOF XI), fellow Mexican compatriot Angel (not seen since KOF 2002..), appearances of characters from other SNK classics (Nakoruru from Samurai Showdown), and a whole host of completely new and quite randomly concocted characters that give this game some warmly welcomed stylistic depth and variety. Taken as a collective, this is KOF as its fans will fondly remember it, and few will find that their own favorite fighters have missed the cut. They’re also very likely to pick up one or two new ones as well - the characters making their debuts here have been fleshed out with just as much attention to detail as any of the regulars have been given throughout the franchise’s run.
For the uninitiated, the King of Fighters unique selling point has never been focused on offering straightforward 1-on-1 fights that so many of its knuckle-duelling kin have. Instead, KOF’s main (and best mode) has always been combat of a 3 v 3 nature, with members of each team battling it out in single elimination battles, until one of the sides simply runs out of scrappers to throw into the mix. Throw in a fighting engine that favours getting up close and personal combat with smart counter-attacking, and you have a pretty unique fighting game that often becomes a seriously frenetic experience in mid-fight, without room for strategy being sacrificed. It would be foolish for KOF XIV to buck this trend, but given the sheer size of the roster in play here, it would also be a pitfall easily stumbled into. The fact that King of Fighters XIV ably carries this load and still maintains the sense of balance that the series is famous for is critical; because initial impressions might wrongly lead one to believe that the overall game smacks more of ‘dinosaur’ than ‘dynamite’.
Frankly, it takes a little while to fall in love with KOF XIV, especially if you’ve just come from Street Fighter V. It doesn’t do itself any favours with an initially obtrusive installation procedure, which inexplicably ties you to the training mode only while the game unpacks itself onto your hard drive. Once that’s out of the way, you stumble upon a far deeper problem - the in-game graphics are incredibly sub-standard. Some characters fare better than others, but there is a glaring lack of visual detail with many of KOF’s fighters that could leave you mistaken for thinking you’d just picked up an end-of-life PS2 game. The jump to 3-D was a concession the series needed, but a considerable drop in aesthetic personality has come with it - especially during end-of-match victory animations and the like. The game does try to work around this by offering up a rocking soundtrack (as exemplified by the thumping main theme on show in the intro above) and some tremendous work by the Japanese voice cast to successfully instil some real individuality into their respective characters. The quality of the game’s sonic aspects really do help, but they can’t completely mask the awkwardness that often comes with the stolid action figures that make up the character models on screen. It’s a frequent distraction, and more pressingly, it’s a genuine regression on the style of rugged, punk-ish cool that helped KOF forge a name for itself in the first place.
Also feature-wise, King of Fighters XIV does lives up to its namesake, but doesn’t really go much further. Straightforward, unadulterated fighting is all it really offers here - a single-player story, fighter-based challenges, local and online multiplayer modes and character-based challenges are pretty much the only things on the menu. All of them - save for the multiplayer modes which have always been KOF’s most focal experience anyway - range from pretty standard to fairly disappointing. The story mode is pretty pedestrian - even with the inclusion of Antonov, the amusing boss character who presides over this year’s King of Fighters Tournament (think WWE wrestler meets Russian bravado), and some lengthy endings to make the journey worthwhile. KOF has never been known for putting hugely detailed plotlines into their games - in fact no fighters really do. But this year’s effort of just merely having a bunch of teams working through a tournament, eventually defeating the Russian grappler who organized the event in the first place, and then having a glorified Tekken Ogre-rip off turn up as final boss - one that only makes sense to certain characters’ storylines - is probably up there with the blandest of them. There are still the amusing moments when certain rival characters trade insults or pleasantries with one another before their matches, but there’s no working around the fact that KOF XIV’s main single player mode feels more like a chore to unlock bonus artwork, rather than an immersive adventure.
Instead, KOF XIV relies on the strengths it has always been able to call upon - simply being an excellent fighting game to play with friends. As previously mentioned, the balance across the game’s entire repertoire of warriors is pretty smooth, and leads to this entry possibly being the most strategically open in recent times. Those who appreciate a toe-to-toe battle will still find that stalwart characters such as Ryo can still do the business. For those who love to keep their opponents guessing, both Kyo, Robert and K’ have plenty of variance in both their vertical range and special attacks to make life hellaciously difficult for an opponent. The agility of Mai and Nakoruru bring the air game, and if you’re that way inclined, you can just continue to spam endless projectiles with the likes of King and Athena. Even the newer characters have just as much about them as the old do - Shun’ei, perhaps the most hyped character out of all the ones making their first appearance, has such a deceptive range on his special attacks that he can be often - and perilously - underestimated. But fellow debutant Mian is also worth a mention for her unpredictable mixture of both close up and aerial offense - an uncertainty that may even be difficult for veteran players to ease into a solid gameplan, but is utterly fun to figure out. And did I mention Kukri? A mysterious hooded figure whose affinity for sand, combos and teleporting could also put him nicely at home in the Mortal Kombat universe.. but I’ve gone off piece and rambled too much. These are just 10 out of 50 of the characters awaiting in KOF XIV, and while there’s still a small handful of minor characters that have clearly been given less love than others, the depth and rapid flow of the game’s main mechanics are as good as they’ve ever been.
They’re good enough, in fact, that it is possible to overlook the occasionally garish graphics and the bootstrap game modes that are on initial offer. Even if it still lives under the shadow of the technically superior Street Figher V, King of Fighters XIV can uphold its own legacy with considerable pride. The return to 3-D itself may be admittedly awkward, and is the price paid for being able to boast an impressive list of characters. But it is a bold move that most importantly, has come without the sacrifice of the series' spirit. Beginners, or those more used to the Capcom side of the tracks, may find its idiosyncrasies difficult going initially. But KOF has always been about perseverance, and any effort to put some in here will result in the discovery of a game that is every bit as exhilarating, bombastic and rewarding as any other fighter out there.
The King of Fighters XIV is readily available on the Playstation Store and all major game vendors, online or otherwise.
The more hardcore fans of the series may also want to turn their attention to the 'Burn To Fight' edition of the game - a special limited edition that includes a fancy steel gamecase, full 3-CD set of the game soundtrack, and a 144-page artbook full of sketches, promo art and developer notes.The artbook is probably worth the extra price alone in my view.