Reviewer: George Damidas
Overall: 8.5 = Excellent
The future of The King of Fighters was looking rocky for a few years. After the success of The King of Fighters XIII for PS3 and Xbox 360, and a later, solid PC port, there was an extended period of radio silence from Terry and company. Cut to 2015, when SNK revealed that a new iteration was in the works and that, as with another long-running fighter series, it would be an exclusive for PS4. Unlike its decades-old rival, The King Of Fighters XIV reveal was decidedly less welcomed than Street Fighter V’s. While Capcom’s offering looked to dazzle with updated visuals, new characters, the return of long-absent veterans, and reworked mechanics, SNK’s looked like a budget release handed off to a low-tier team. Time has proven me very wrong. Despite its lackluster visuals, the game offers the sort of smooth, refined gameplay and expanded feature set that puts the series on the right track for the future and more than gives its big-budget competitor a run for its money.
To be fair to those of us who were in doubt, it was hard not to be taken aback by the early footage of KOFXIV. While the videos highlighted staple characters and their signature moves, much of it seemed ‘off.’ The seemingly stilted movement, oily mannequin-esque models, and limited combos didn’t bode well for a series known for its great sprite work and robust mechanics. After the gorgeously snappy KOFXIII, it seemed as if the move to 3D would doom the series, as with other SNK properties like Fatal Fury and Samurai Shodown. In this case, it seems as if the lower-grade visuals are truly a result of budget constraints, rather than a misguided attempt to be cutting edge; and to be fair, there is still some pop to be found, particularly in the stages and costumes. That said, any concerns about the graphics quickly fade to the background as the engine’s responsive, fluid system outshines any wonky effects or character models.
In further contrast to SFV, KOFIV has released with a full suite of modes. Offline players have access to Story, Versus (single and team), Training, Mission, and Tutorial. All of the modes are unlocked at the outset, too, without the need to download updates or purchase packs. Online and PlayStation Store, where players will be able to purchase DLC in the future, are also on offer, but they will flesh out after the game’s official launch. Before proceeding, I would like to note that the game’s score is based on my time with the game against AI and local opponents. Couch versus gives a good indication of what players can expect going one-on-one with others, but we’ll update this portion at a later date after release if the servers are unable to handle the player base.
Naturally, Tutorial is a great place to start. It covers everything from the basics, such as dashing and command moves, to more advanced offensive maneuvers, like climax cancels. It’s important to spend some time here, as the series has an uncommon emphasis on spacing and maneuverability, with three jump distances, two evasion types, dashing, and backstepping. It’s also crucial to understand how supers work with the Max gauge. In a shift from its predecessor, KOFXIV relies extensively on a single three- to five-charge meter. Tutorial will lay out the foundations for proper meter management by having the player run through the various moves that utilize one or more charges, including EX Special Moves, Super Special Moves, Max Special Moves, and Climax Super Special Moves. But just as importantly, the meter also allows for characters to cancel one move into another with Super Cancels, Advanced Cancels, and Climax Cancels. This menagerie of ’specials’ and ‘cancels’ might seem confusing at first blush, but the tutorial helps to make sense of what is actually a simple system. Despite the numerous names, it all boils down to the relationship between the amount of meter used and the strength of the attack. By using up to five charges, players can either enter Max mode, which is an enhanced state that can end with a special attack, or perform stronger one-off moves. Each of these one-off attacks becomes more elaborate and more powerful with each additional charge. Similarly, stopping and transitioning from those attacks requires a sufficiently strong cancel. The game gets a lot of mileage out of a single meter.
If the system still isn’t clear by the end of the tutorial, a subset of Mission mode titled Trials will further illuminate the setup by offering players more hands-on experience. These begin with a basic string of one single-button attack linking into another move, typically a special, which leads to further challenges that gradually integrate cancels. As not all moves can be cancelled, this is a great way to become acclimated with the particulars of each character. There’s even an option to view a demo to get a better understanding of the timing necessary to pull off the combo string. Speaking of timing, the small visual cues in KOFXIV are more telling than in previous entries; along with a slightly more forgiving timing window, these make for a more intuitive combo system. The four-button setup also keeps everything manageable on a controller. Newcomers can get their footing by utilizing Rush attacks, which are auto-combos that initiate when a weak punch is tapped while near an opponent. Similar to those in the Persona 4 Arena series, they keep combat fluid and flashy while offering newer players a chance to see what’s possible with their character and giving them a confidence boost. They do a respectable amount of damage, but they are weaker than even a one-gauge cancel attack, so there’s little risk of them upsetting the game balance. Getting hit with a few also serves as a strong incentive to learn proper spacing and blocking techniques.
Mission mode also hosts Survival and Time Attack. These are as described, with the player having to make their way through an endless string of fighters as well as get through 10 as quickly as possible. There are no points and stat boosts as in SFV, but both are great for quick sessions or to practice techniques. As an added bonus, playing through the various modes unlocks a variety of extras within Gallery. Artwork, voice clips, icons, and movies are all unlocked during play. The bonuses aren’t restricted to the current entry, either, but span the entire series, with pieces of art from the early 1990s and dozens of voice samples per character. It’s a shame the illustrations can’t be used as system wallpaper, though.
Movies are unlocked by playing through Story. Set cutscenes are interspersed throughout the tournament that are supplemented with unique endings for each designated team. Players can create their own custom three-character team, but choosing all of Team Fatal Fury, Team Women Fighters, Team Art of Fighting, etc. will play an additional, far more colorful and personable ending. The story proper is fairly generic, but it’s noticeably lighthearted this time around with goofy dialog and sequences of eye-rolling physical comedy. A few bits of special flavor dialog spring up from time to time as well whenever the characters have a connection. Their exchanges follow suit with the plot, featuring plenty of silliness with embarrassed groans, fears about appliances being left on, and so on. It might be billed as a tournament with world’s best fighters, but it’s apparently filled with comedians.
Chuckles aside, a standout aspect of Story mode is the AI. The default difficulty can best be described as erratic. Computer opponents punctuate moments of lethargy with vicious counterattacks and extended combos that will leave newer players frazzled. They have little to fear, however, as their opponents rarely seal the deal. The series of head-scratching bouts will end with a staple of SNK fighters: a cheap, unimaginative boss battle. Things change quite a bit once the difficulty is increased, though, as the computer becomes a reactive nightmare. Instead of taking risks, it’s content with sitting back and letting the player make a move so that they can relentlessly punish any whiffs. As frustrating as this might be—and it certainly elicited more than a few “Come on!”s from me—it’s also indicative of how better players approach fighters. Creating an opening is satisfying and exciting, but it’s far more effective to let an opponent screw up and answer with a safe counterattack. However, that’s too big of an experience gap, and the difficulty system would greatly benefit from a slight reworking and an additional tier that better mixes offensive and defensive behavior. The easier fights will certainly help newer players become comfortable with the system, but without cranking up the difficulty, they will have a very rough ride against others.
On a more positive note, the new characters are universally great. So far, I have enjoyed my time with every one of them, from King of Dinosaur, with his hybrid style that mixes Zangief’s chops and command throws with the flurry of claw swipes straight out of Primal Rage, to Alice, who has a hodgepodge of attacks inspired by her favorite fighters in Team Fatal Fury, and one three-hit combo manages to include a move from each character. If I wasn’t testing out how to link the pirate-fighter Love Heart’s uppercut and sword swipe, I was coming to grips with the masked, graceful and combo-friendly Mian. It’s rare that I take to so many new characters in such a long-running series, but SNK really hit the ball out of the park this time. Even with teams of three, I have a hard time choosing who to play in the next match. I can’t think of any higher praise.
The King of Fighters XIV is a fast, fluid, and dynamic fighter that sits alongside some of the best in the series. A few effects, along with more than a few character models, might be questionable, but, occasional AI hiccup aside, the gameplay is rock solid. The new characters bring a lot to the table, while those that have returned are as snappy as ever. Responsive controls, a huge roster, multi-franchise-spanning unlocks, and a respectable amount of modes make for a lot to like in SNK’s latest.
(This review is based on a copy provided by the publisher.)