The King of Fighters franchise has a storied history, which has at times seen it at the pinnacle of the fighting genre. The fourteenth main entry in the series, and the first to arrive on current gen consoles, King of Fighters XIV also marks the first time that the fighter has been fully rendered in 3D, with the Maximum Impact duo of spin-offs previously the only place to see SNK’s roster out of its 2D comfort zone.
Directed by Yasuyuki Oda – whose CV includes both Garou: Mark of the Wolves and Street Fighter IV – and boasting enhanced netcode, King of Fighters XIV has all the components to be a potential contender, but in an increasingly crowded genre, is it still fighting game royalty?
It pulls together fifty combatants, with an impressive nineteen new fighters alongside those taken from the series’ wide roster of popular characters, with entrants spanning from SNK’s Fatal Fury and Art of Fighting, through to 2010’s well-received XIII. Those new characters are something of a mixed bag, drawing on various other SNK franchises as well as a few wholly new creations. A number of them are instantly memorable, such as the new addition to the Mexican team, King of Dinosaurs, who is a T-Rex flavoured wrestler and whose outfit dictates much of his moveset.
Having said that, in the run-up to release the similarity between this new wrestler and old entrant Tizoc were commented upon, and it may well be the case that the vigilant few weren’t too far off the mark. Either way, characters like this are balanced against a number of potentially even lazier creations, such as female fighter Zarina, whose animation and overall look are particularly poor. Given the scale of the roster, a few misses are probably to be expected, and there’s bound to be a number that will strike a chord with every player.
Sadly, the move to 3D hasn’t been quite as successful as the transition seen in Street Fighter IV. In some cases the character models look very simplistic, with first impressions reminding me a little too much of Dreamcast-era releases. In fact, some of the characters, such as Kyo, are virtually unrecognisable from their original design. However, once you see the game in motion, running at a steady 60fps, with responsive controls, such thoughts do begin to fade away somewhat.
I think it’s actually a shame that SNK didn’t opt to stick with a 2D aesthetic, and you only have to look at games like BlazBlue or the phenomenal 2D to 3D transitions of Guilty Gear Xrd Sign to see what’s achievable. the art style does at least retain the character of many of the iconic fighters, and as a new starting point for the franchise it at least shows some promise. What’s clear is that there wasn’t the budget to push the envelope visually, and that leaves things looking a touch low-rent.
A lot of time has been spent trying to ensure that King of Fighters XIV is accessible to newcomers whilst providing the depth one would expect from the series. The answer to that has been the addition of Rush Mode, a strong combo that can be executed simply by pummelling the low punch button, and one which will unleash a powerful special move at the end if you have at least one full power gauge. Fighting game aficionados may immediately turn their nose up at such a low entry point for participation, but it removes that feeling of being completely out of your depth that so many titles seem to cherish.
From here though the combat builds system upon system, empowering players with evasive moves, unblockable command throws, recoveries and Blow Back attacks that buy you some space, alongside Max mode that allows access to even more powerful special moves for the sake of one meter of power gauge. Those gauges are critical though. You can build up to hugely powerful attacks if you bide your time, with Climax Super Special Moves often looking as impressive as they sound. That’s before you even start on the subject of Super Cancelling…
The story mode is infrequently amusing, with intimidating new tournament owner Antonov turning out to be a surprisingly gentle soul. There’s no real overarching story, and the bouts themselves don’t really hold too much context with what’s going on, beyond it being the King of Fighters tournament. The whole thing is over before it really starts, and Verse, the final boos, is an over-designed pseudo-Pans Labyrinth affair, who doesn’t offer too much of a challenge. In fact, depending on your character choice he can be despatched with some thoughtful use of your Rush combo, though he does pull some of the age-old overpowered final boss attacks we’ve all come to know and despise, including invisible punches.
While much has been made of the improved netcode, we’ll have to wait for the game’s full launch to truly see the difference over King of Fighters XIII. First impressions are inconsistent at best, with opponents from around the world with variable connection levels producing equally mixed results. The online options are deeply welcome though, with free and ranked matches nuzzling up to online training and downloadable replays.
As a new entry in the series that pushes it into uncharted territory, King of Fighters XIV is an admirable effort. Boasting a huge roster, accessible action and smooth gameplay, there’s a lot to like, but the mediocre transition to 3D and inconsistent netcode hold it back from greatness.