Since the early 90’s, the King of Fighters series of fighting games has jumped in and out of the limelight more times than a yoyo, with SNK’s mash-up fighter being at both the high and the low point of fighting game history. The King of Fighters series has a lot to live up to being in the shadow of Capcoms’ juggernaut Street Fighter series, but it has always had an affinity for a more delicate, technical playstyle, and King of Fighters XIV most certainly doesn’t stray from that path.
Up until now, King of Fighters has always been very well known for its pixel art style, right the way up to King of Fighters XIII released back in 2010. It didn’t always resonate well with everyone, but it was nothing if not consistent, and unapologetically retro. When King of Fighters XIV had it’s original trailer released, it was obvious to see that they had made a transition to 3D models rather than sprites and pre-rendered backgrounds, and it was rough. Very rough. Luckily, when XIV was finally released, some of the nasty visuals were smoothed out, and it begun to look less like it belonged on a PS2, though the transition still didn’t come out completely unscathed. It’s hard to defend the technical visuals of King of Fighters XIV in terms of the high resolution splendour that we come to expect from our current-gen machines, with static animations and comparitively (to other fighting games like Killer Instinct) low polygon models.
With that said, the art direction in King of Fighters XIV is actually quite splendid. Never in a fighting game have I seen such a large roster of characters with so few similarities between them. Every character from series mainstays like Terry Bogard and Iori Yagami to newcomers like Hein and Kukui are unique in their own right, and very rarely stray into being ‘palette swapped’ from another character. The level of charm present in King of Fighters XIV means that there’s a character for pretty much anyone who picks up the game. I was particularly pleased to see the return of Nakoruru from the Samurai Shodown series (which could sorely use a revival, SNK!) Mian’s mask changing with every special attack is a very subtle, but notable visual flair as well; it’s pretty cool to see attention to detail in any game, particularly one where it’s surprising given how rough the visuals can be.
King of Fighters games are, as previously stated, a lot more technical than its competitors, with Teams of 3 fighters being the standard fare rather than 1-on-1 fights, meaning matchup knowledge is even more prevalent than usual, let alone the fact that you’ll need to learn 3 characters rather just 1 if you want to play the game to it’s maximum potential. Simple maneuvers such as jumping are more nuanced here, with multiple options for the height of your jumps, and movement in general. King of Fighters can be very daunting for those who don’t know fighting games intimately, and it’s terminology doesn’t help in learning very quickly either. Max attacks, Climax attacks, CliMAX attacks etc can all get a bit overwhelming, but there is a very well made Trial mode to teach you beginner and intermediate combos for every character, or if you don’t want to have to learn everything all at once, there are automatic combos you can mash out by pressing a single button. Once you have the hang of the games mechanics, learning combos becomes extremely rewarding and the challenge begins to pay off. Landing a massive combo that uses all of your meter to practically destroy one of your opponents’ characters outright is a very satisfying endeavour.
Online play with any modern fighting game is an integral part of its’ framework, so it’s unfortunate that King of Fighters XIV’s online play is mediocre at best. The netcode has been improved since the games’ release, but it still has a lot of kinks that need ironing out. I have had more than one occasion where an online match would be utterly unplayable, which I found disappointing, to say the least. Luckily there are plenty of other modes to keep the player occupied present in the game, including a story mode, which makes hilariously little sense, and fighting game mainstays that are missing in other titles, like Survival mode and Time Attack. In all fairness, for a fighting game, the amount of content present in King of Fighters XIV is actually pretty great, whether you plan on playing by yourself or with others.
While the problems present in King of Fighters XIV are very apparent, and obvious, it’s a solid entry into the long-running series and it will be interesting to see how far along the tournament scene it goes. While learning the game is unforgiving to say the least, there is a lot of satisfaction to be had, and the charm of the large cast is undeniable. While I don’t believe it will steal the thunder of it’s competitors anytime soon, King of Fighters XIV is a worthy fighting game, and shouldn’t be swept under the rug. Though if graphics are a big deal to you, I wouldn’t recommend King of Fighters XIV, and would instead suggest Killer Instinct as a visual powerhouse. If you can get past the looks and see the beauty underneath, however, there is a lot to be loved here.