There is a cutscene during The King of Fighters XIV‘s story mode where two characters discuss the new King of Fighters tournament, indicating that it has been a long time since once was held, but that competition remains fierce regardless. It is a bit of a nod and wink for fighting games fans, who likely did not expect to get another entry in the series. A few years ago SNK pulled back from the video game market that they were unable to adapt to as arcades disappeared, choosing to focus on the Pachinko Slot business, which at the time was incredibly profitable. However, the dwindling popularity of Pachinko among the youth, and some changes to the regulations, have made SNK decide to come back to video games with a new entry to their biggest franchise: The King of Fighters. And this comes with exceptionally good timing, as it seems deliberately timed to take advantage on the disappointment left from their old rival’s latest entry in the Street Fighter series.
If the first thing SNK was known for was its great fighting games, then the second was its amazing pixel art. So returning players will almost immediately notice that this game has instead elected to portray its characters as 3D models in a 2D plane. Bluntly, the models are not good at all. They look fine in-game; and you will probably be too busy trying to keep up with whatever is happening on the screen to notice their low quality. However once you are in a cutscene you will notice they need another layer of textures, and some serious shader work. The skin in particular has a weird plastic-like quality that looks as though it belongs in games from one or two generations ago. It’s even worse in situations when the motion stops, such as a character’s taunt when winning a match, and you get to see just how bad they are in full HD.
There could be several reasons for this change from pixel art to fully 3D models. Good pixel art is very time consuming, which in development translate you very expensive. But it also has other drawbacks. Pixel art is much less flexible when trying to make changes to a character’s look beyond a simple palette swap. This means that if you are looking to sell alternate costumes and accessories for characters it is much cheaper to use a 3D models than pixel art, and fighting games are particularly well suited for that kind of microtransaction. There is a store button in the main menu for KoF 14 that links to PSN. While there was nothing to purchase there yet, there will most likely be alternate outfits for the characters. It is very unlikely we’ll see Pixel art return, so I hope in the future SNK figures out how to make better looking models.
Despite the look of the game, SNK veterans will feel immediately at home when they start playing KoF 14. Returning characters move just how you would expect, and you will be back to super cancelling animations, dashing, and chaining combos in no time. It seems that SNK is aware of the recent trend of fighting games trying to simplify things for new comers, because they have made some changes that make it easier for newcomers to be competent, at least when it comes to PVE. The most noteworthy change is the inclusion of an auto combo system, reminiscent of the one used in Arc Sys games, where mashing light punch next to an enemy will perform a combo that finishes in a super. This lowers the skill floor considerably for all of the characters, but never fear, SNK has still done a nice job preserving the high skill ceiling that the franchise has always been famous for.
Getting into the game will be easy for everyone, but lowering the skill floor while leaving the skill ceiling high, means that eventually players will hit a difficulty spike, usually in the form of good on-line players. The King of Fighters XIV is prepared for this eventuality with a very detailed tutorial that will teach all the basic moves and concepts, from basic movement to super cancelling while using the max gauge. It also has a a trials mode where you are tasked in performing combos and super moves for your characters. The idea is to compete against your own completion goals while teaching you to use the character. It won’t teach all of the subtleties, and the game would benefit from an advanced tutorial for most characters, but it will be enough to help players get past that difficulty spike they are likely to experience once they take their skills online. It is a great win-win addition to the game that makes sure all player will get at least some value from their purchase while still rewarding the time investment needed to master its systems.
Additional modes include a survival mode, which will pit a single character against a an endless supply of opponents to see how many battles can be won. You only recover a small percentage of your health bar, so obviously the idea is to fight conservatively to maximize your longevity. There is also a time attack mode, which has you fighting ten battles with a single character in order to see how fast you can clear them. Like in survival, your bar doesn’t completely fill up after every fight, so it has you taking chances to finish a fight quickly while also asking you to be careful of your health. A narrow win in a fight, will leave you with a huge handicap for the next match.
The crown jewel of the single player offerings is the Story Mode. I was a bit nervous when I saw that the game did not have an Arcade mode, but that’s because its story mode serves as the basic fighting game framework. It is a three on three competition where the team that knocks out the other team wins. You fight a series of battles against other teams, with the occasional cut scene for flavoring, as well as some pre-match trash talking from characters that have a history or a connection to each other. It is flavoring in what is a great fighting game experience. You can choose a custom team if you want, which will allow you to unlock sound files and art in a gallery to keep you playing; but choosing one of the official teams will reward you with variations in the plot, and special ending movies bring closure to each team.
Of course, what really keeps a fighting game alive is the multiplayer. KoF 14 has a local versus mode that can pit you against in each other with individual characters or groups of three fighters vs thee fighters. But the real draw is the online multiplayer. This is divided into really two modes, ranked and casual, and it allows you to fight one on one or three on three. You can set up a custom team, avatar, etc… to use as a preferred team, but don’t worry, the game will also let you choose your own team before each fight.
Before I continue talking about the online multiplayer, a disclaimer: I experienced it in a pre-release environment, and only on the casual mode as that was the only way to find matches. It is hard to speak as to what the performance of the online offerings will be once the game is out. There will be more players, of course, but hopefully SNK will also be ready for this demand by planning accordingly. I say this because while it ran okay for the most part, there were some hefty lag spikes in most of the matches I played, that resulted in slowdown or even completely lost frames. There were even a few matches where the connection was so bad it felt as if I was playing underwater. Granted I don’t know if this was my particular connection, the pre-release environment, or if this is really what can be expected at launch, but remember this a game released in 2016, so expect online issues, and expect them to be patched out weeks after, as usual.
The King of Fighters XIV comes out at an auspicious time for people who love complex, tactical games. With a roster of 50 fighters, and a series of robust offerings for single player, there is enough content here to keep fans busy for a while. In addition to that, the art and sound galleries and the different endings might not be enough to encourage continuous play by themselves, are a nice reward. Admittedly the game’s biggest weakness is its presentation. I can see how many people can find it jarring. However, the combat system in this game is deep, easy to access but demanding of time and patience to master and to compete at the higher levels. It is the kind of game likely to foster a lasting online competitive community, if SNK can get the online aspect right, which I am admittedly a bit leery of. I would recommend this game for any fighting game fan, and for people looking to get into the SNK offerings, go ahead and give it a go. This is probably the easiest game in the series to get into.
This review was performed on PS4 digital code provided by the publisher