King of Fighters XIV Review

SNK's trios fighter series makes its big return on the PlayStation 4. Do Kyo's flames make this well done or burnt beyond recognition?

Release Date: August 23, 2016Platform: PS4Developer: SNKPublisher: AtlusGenre: Fighting

Back in the early-to-mid-90s, SNK was so into making as many fighting games as possible that they realized how cool it would be to throw a bunch of their properties together. Characters from Fatal Fury, Art of Fighting, Ikari Warriors, and Psycho Soldier were thrown together, along with a cast of new heroes and villains. Rather than go with the simple one-on-one/best-two-out-of-three format, they decided that it would be three-on-three with each character getting one health bar.

And so, King of Fighters ’94 was created.

King of Fighters was like the Madden of fighting games. For a time, they came out annually with just enough changes to keep people’s interest. It never really caught on in the American mainstream compared to the likes of Tekken and Mortal Kombat, but in Japan, it was deemed the one true rival to Capcom’s Street Fighter.

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Between SNK’s temporary death and the evolution of the video game industry, King of Fighters stopped being an annual release in the early 00s and numbered its games by installments instead of by year. At the same time, a couple of 3D-style spinoffs called King of Fighters: Maximum Impact were released for consoles. By King of Fighters XI, SNK realized that no matter how nice their pixel art animation looked, the graphics were too out of date for most to care about. They put in a lot of time and money to make some exceptional spritework in King of Fighters XII, which came off as a glorified demo for 2010’s King of Fighters XIII.

As beautiful as that game looked, the amount of work and resources that went into it made it less viable than the older Neo Geo stuff. Rather than build on another sequel with the same look, SNK instead went quiet for a while.

Then King of Fighters XIV was announced in September 2015 to…well, mostly laughter. In a time when excellent graphics were the standard for pretty much every fighting game, the trailer they released, featuring main characters Kyo Kusanagi and Iori Yagami briefly duking it out in 3D graphics, looked like something from the PlayStation 2 era. Many even made comparisons to how close it looked to the decade-old Maximum Impact games. Considering Street Fighter V was on the cusp of release, the comparison didn’t do them any favors.

As time went on, Atlus released literally dozens of trailers and it became apparent that looks aside, this at least felt enough like a classic King of Fighters game. At the very least, the feel of schadenfreude died down.

One thing that couldn’t be looked down upon was the massive roster. In one of the biggest collections of characters in the game’s history, King of Fighters XIV has a total of fifty fighters in the form of sixteen teams of three and two boss characters. There are plenty of returning names mixed with a whole bevy of new characters mixed in. The newcomers tend to have pretty great designs, such as the mysterious druid Kukri, the broken-minded Xanadu, the mild-mannered butler Hien, and the new protagonist Shun’Ei. There’s even a team made up of other SNK characters who otherwise don’t fit into King of Fighters’ continuity due to the nature of their games (ie. coming from the past or a world where people live in the sky).

The absolute best character in the game is Antonov, the game’s penultimate boss and tournament host. Usually, King of Fighters is a front for some megalomaniac out to rule or enslave the world. Antonov is no villain. He’s just this massive, modern-day-Triple-H-looking dope with a cigar in his mouth, a giant Rolex on his wrist, and lots of hair on his chest. Instead of M. Bison, his personality is a lot more comparable to Brave and the Bold Aquaman. He rules so much.

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While King of Fighters’ gameplay has changed over the years (four-on-four, tag-based, etc.), King of Fighters XIV goes with the more iconic approach. It’s three-on-three and order-based. Still, there are some minor changes. Each player starts with the ability to build up to three bars for supers and such. When they’re on their second character, they can build four bars, and when they’re on their last, they can do up to five.

There’s also an easy mode for combos and supers called “Rush” where mashing one of the buttons causes your character to unleash a stringed series of attacks, but I doubt that’s going to get much play over time.

You have some options with your super bar. With one bar, you can pull off a Super Special Move, as you’d expect. You can also use a bar to go into Max Mode, where for a limited time, you have unlimited use of EX special attacks. If you try to go for a super during Max Mode, you’ll pull off an amped up and more damaging version of the original super, introduced by a dramatic close-up of the character. With three bars, you can do the Climax Super Special Move, which is a more cinematic attack that does about 50% of damage to the opponent. Luckily, the control is pretty tight and I personally found it to be more responsive than King of Fighters XIII.

King of Fighters XIV has the basic stuff you’d expect from a console fighting game and the fact that it comes after Street Fighter V dropped the ball makes it feel like Christmas. There’s an arcade mode, telling the story of Antonov’s tournament and the hidden threat lurking in the background. Most of the CGI cutscenes are repetitive after the second viewing, but four of the teams at least have unique scenes when they take on the final boss.

Oh, quick tangent. The two bosses are unlocked after the first time you finish the game. Since the game attempts to make all fifty characters balanced (and time will tell how that holds up), that means that the two bosses are ultimately balanced by design. While the difficulty might rise up a bit when fighting them, at no point do you feel like you’re stuck dealing with “SNK boss syndrome.” (SNK used to make the end bosses unfairly difficult.) This is the most refreshing thing.

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(Screw you, Goenitz.)

Anyway, back to arcade mode. Each team and the two bosses have their own 2D endings which are for the most part great. Definitely play through as Team Mexico for a good laugh. Other modes in the game include versus, time attack, survival, training mode, tutorial (hosted by Antonov), and, of course, online. KoFXIV has a neat new multiplayer option where six people can play a three-on-three match.

There’s also a gallery that’s fun for longtime fans. Outside of the usual unlocked movies and music, you also gradually unlock hundreds of pieces of official King of Fighters art from over the years. There’s a section of “reward art” that I’ve been unable to unlock, so no idea what that’s about yet.

While the soundtrack is great as is, there are some Easter egg tracks mixed in there. Sometimes when two characters are matched up, the soundtrack will change to a rock cover of an old theme from yesteryear. Like if Terry Bogard fights his rival Geese Howard, Geese’s boss theme kicks in. If Kim Kaphwan meets up with his former teammates Chang and Choi, their King of Fighters ’96 theme starts playing.

The game’s appearance is still a drawback, so if graphics are a deal-breaker, your deal is probably going to be broken. Some characters look fine. Hell, some characters look great (King of Dinosaurs and Choi Bounge, for example), but then you have Andy Bogard, who is so bland that he feels unfinished. Then again, XII and XIII aside, it’s pretty much on-brand for King of Fighters graphics to look dated.

What is important about the graphics is that they simply incorporated it into the style of old. This isn’t like Maximum Impact, Street Fighter EX, or Mortal Kombat 4. It’s still the same 2D experience you love, but they simply recreated it with updated graphics, much like with Marvel vs. Capcom 3 and Guilty Gear Xrd.

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And that’s ultimately what King of Fighters XIV is. It’s a much-needed return to form in a new package, even if that package is wrapped in newspaper. Considering the series used to be an annual thing, waiting six years between installments feels like forever, so it’s a welcome sight that thankfully doesn’t drop the ball. One of the best things is that it’s the first step in this 3D series. You look at King of Fighters XII and how it felt incomplete, then look at King of Fighters XIV and realize that the next game has a hell of a starter pack to build upon.

Gavin Jasper wants Capcom vs. SNK 3 as long as it centers around Mike Haggar vs. Antonov in the manliest fight in video game history. Follow Gavin on Twitter!

Rating:

4 out of 5