Publisher: Atlus USA
Release Date: August 23, 2016
ESRB: T for Teen
Prior to release, it felt like everyone was primed to hate on King of Fighters XIV -- including myself. Much like Konami as of late, SNK seemed more interested in tossing their highly regarded properties into various shameless pachinko money sinks than doing anything else with them.
When we finally caught wind of King of Fighters XIV, however, it could not have made a worse first impression. The series has had a long established history in the 2D realm, with King of Fighters XIII being an extremely strong example of striking 2D aesthetics. So, aside from triggering painful memories of King of Fighters: Maximum Impact, King of Fighters XIV being rendered in subpar 3D looked all that much more underwhelming, especially since we live in a world where the cel-shaded mastery of Guilty Gear Xrd: Revelator exists. Even though it had just about everyone against it, King of Fighters XIV shows its ability to rise up the ranks even through the harshest of initial scrutiny.
Now, before fully addressing the elephant in the room with the 3D aesthetic, King of Fighters XIV takes a couple of serious strides from its predecessor. The three vs three team fighting remains the same, however there is a lower level of entry for attack combos such as an entirely new mash-friendly auto-combo (ala Persona 4 Arena) to the absurdly huge default roster with fifty playable characters. For more serious players they will quickly notice how much combo potential has changed with the omission of the extremely technical and execution heavy "Hyper Drive" system of KOFXIII in favor of the slightly more comprehensive "Max Mode" which powers up certain moves and special attacks.
My first expectation (beyond the extremely low ones set by the presentation), was that the playable cast was going to be absolutely packed with eerily similar playing characters. As someone who has a strong pet peeve with clones or might-as-well-be clones in fighting games, I decided to go to training mode with literally every character and see if it even bothers to beat the personal sniff test before touching any other mode. Shockingly, it passed. Not only did it pass with most characters feeling distinctly different one another, especially the entirely new ones, but even many older members feel touched up with move interesting movesets. Though, admittedly, there comes a point where I think XIV should have dropped any sort of visual homage and make characters like Mature and Vice look entirely different as well.
I would hardly consider myself any sort of educated scholar in regards to the King of Fighters or Fatal Fury series, but even I felt somewhat nostalgic with certain returning characters. There are obvious choices for returning members like Terry or Mai, but then there are deeper callbacks like Ramon and Angel whom have not been seen playable in over a decade. Personally, I am just happy that I can once again play as the shamelessly evil Geese Howard or former bird man wrestler Tizoc -- Umm, I mean, the entirely new wrestler: King of Dinosaurs.
Not to discredit the new fighters by any means, as I found myself digging several of them, but the overall character list more so feels like a love letter to older series fans. More importantly, the core game plays extremely faithfully to previous King of Fighters titles despite the noticeable changes to aesthetic and more forgiving take on controls.
With all that out of the way, it is one thing to (far) exceed (very low) expectations, but it is something else entirely to be graded on its own merits. King of Fighters XIV is most certainly a solid fighting game, yet it is a very inconsistent overall package.
Undoubtedly, the least consistent part of KOFXIV pertains to the presentation, which is anything but cohesive. The best phrase to describe the overall look of KOFXIV is that not everyone, and everything, are created equal. For instance, the ice queen Kula looks surprisingly fluid in motion as she briskly either attacks or skates back and forth. Then you look at Andy for contrast, and, immediately, want to stop looking at Andy (Street Fighter V Ken has got nothing on some of the hideous hair on KOFXIV fighters). The same applies to backgrounds where some are utterly lifeless (not intentionally so) and others are totally fine, which I would almost use to describe the hit and miss soundtrack as well. More than anything else, King of Fighters XIV coasts on the fundamentals of its gameplay, and not the flourishes surrounding it.
The same rules apply to the the various game modes. On one hand, most modes are bare bones, but functional, such as the rigid tutorial and mission modes. Though, admittedly, while better than the online travesty of KOFXIII, netcode and interface of KOFXIV are not particularly great when compared something like Guilty Gear Xrd: Revelator. On the other hand, the story mode actually has a lot more heart than it should for something that normally be classified as arcade mode. Be it the tongue-in-cheek writing in the CG cutscenes or pre- and after-battle chat, or certain shockingly in-depth team endings with KOF lore, it genuinely feels like it was written by people who love and care about the series.
Of course, SNK boss syndrome is in full effect with the two very cheap final bosses, meaning if you don't want to throw your head against the wall to see the endings it will likely very tempting to put the title on the easiest difficulty and spam auto-combos. Basically, you got to either really like the story mode or competitive to continue playing for very long.
King of Fighters XIV may be one of the very few examples of a modern fighting game being totally applicable to the tired expression of "Don't judge a book by its cover". The title certainly does not look great overall from in-game visuals to interface. Nor do most of its modes have all that much staying power, with the exception of the better-than-expected story mode. Yet, there is an absolute sincerity to the tight gameplay and enjoyable 3 vs 3 combat. It is all the more impressive when it achieves this with an extremely impressive 50 character roster, in which very few of them feel like redundant additions. It may not be much of a looker, but most (or initially discouraged) KOF fans should be pleasantly surprised at just how solid and fun the core gameplay of King of Fighters XIV is in spite its somewhat glaring lack of finer extra bells and whistles.
+ Huge character roster of 50 characters total that somehow manages to make most of them both fun and different
+ Gameplay feels very faithful to KOF, even with the more forgiving approach to controls
+ The story mode and endings are more entertaining than one would expect
- Most of the gameplay modes, such as online, lack the polish that one has come to expect of modern fighters
- Very inconsistent presentation that can occasionally be cringe worthy for today's standards
SNK boss syndrome is in full effect so, uh, expect to put the story mode on the easiest setting to make it less painful
Overall Score: 7 (out of 10)
Though noticeably lacking from visuals to gameplay feature sets, King of Fighters XIV survives on the rock solid fundamentals of its combat that is all the more impressive with its diverse fifty character roster.
Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable PS4 code provided by the publisher.