Inside Pulse 12

Review: The King of Fighters XIV (Sony PlayStation IV)

The King of Fighters XIV
Genre: Fighting
Developer: SNK Playmore
Publisher: Atlus
Release Date: 08/23/16

It’s kind of surprising that it’s been almost five years since we’ve seen a new King of Fighters title released into the market; when the game was originally released back in 1994, under the clever moniker of The King of Fighters ‘94, it was implied that we’d be seeing new entries annually, and that’s… pretty much what happened until about 2003, when the franchise stopped using dates to dictate schedule. Not that this stopped the name from being attached to games, as several more titles came out, including updated releases of 94, 98 and 2002, as well as side-projects like Neowave and the Maximum Impact titles, but even discounting those games, core games still saw a decent release schedule for a while. After 2003, KOF XI came out in 2005, XII dropped in 2009, and XIII came out in 2010, leaving the largest gap between core releases at four years, and the largest gap in general at a single year, 2007. The reality, though, is that SNK has been somewhat quiet over the past few years; while the odd re-release has come out for arcade platforms by their hands, by and large they haven’t really been releasing a whole lot of content to the current generation platforms at all. As such, King of Fighters XIV isn’t just a return to form for the franchise, it’s a return to form for SNK, and there’s a lot riding on it being a success one would think. It’s good then, to be able to say that, for fans and newcomers alike, it’s an excellent iteration of the franchise, and while it’s not the most visually impressive release on the PlayStation 4, in nearly every possible respect, the game is a must-own for anyone who likes fighting games even a little bit. That said, there’s one fairly notable change here that may make it harder to love for fighting game enthusiasts, which… we’ll get to in a bit.

On the return to the King of Fighters tournament

With The King of Fighters XIII having successfully wrapped up the Ash Crimson arc, the next logical step forward was to start a new storyline, and it seems that’s what we’re getting here in full force. This time around, the King of Fighters tournament is being organized by a guy named Antonov, who looks like he’s suffering from a massive case of boss-itis and smokes cigars pretty much constantly, as he’s looking to make the tournament the most popular event in the world. To that end, Antonov’s invited no less than sixteen teams to compete in the tournament, comprised of both old and new competitors, and is actively hoping to have a top-notch tournament… so you know it’s going to get screwed up eventually, because that’s what happens in a King of Fighters tournament. The plot here is what you’d expect from a traditional fighting game, in that it focuses on the team you pick and features relatively little plot outside of a couple of standard cinematics and a team-specific ending, but it’s not bad; if you’re used to Arc System Works fighters it might feel minimalist, but it gets the point across fine otherwise. For those who aren’t here for the story, you’ve still got plenty of options to play with, starting with an interactive Tutorial to learn the basics, as well as the standard Arcade and Versus modes to fight the CPU and local friends in single character (for Versus) and teams (for both modes). Online play has been revamped a bit, allowing for the standard Ranked and Free (Player) matches, while also allowing the option to download and watch replays, jump into online training to practice against friends, and view records, leaderboards, and even live matches as you wish. Mission mode also makes a return with the same three options as before (Time Attack, Survival and Trial), as does the Gallery option that allows you to unlock lots of content as you wish. The only things missing from the prior game are a dedicated Story Mode and the character customization options, but what’s here is still really robust no matter how you play, and you’ll find lots to do with the game for a while.

KOF XIV completely changes up the aesthetics from the prior game, going for a fully 3D look instead of the high quality sprites of the prior game, and… well, it looks fine, but it’s nowhere near being visually competitive with other games on the market. It’s easy to understand why you’d want to go the 3D route, since you just have to make a model and rig it up appropriately instead of hand-drawing every animation (even Guilty Gear has gone that route at this point), so in that respect, you can’t blame SNK for going this route. It’s also worth noting that everything looks great when in motion, between the fluid animations and the exceptional variety of them, the pleasant backgrounds and the high quality effects from special and super moves. However, the characters don’t quite hold up in comparison to games like Street Fighter V or Guilty Gear XRD, so if that’s more of a concern than anything else you may be disappointed. Aurally, however, the game is as top notch as it’s ever been, and fans will love everything about the audio here. The game once again has some strong, energetic tunes that are fun to listen to while fighting it out, and the sound effects are as powerful and painful (in a good way) as ever. The voice work in KOF XIV only offers a Japanese language track, as in the prior game, but the Japanese voice work is as strong as ever so this isn’t a bad thing in the least, and fans will be used to this (and will remember how uneven the English dubs were), so it shouldn’t be a concern at all.

On fighting it out

So, in case you’ve never played a King of Fighters title before, let’s borrow the description I’ve been using for them from the past few reviews: imagine Street Fighter, with four buttons, different strategies, and teams of three fighters, and that’s the most basic explanation one can give. KOF XIV more or less follows that tradition, meaning that if you’ve played a 2D fighting game (or a 3D game on a 3D plane) in your life, you can figure out reasonably quickly how it works. You’re given two strong and weak punches and kicks to work with, and aside from the standard combos that can be strung together with those, all of the characters have their own Special and Super Special moves to work with. If you’re a Ken and Ryu fan, Ryo, Robert, Terry, Andy and Kyo should fit you okay. Like Guile? Kim, Leona or Choi might do you fine. More of a Zangief fan? Try Goro or… ahem, “Dinosaur,” no, really. Love Chun-Li? Benimaru, Mai and Athena have you covered, to a point. This is not to say that these characters are identical maps of the mentioned Street Fighter counterparts so much as it is to say that they fit into similar play styles; the characters in King of Fighters XIII all have their own unique and interesting ways that they can be played, and part of the fun is finding the characters you work best with.

The three-on-three team aspect is a big part of what makes any King of Fighters game work as well as it does, however; in KOF XIV, you put together a team of three fighters to do battle against one another, and when one team member is eliminated, you move to the next one. Since you can completely customize your team as you see fit in pretty much any mode, you can test out characters in Practice to see how they fit into your ideal team dynamic, then take that team to any other mode and play as you see fit. At first, this is a simple matter of simply assembling a team of three members who you happen to like, but the longer you play the more of a mental chess game the experience becomes, to the point where you pick out characters because of what sort of opposition they can shut down and counter as much as you pick them because of their play style. There’s a significant amount of strategy involved in picking characters, not just for their effectiveness, but for their effectiveness against others, as it’s generally not a good idea to bring someone slow in against someone with projectiles and speed who can dodge around them and shut them down, unless you’re really skilled, for instance. KOF XIV also retains a lot of the techniques from similar games, such as Emergency Evasion (dodging, essentially), Fallbreakers (recovery when falling to the ground), Blow Back (push away attacks), Guard Cancel Emergency Evasion (burn one Super bar to evade from guard), Guard Cancel Blow Back (burn one Super bar to smack an opponent away) and Super Special Moves.

For those who are long-time fans of the franchise, well, you’ll definitely see a few changes between this game and KOF XIII, which are mostly interesting, though whether they’re an improvement or not will depend on the player. Blow Back moves now stun opponents if they hit a wall, which can offer you a brief combo window if you’re fast (and close) enough to capitalize. Drive Cancels still exist, meaning you can cancel from specific special moves into super moves, so nailing a combo into a Super is as easy as ever. Hyper Drive has been excised entirely, however, instead reverting back into a system fans will remember from this or other games, dubbed the MAX system. Basically, pressing Low Kick and High Punch when you have one full Super meter filled will kick on MAX mode; from here, you can pull off EX Specials at a small drain to your MAX meter and rip into more powerful MAX Super Special Moves as needed, at the cost of one meter plus your remaining MAX bar. MAX Super Special Moves can also be utilized outside of MAX mode, by pressing both attack buttons, and they burn two full gauges of your bar, which allows them to be more of a surprise, though you lose the added benefits of MAX mode. NEO MAX Supers have been replaced by Climax Super Special Moves, but work basically the same; they’re very powerful Supers that consume three bars, but deal massive damage when they hit (and cannot be powered up by MAX mode). For those wondering, yes, Super Cancels still exist, but they don’t work in the same fashion, instead requiring you to cancel on an escalating sliding scale; in other words, you can cancel a Super Special Move into a MAX Super Special Move or a Climax Super Special Move, and a MAX Super Special Move into a Climax Super Special Move, meaning you can burn them into one heavy combo if timed right. The expanding Super Bar from the prior game also returns here, meaning that when you have no eliminated team members you only have a maximum of three Super Bars, but each elimination adds one, so you could very well have up to five bars on-hand if needed. As you’ll likely note, this isn’t a huge change from the prior game, but for the most part, the changes made refine the systems from the prior game nicely, and it should be a fine enough change to bring players back for more.

On long term play and considerations

You can blow through a single session of Arcade Mode in around half an hour, give or take, but with sixteen teams to go through (if you want to unlock all the Gallery items) that alone should occupy plenty of your time. Versus Mode is the same as ever, allowing two players to battle it out in single or team matches locally, and Online is also mostly similar, though with the option to spectate right from the mode you’ll have the option to watch good players in real time if you’re interested in studying from others. Mission Mode is also more or less the same as it was in the prior game (save that Trials are much more user friendly, thankfully), but this is by no means a bad thing, as it offers plenty of single player challenges to improve your play, from taking on character challenges, running time trials or trying to survive for as long as you can against escalating enemy forces, so you’ll find plenty to enjoy here. The options to save and view replays, check player stats and view online leaderboards are nice for those who like to step up their game as, and they’re fun to fool around with even if you’re not a tournament level player. However, there are two really great points in the favor of KOF XIV in comparison to its predecessor that bear noting. First, the net code for KOF XIV feels legitimately stable this time around; I did notice some hiccups against players with lower bandwidth (which is to be expected) but otherwise, play felt quite stable at this point, and assuming it holds up once lots of people jump on, this will be the best netcode the series has seen to date. Second, there are FIFTY characters in the game, including both old and new faces, so fans should absolutely adore the roster here if they’ve been hoping for a game with a ton of characters to choose from. DLC costumes for Kyo and Geese have also been announced, so it’s quite possible we might see more of those on the horizon, for those who find this interesting.

That said, there are a few notable issues here, and perhaps the biggest one is a system I haven’t talked about yet, but that I alluded to at the beginning of the review: the Rush system. Basically, this is an autocombo system; by pressing Light Punch repeatedly, you’ll pull off an automatic combination that works one of two ways: when you have no Super bar, it simply pulls off a weaker multi-hit combo, but when you have at least one bar, it will stuff a Super in there around the fourth hit (or a MAX Super if you’re in MAX mode). This is a fine idea as an option for new players to learn the basics, but the problem is, it’s in the game all the time, so this is going to factor into play at all points, and if there’s a way to disable it, I haven’t seen it. It’s not bad per say, but it’s an easy way to land a lot of damage in a hurry, and it’s going to have an impact on how tournament play goes, so it’s… a questionable choice to include, honestly, and I’m thinking it won’t go over well with the community. It also bears noting that, while the game feels somewhat balanced, a few of the cast saw their movesets really pared down a bit from prior games. Kyo and Iori, for instance, are at full blast, but some characters are still missing moves they’ve had for years (Terry with Power Dunk), while others feel notably stripped down (King, Mai, Benimaru), and it’s hard to reconcile if you’re a fan of specific characters who’ve lost a lot of their moveset. Further, the game features sixteen new characters, which is fine, but to be blunt, none of the new characters are so interesting as to justify not bringing back Shingo, Chizuru, Juhn, Vanessa, or Whip, especially when some of them (Sylvie, Mian, Xanadu) literally look like they had an accident in a clown college.

To put it into simple terms, The King of Fighters XIV is mostly an awesome fighting game, and it’s easily going to give Guilty Gear XRD –REVELATOR- and Melty Blood: Actress Again a run for their money as top-shelf fighting games, but only if you’re cool with the Rush system and don’t mind the massive influx of new talent at the expense of losing some fan favorites. The Arcade mode presents a fine enough introductory story to the next arc, and there are plenty of play modes, both online and off, to plow through, especially since many have been expanded and improved to player needs. The game isn’t the prettiest out there but it more than does the job from a visual perspective, to the point where you can overlook this due to everything else the game does right, and the aural presentation is as outstanding as it’s ever been. The game is mostly mechanically similar to the prior release, but offers enough changes that fans of the franchise should be able to jump into it instantly and understand the changes, and between a robust tutorial and a ton of play options, as well as fifty characters and improved netcode, they should be able to do quite well with what’s here. However, Rush Mode is going to be divisive due to its “simple autocombo that cannot be turned off” nature, characters still feel nerfed from KOF XII two games later, and while the large roster is great, about a third of it is new to the franchise and will leave franchise mainstays wondering why their favorite characters still aren’t back yet. If you’re relatively new to the series or a diehard fan, KOF XIV will more than be worth the asking price, don’t get me wrong; it’s just that it feels like the game is going to have a hard uphill climb in the FGC, and more’s the pity, as outside of a couple issues, it’s one of the best games in the series, bar none.

Short Attention Span Summary:
The King of Fighters XIV is one of those fighting games that does mostly everything right across the board, but has one or two distinct flaws that make it hard to know if it’s going to fit in well; while new players and franchise lovers will adore it, everyone else may find it to a bit harder to latch onto. Arcade mode offers a fair storyline for fans to sink their teeth into that sets the tone for the next arc well, and there are a whole lot of play options that will keep the game fresh for players of all types once you’re done with the storyline. The visuals are a bit unrefined but honestly look perfectly fine once you’re in the thick of play, and the aural experience is as amazing as it’s ever been in the series. The core mechanics of the game will instantly be familiar to fans while offering some solid refinements that should keep the game from feeling like a retread, while an extensive Tutorial and simplified Trial mode will teach newcomers the basics with ease, and with so much content, a massive roster and solid online play, it’s easy to say this is a top contender in the field. However, Rush Mode is the sort of mechanic most fighting games gate off into an “Easy Mode” system and its inclusion in play is going to be divisive at best, some of the core franchise players are still feeling the effects of the KOF XII nerf two games later, and the new characters are mostly unimpressive and could’ve been excised for fan favorites instead. If you love the franchise or you’re relatively new to it, KOF XIV should easily be worth your money, but competitive players and those who have specific tastes may need to give it a try first, at least until SNK (hopefully) patches in an option to turn Rush Mode off; until then, it’s a game that’s going to be hit or miss with a lot of folks, which hurts a lot more than it should.