The King Of Fighters XIV
Well, look, it’s got a lovely personality. While The King Of Fighters XIV has come a long way in visual terms since it was unveiled late last year, that’s damning with faint praise. Terrifically ugly back then, it’s merely thoroughly disappointing at launch, especially so given that KOFXIII’s spritework was some of the best in the business. Here, rather than call back to the golden era of fighting games, SNK seemingly wants to evoke the early days of PS3. This is the first game in this storied series to be rendered in 3D. We rather hope it will also be the last.
It’s particularly galling given SNK’s stated ambition to make KOFXIV the world’s number one fighting game – an aim that, at any point in the past couple of decades, would’ve seemed fanciful in the extreme, but which now feels like a real possibility. Capcom, for so long the king of the genre, has left its competitors with something of an open goal by making a complete hash of Street Fighter V. Unfortunately KOFXIV is hamstrung from the get-go by a visual style that isn’t exactly going to turn many heads. Stomachs, maybe.
It’s particularly frustrating given the quality of the work elsewhere. A roster of 50 characters is one heck of a launch offering. The cast is split into teams of three: Fatal Fury’s Bogard brothers join up with Joe Higashi, for instance, while Ryo Sakazaki, Robert Garcia and Yuri Sakazaki are on hand to represent Art Of Fighting. Others come from Samurai Showdown, and then there are series stalwarts such as Geese Howard. Plenty of characters are brand new, and with a grappler dinosaur, a geriatric flask-swigger, and a Harajuku girl with electromagnetic hair, there’s no shortage of variety. It’s a little overwhelming at first, especially since you take a team of three fighters into battle, and so must learn three movelists at once. Genre-standard experimentation with the usual quarter-circles, halfcircles and Shoryuken inputs will get you started, though a KOF character’s movelist can confound even experienced hands with some uncommon joystick motions. Novices can deploy the Rush combo, SNK’s spin on an increasingly popular fighting game technique. Mash the light punch button and your character will perform an automatic combo string whose ender changes depending on how many stocks of super meter you have. Even with none, when the Rush ends in a regular special move, it does a decent chunk of damage for the bare minimum of effort.
Before long you’ll be ready to try something a little more complex, and SNK is only too happy to oblige. There are plenty of ways to spend that multi-stock super meter, and many can be cancelled or linked into others. A dip into the character-specific combo challenges yields valuable information on a fighter’s flashy array of potential combinations that you know you’ll probably never use in a real match. Input recognition is strict – there’s no equivalent to Street Fighter V’s Shoryuken shortcut, for instance – but that just makes it all the more satisfying when you hit everything perfectly and lay out some ludicrous string of increasingly powerful super moves that takes off over half an opponent’s life bar. It’s only an AI dummy, of course, but we’ll take what we can get.
So, yes, it’s a complex game, despite the veneer of accessibility. A four-button control scheme might suggest a more approachable game, but within that there is considerable nuance. Tap both light attacks, for instance, and you’ll perform an invincible back or forward roll. There are three types of jump, depending on whether, and for how long, you nudge the joystick downwards before you take off. EX moves can only be performed once you’ve pressed another two-button combination to enter Max mode, a fixture in older KOF games that was ditched for KOFXIII. Just as characters are pinched from across SNK’s back catalogue, so are some mechanics: a Just Defend system, for instance, which reduces the blockstun and chip damage of blocked attacks when you start to guard at the last moment, is an import from Garou: Mark Of The Wolves. Further intricacies emerge over time. Two dozen hours in, we learn that the Blowback attack, which pushes away an opponent who’s pressuring you in exchange for a chunk of your super meter, gains a wallbounce effect on counter-hit. Manna from heaven for fighting game nerds, but not exactly the sort of thing to propel you to the top of the genre in terms of appeal.
With so much to learn, good tutorials are vital. While KOFXIV may have SFV’s paltry offering licked, it tries to teach too much too quickly, rattling through the various movement options and ways to spend your super meter without ever really stopping to explain when, or why, they should best be used. There’s a big difference between being able to perform a move once and doing so consistently, while understanding the context in which it’s most useful; the latter is arguably the most important skill in fighting games and it’s a continuing source of frustration that so few games seek to teach it. Combo trials, similarly, get right into the complex stuff: you’ll go into battle knowing a great way to spend four meters, but with no real idea of how best to build those meters in the first place.
These are fundamental problems for a game with KOFXIV’s aspirations. Like its predecessors, as a highlevel pursuit it’s a fascinating sight: fast, fluid, intelligent and deeply tactical. While there are some concessions in place for the mere mortals among us, there aren’t quite enough, nor is there sufficient help for those who want to improve. Capcom may have left the field with an open goal, then, but SNK’s effort has fizzed narrowly wide of the post.
While there are some concessions in place for the mere mortals among us, there aren’t quite enough