Review: The King of Fighters XIV

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It’s fascinating to track the evolution of fighting game franchises across their history. None stay static for long, always developing new systems and adopting new styles to appeal to new fans and keep their die-hards appeased. The King of Fighters is a series just as long-lived and storied as Street Fighter, though it took this one until 2016 to finally break into full 3D (please don’t bring up Maximum Impact). It’s admittedly a rough move, especially following something so breathtaking as XIII, and not one entirely to its credit. However, the game wrapped in these awkward polygons is some of the best beatdown fun you can have in the series.

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KOF games always center on the eponymous tournament, a gathering of martial artists from around the world to determine the true patriarch of all brawlers. This year the clash is hosted by a burly Russian fellow named Antonov, clearly looking to line up some suckers for him to personally knock over so he can keep his self-appointed title. But something is amiss, beyond the usual apocalyptic deities and shadow armies of previous seasons. It’s something so beyond the pale that a gaggle of new fighters have been drawn to the tournament, including Nakoruru, all the way from the ancient battles of Samurai Showdown. There’s no question that this mysterious force will have to be dealt with, and it will no doubt fall to the strongest contenders for the title.

Anyone who’s played a KOF before (or any fighting game, really) has seen this before, it’s an 8-round tournament that ends with a boss you expect and one you don’t. The stand-out this year is the sheer number of characters in the mix, more than double what was offered in XIII. Sixteen teams of three, plus the bosses, form the 50-character roster, which can be mixed and matched freely to form your deadly triumvirate. Series regulars like Kyo, Iori, Mai, and King are here, as well as common faces missing from the last game like Chang, Choi, Angel, and Ramon. The newcomers are a particular mob of oddities as well, from the new headliner Shun’ei, the unnerving Xanadu, the charming Luong, and the frankly baffling Sylvie.

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With so many characters to pick from, coupled with the steep learning curve of XIII, this might seem like an even harder game to get into. But it’s quite the opposite, thanks to some significant changes on the gameplay side. Compared to the previous entry, movement feels much more fluid, and special moves have far more leeway to key in. There’s also a new Rush combo all characters have that only requires you to connect with light punches to crank out an impressive super combo. With these changes and additions, it’s surprisingly easy to pick up any of the game’s characters and put up a decent fight. Make no mistake, there are still insanely complex and demanding combos to learn here, and the Mission mode will drill them into you if you have the patience, just like before. What’s important is that the skill floor to simply get through Story mode or put up a fight online is so much lower than in previous entries.

So then this might sound like a dream come true, the perfect KOF entry for newcomers and veterans alike to enjoy. Again, it’s not quite that either, and this time it’s because of the visuals. Fighting games have come a long way in their own styles, especially in series like Tekken or Mortal Kombat. SNK’s big shift to 3D here is nowhere near those, unfortunately, and honestly can barely hold a candle to the delicious 2D sprites of XIII. The character models of XIV feel low-budget to varying degrees, oddly smooth and shiny in some places and stiff or artificial in others. It varies by character; some like King and Benimaru look decent, while others like Kyo and Mary barely look like themselves. She’s DLC but I want to call out poor Vanessa in particular, who’s a wiry mess compared to her normal lithe self. The backgrounds and UI fare the same, with some bizarrely low-res elements and a general lack of polish on the graphical level.

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If SNK could somehow make a new fighter that looked like XIII and played like XIV, I have no doubt it’d be a smashing success. KOF XIV is some of the most fun the series has ever been to play, but having to see your favorite characters in such a poor state takes a little wind out of those sails. It’s a great fighter, make no mistake, especially if you’ve been curious about the series and never knew where to break in. The feature set is admittedly basic, with just Story, Online, Missions, Practice, and a few challenge modes besides. There is an extensive gallery with art from throughout KOF history, though, which has been more than enough to keep me plowing through Story mode. Overall it’s a game I wish I could recommend more strongly, given how much good, solid fun it is to jump in and beat people up. Just don’t expect the visual care or polish of its peers when you dive in.

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