Whether it’s due to the ever-growing popularity of EVO or the successes of 2011’s Mortal Kombat and Marvel vs Capcom 3, the 2D-fighter is smack-dab in the middle of a renaissance. From Guilty Gear Xrd to Street Fighter V and Mortal Kombat X, it seems that every 2D-fighter release is an event. Well, after six years of dormancy, the self-proclaimed king of such fighters has returned, but with such stiff competition, The King of Fighters XIV has a lot weighing on the shoulders of it’s regal reputation.
Sometimes, the weight is too much to bear.
Like almost every installment in the series (and a good number of SNK fighters in general), The King of Fighters XIV is, at its core, an incredibly solid 2-D fighter that is as fun to learn as it is to play and sports a bevy of eccentric characters. The 50-fighter roster is a dynamic one, featuring fighters that range from traditional and easy to understand to obscure and well-suited for creativity. The gameplay is energetic and feels well-tuned. At a basic and foundational level, the game just feels good.
Chaining together combos and EX special moves or failing to link things together are palpable successes and failures because the gameplay is so tight. Like most fighters, high-level play in KoFXIV requires precision, practice, and patience, and I found myself losing hours dedicated to learning. I’ve always considered myself a fringe fan of the series and have dabbled in a few titles here and there. Whether it’s the aforementioned legacy that precedes KoFXIV or the fun and tense gameplay, I found that, in just my first hour with the game, I was inspired to put in real work toward the end goal of getting better.
The game is fairly approachable in that regard, though there are places that could have benefited from more information. For a series with nearly twenty titles released, balancing the need to deliver information to new players and the fear of inundating veterans with well-known mechanics is understandably difficult. KoFXIV’s Tutorial mode does its best to split the difference, but it doesn’t go far enough in the new player direction. For example, the mode tells a player how to do a small jump (as opposed to the three other types of jumps featured in the game), but doesn’t explain what the small jumps are for or why they’re important. In a similar vein, the Trials mode (character-specific combo challenges) equips players with basic and not-so-basic chains, but rarely helps them understand when and where to deploy them.
Don’t get me wrong; there is considerable value inherently present in encouraging exploration, but KoFXIV feels geared more toward players familiar with fighting games rather than someone new to the genre. For any fighter, finding middle ground is always tough to pull off, and this is doubly true for The King of Fighters.
Again and again, I found that legacy and reputation worked as a double-edged sword for this entry. In some ways the series seems stuck in conventions of its heyday, and there are great things about that. From solid and engaging fighting mechanics to much-appreciated unlockables like character artwork, posters from previous entries, and background music, KoFXIV relishes in its history and proudly displays its roots. There are, however, leftover conventions that ultimately detract from the overall experience.
One of the most apparent of these is the Story mode, which is ultimately not compelling and ends in character-specific, anime-style slideshows with unvoiced dialogue. Though some of the endings are funny or mildly enjoyable, the decision feels backwards. Endings like these were okay in the ‘90s and early ‘00s, but with the recent push toward more involved and engrossing stories like those featured in Street Fighter V and Mortal Kombat X, I can’t help but feel KoFXIV is stuck in the past. In fact, most of the offline suite suffers from the same. There’s nothing outside of the expected here, so players hoping to engage in anything other than of fighting some fools will be disappointed. Of course, that is subjective, and I didn’t find the lack of mode variety to be a major issue.
However, outside of the underwhelming story, another thing I did find problematic was SNK’s decision to transition from 2-D sprite-work to polygonal models. As an entry in a series with a long history of producing some of the best and absolutely gorgeous 2-D sprites in video games, KoFXIV’s visuals have left a lot of fans crestfallen. Sure, the transition has its benefits—crisp and unobtrusive HUD elements and avoiding reused assets being chief among them—but overall the visuals are lacking in character.
The boring, Madden-esque menus (coupled with one of the most awful butt-rock tracks ever recorded) make this a sundae of bland, vanilla-flavored eye candy. The visuals aren’t ugly, but they aren’t necessarily exciting either. The stages are beautiful as are some of the move animations, but the transition takes away from the mystique of the series. Some character models clearly weren’t designed to be polygonally rendered, while others find new life.
If there ever was a place for the series to stick to tradition, this was it.
The online matchmaking in KoFXIV is, unfortunately, the game’s biggest misstep. For a series with a history consistently marred by poor netcode, this comes as a harsh-yet-unsurprising disappointment. Ranked mode is all but completely busted, and the four matches I did manage to get into played like underwater ballet. As a player with few gaming-interested friends, I found the broken Ranked mode especially crushing. Fighting for rank is supposed to be where all the stakes are, where all that hard work in the training lab either pays off or sinks you. Let’s face it: lord knows most of us will never headline EVO, but Ranked mode in any fighter is usually close enough for the average player. Without it, I find very little incentive to keep playing. My competitive spirit goes unnourished.
Of course, SNK has been proactive in their communication on forums and on Twitter, and they promise that a patch addressing these issues is on its way. At the time of this writing, however, no such update has arrived.
The Casual matches fare better, though they are mostly a mixed bag ranging from flailing in molasses to crisp, quick, and responsive. Maybe that’s because there isn’t any matchmaking bogging down the severs. Players instead search for and select rooms from a lobby based upon specifications like round time, connection speed, and region. Alternatively, players can also create their own rooms with said specifications. I found these rooms to be the one glimmer of hope in KoFXIV’s online dumpster fire. Here, it’s the small things that do it for me.
There are a handful of different match types that allow players to customize how the rooms are organized. One match type allows players to continuously fight the same player, while another eliminates the loser or the winner, and I found that this organization led to quick and smooth match transitions and things like mini-rivalries and grudge matches. Players can also engage with other players while waiting for their match via pre-written dialogue or text chat, which is something I’ve always wished more console games featured.
I also really enjoyed the time I spent in the new 6-player, 3vs3 Party Mode, which comes in two flavors: a straight forward mode and a mode that shuffles the players on the teams after every match. This mode is easily the most fun to be had in KoFXIV’s online suite. Players get to spectate and comment on the match while waiting for their turn to fight for their team,and knowing that others are relying on you to “Give it your all!” adds a layer of tension unique to the experience. It feels communal in that way and in some ways akin to hanging out in arcades. It’s also worth noting that, for whatever reason, this mode is the most stable in terms of connection speed.
That’s not to say the Casual rooms are without fault. There’s no way to mute players (at least, no way that is immediately apparent), so if you’re getting “griefed” or trolled by a person via text or voice chat, you’re getting “griefed” or trolled. There’s nothing you can do about it outside of leaving the room. Currently the community of online players seems incredibly small, even by King of Fighters standards. Maybe this is tied to the netcode issues, maybe not. Either way, I found the overall online experience in The King of Fighters XIV to be a sloppy, hobbled-together jalopy in need of a serious tuneup.
Unless you’re a fan of the series (or fringe fan like myself), you might want to hold off on this one. If you’re looking for an online, competitive fighter to pull you away from Guilty Gear Xrd or Street Fighter V, The King of Fighters XIV isn’t it—yet. Honestly, if you aren’t already part of a group of enthusiasts or holding home-grown tournaments, there probably isn’t much here for you in the offline suite either. While the game’s tutorial and fighter-specific trials aid in acclimating new players, the underwhelming story and unvaried challenges might not be enough to satiate offline players. However, I feel it must be said that with improvements to the netcode, The King of Fighters XIV could become a viable option in a month or two for anyone looking to sink their teeth into a new 2-D fighter that feels great to play.
You can enter the ring yourself by grabbing a copy of King of Fighters XIV here.