Rekindling SNK’s fighting spirit
The past 16 years haven’t been especially kind to SNK. Since the former arcade gaming juggernaut declared bankruptcy back in 2000, the company has struggled to find their place in the industry’s modern landscape. With the arcades all but dead and fighting games decidedly less popular than they were in the Neo Geo’s heyday, SNK has found themselves dealing with fewer successes than struggles over the past few console generations.
That’s not to say things have all been doom and gloom for the company. In recent years, SNK has regained a bit of their stride with successful ports of some of their finest titles to the current crop of consoles, handhelds, and mobile devices. And while their flagship franchises have been noticeably absent from the limelight lately, welcome surprises such as The King of Fighters XII and XIII were enough to rekindle faith in a series that seemed destined for mediocrity after a pair of uninspired outings on the PlayStation 2. Still, for every success the studio experienced, the looming specter of such flops as Samurai Shodown Sen and The King of Fighters: Maximum Impact was never far from the minds of even SNK’s most stalwart supporters.
Thankfully, SNK seems to have gotten the memo, because The King of Fighters XIV comes out swinging to deliver a Burning Knuckle to the face of the non believers. Sure, longtime fans of the series may bemoan the switch from The King of Fighters XIII‘s lush, hand drawn sprites in favor of 3D models, but these fears are quickly laid to rest when you see just what the game has to offer. KOFXIV brings with it a staggering number of characters (48 instantly delectable, with two unlockable bosses), a ton of modes, and some of the tightest fighting action the series has seen to date.
While the system itself hasn’t received any drastic changes like it did with The King of Fighters 2000‘s Striker system or the tag mechanic from The king of Fighters 2003, SNK has tweaked a few knobs and dials to make the game more accessible this time around. The most notable of these changes is a new mechanic called the Rush mode. Rapidly tapping the light punch button will execute a Rush combo, which is capped off with a special move. However, if you have a power gauge then the combo will result in a Super Art or EX move depending on how many power stocks are at your disposal. At face value, the Rush system may seem like a cheap addition to KOF’s formula to cater to less experienced players. However, the advantage it gives is minimal, as SNK has wisely scaled back the damage for Rush attacks compared to standard combos. The end result is a system that gives newcomers a tool that’s easy to use but ultimately won’t do anything substantial to turn the tables in a fight against experienced players.
Another new addition to KOFXIV’s fighting formula are powerful EX moves, which can be unleashed for a period of time after using one bar of the power gauge to activate Max Mode. Additionally, you can use three bars of your power gauge to perform Climax Super Special Moves, which deliver spectacular shows of force (think Street Fighter‘s Revenge moves). These smart and subtle additions to The King of Fighters’ already rock solid foundation really help to modernize the game’s mechanics while adding a few fresh layers of depth for players to master. It’s by no means a grand reinvention, but what’s here works exceptionally well and does a great job of keeping things fresh and engaging for both newcomers and seasoned series veterans alike.
New mechanics aside, the core King of Fighters package is just as tight and responsive as you could hope for. The game’s signature four-button fighting system returns, with light and heavy punches and kicks being the tools of the trade. The shift to the 3D realm brings a solid weightiness to the on-screen pugilists, and the game’s variety of flying roundhouse kicks and searing Haou Shokoukens pack more heft than ever before without impacting the flow of the fight. It’s truly impressive just how little has been lost in translation here, as so few franchises make the jump from sprites to fully-rendered splendor without sacrificing a degree of precision, but SNK has managed to handle the task with flying colors. Simply put, KOFXIV plays like a dream, and seamlessly brings the series back into the third dimension while still maintaining the signature style and flavor fans of the series have come to expect.
As I mentioned at the start of this review, The King of Fighters XIV‘s roster features a staggering 50 characters (take that, Street Fighter V!). This burgeoning list of brawlers includes 18 fresh additions to the lineup along with 32 returning characters. Series staples such as the voluptuous kunoichi Mai Shiranui, Orochi Saga protagonist Kyo Kusanagi, and the “Legendary Hungry Wolf” Terry Bogard are joined by a rogue’s gallery of new combatants who largely impress. Some of the most noteworthy additions include the spunky sky pirate Love Heart, who comes across as a hybrid of Mark of the Wolves‘ swashbuckling street fighter B. Jenet and Soul Calibur‘s Cervantes, who devastates her opponents with rapid sword slashes; King of Dinosaurs, a ferocious luchador dressed as a T-Rex who punishes his opponents with devastating grappling techniques and sky-high body slams; Shun’ei, a master of illusion and former disciple of Fatal Fury mainstay Tung Fu Rue; and the towering giant of a man, Anatov, who hosts this year’s tournament and battles while chomping a cigar the size of a toddler’s femur. These are just a few examples of the game’s roster, but rest assured none of the game’s nearly 20 new contenders feel like a throwaway, and each of the 16 teams offers a good balance of speed and power to master.
If you’re looking for a fighter that will keep you busy for months to come, The King of Fighters XIV has you covered. When playing offline, the star of the show is the game’s story mode, which allows players to choose from one of the game’s 16 teams – or a custom threesome of their own – to fight their way through the competition and to the finals of this year’s tournament. This mode is the best place to cut your teeth on KOFXIV’s mechanics before diving into the other modes, and it’s bookended by some nice CG that helps move the story along. My only real gripe with the Story Mode is the rather toothless difficulty of the computer-controlled AI, which makes it pretty easy to steamroll your way to the game’s surprise antagonist, who surprisingly lacks that notorious “SNK Boss Syndrome” that still brings fans of the franchise to tears to this day (Omega Rugal was one sadistic bastard). Despite the minimal challenge, Story Mode is still a great place to learn the building blocks of KOFXIV’s system, and each team features their own ending cinematic that’s usually peppered with fan service that veterans of the series should appreciate.
When not slugging it out in the Story Mode, you can learn the intricacies of each character in the training arena, or take on various challenges to learn more advanced techniques for each of the game’s 50 characters in the Mission Mode. Additionally, such genre staples as the Time Attack, Survival, and Trial modes are there to keep you busy in between story mode and online bouts, and competing in challenges will help unlock a treasure trove of concept art that documents the series’ history.
As with any fighter, the elephant in the room is its online performance. That said, I’m happy to report that the KOFXIV’s online performance feels like a marked improvement over its predecessor. Online bouts flowed smoothly, with input lag only popping up intermittently during our hands-on time with the game’s online component, even when competing with players from across the globe. As far as modes go, you’ll find your standard fare here – with ranked and casual bouts coming in Team VS, Single VS and Party VS. flavors. Team VS is especially entertaining, allowing six players on two opposing teams of three to each choose a player and duke it out for supremacy. The game also supports 12 player lobbies, making it very easy to choose your preferred opponent and game type before jumping into a match. Overall, KOFXIV’s suite of multiplayer modes don’t exactly reinvent the wheel, but they do deliver a streamlined and full featured experience that will keep you coming back for more.
When all is said and done, what’s perhaps the most impressive thing about The King of Fighters XIV is that the game has managed to do what many thought was impossible by putting SNK back on the map as a world class developer. SNK’s latest foray into the arena showcases the studio’s fighting spirit, and makes me very excited to see what other classic franchises the studio could resurrect next. The thought of a Last Blade or Mark of the Wolves may have been enough to make us cringe just a year ago, but now the thought fills us with excitement. Simply put, The King of Fighters XIV represents SNK at the top of their game, and that alone should be enough to make you run out and add this fighter to your collection.
More than anything, The King of Fighters XIV showcases SNK’s rekindled fighting spirit, proving once again the The Future Is Now. And it’s been a hell of a long time since the company’s future has looked so bright. That said, if you only buy one fighting game this year, make sure it’s The King of Fighters XIV.
Final Verdict: 5/5
Available on: PlayStation 4 (Reviewed) ; Publisher: Atlus ; Developer: SNK ; Players: 1-12 (online) ; Released: August 23, 2016; Genre: Fighting ; MSRP: $59.99
Full disclosure: This review was written based on review code supplied by the game’s publisher, Atlus