It's impressive that this game even exists. Years ago, the company called SNK Playmore was more concerned with using its extensive list of gaming IP to make pachislot and mobile titles. This changed in March 2015, when the Chinese company Ledo Millenium picked up a controlling interest in SNK Playmore, with a desire to extend SNK characters into games, comics, and movies. By October 2015, King of Fighters XIV was announced and earlier this year, SNK Playmore became just SNK. King of Fighters XIV is the first shot at SNK becoming the SNK of old again.
As a first shot, it works pretty well.
King of Fighters XIV straddles that line between being a very conservative game, while still providing enough new stuff that you can't accuse SNK of not doing anything. This entry in the series features a whopping 50 characters right out of the gate: 16 teams of three and two boss characters. There are 19 stages in total. Unlike the original release of Street Fighter V, KOF XIV checks off all major modes that fighting game players expect: a rather barebones Story Mode, Versus for local play against another player or the CPU, a Training Mode, a Tutorial, a Mission mode (split between Trial, Time Attack, and Survival), and a full Gallery for unlockable cinematics, artwork, and voice files.
Being a modern title, King of Fighters XIV also has a robust online mode. Online requires you to use pre-selected teams or single characters and is split between Ranked Matches, which are simply player vs. player affairs, Free Matches, which play out in online lobbies of up to 12 players, or Online Training, letting you practice with another player online.
All of this is rather impressive considering that unlike some older King of Fighters, SNK did not have older assets to draw on for this game. King of Fighters XIV is an entirely 3D entry, a first for the series' mainline titles. (There were actually two games in the 3D-spinoff series, Maximum Impact.) This means the entire roster was created from scratch for this title.
Moving to 3D has allowed SNK to craft this huge roster much quicker and cheaper than trying to do so in high-definition 2D, like SNK Playmore did in King of Fighters XII and XIII. XII has the series' smallest roster at 22 characters and XIII expands that to 32, while KOF XIV crushes both with 50 characters.
The flipside is an art design that doesn't particularly stand out. In videos and on the showfloor, it looks rather safe and pedestrian; it was only until I was able to spend more time with KOF XIV at home that I was able to appreciate the details on each character. The animation could be better, character faces can sometimes have this plastic-style look to them, and most of the main cast are simply small tweaks on previous designs. (See also: KOF XII and XIII.) This extends to their move lists: if you've played the last two KOFs, most of returning cast is pretty much the same. When you're going up against titles with a stronger visual style, like Guilty Gear Xrd and Street Fighter V, you need to up your game SNK.
I would've charged SNK with playing it too safe if it wasn't for the new cast members, all of whom are rather enjoyable and instantly endearing. There's the kick ass Shun'Ei, a disciple of returning Fatal Fury character Tung Fu Rue who uses spectral glowing hands to fight and his perennially-sleepy teammate Meitenkun. The Mexico Team features lithe grappler Ramon, while the Women Fighters Team adds Fatal Fury fan/fanservice character Alice. Geese Howard's South Town team has Hein, a stoic butler with moves based on the game of chess, and mainstay villains Chang and Choi are joined by whatever the hell Xanadu is supposed to be.
This is capped off by three teams of entirely new characters. The Official Invitation team are the story-based antagonists, featuring the quirky electric brawler Sylvie Paula Paula, the mysterious sand-throwing Kukri, and the Mian, a female fighter who has one of the more interesting designs in the game and a gimmick that has her changing masks while she attacks. From South America hails Nelson, a boxer with a robotic arm, Bandeiras, a Brazilian who is a self-taught ninja, and Zarina, a Capoeira-using fan-favorite-in-the-making who recalls Fatal Fury's Bob Wilson. Finally, the Another World team features Samurai Showdown's Nakoruru alongside two other unique fighters: kung-fu fighter Muimui and sky pirate Love Heart.
("Mike, what about the King of Dinosaurs?" you ask. "Isn't he new?" No, that's Garou's Tizoc with a new look, y'all.)
Every new character is interesting in some fashion and fits within the overall roster. The 17 all-new fighters go a long way towards making King of Fighters XIV feel like it's a new game that has its own direction. I'm hoping in the future that SNK tries to push the existing characters outside of their boxes a bit more, either through movelist changes or new looks via DLC costumes. The company also needs to do a balance pass as some fighters are straight scrubs in online play, but I assume that'll come some time after launch.
King of Fighters XIV is probably the the most friendly KOF for new players, even if it does undercut itself at the high-end. The basics are the same: there's still four attack buttons divided between two punches and two kicks. The Maximum Gauge is KOF XIV's version of a super meter, allowing you to fill up to four stocks by attacking your opponent. That can then be used on Super Special moves, three-stock Climax Super Special moves, and Max Mode. Max Mode uses some of your saved stocks to drop you into a powered state, letting you use EX versions of moves for a limited period of time. On top of that, you can add throws, the space-creating blow back, dodging, and a guard crush system. There's also an extensive cancelling system for building huge combos.
New players benefit from a generous input buffer and the new Rush combo system. By tapping Light Punch in close quarters, players will do a solid 6-7 hit combo automatically. If you have a saved Maximum Gauge stock, that will even end in a Super Special! The drawback is if you have a saved stock, it will always be used at the of a Rush combo, giving a new player less choice as to how their gauge is used. This new player friendliness is undercut by the high-end though: most of the Climax Super Specials are double half-circle forward or back and two buttons, which are prohibitively difficult for a new player on a PlayStation 4 D-pad. It's an odd choice.
Returning King of Fighters veterans probably have a single question: How is the netcode? Well, good and bad. I had no problem with the netcode in Ranked matches, which are 1-on-1. However, I found it was spotty in some of the online lobbies, particularly when those lobbies were reaching their max size of 12. I'm unsure if that's only a facet of lobby size, but I find if you keep it on the lower side, things are better for you. In ranked though, it's a marked improvement over the console versions of XII and XIII. There's also a day-one patch on the way that's supposed to add online improvements. We'll see if live servers and the day-one patch effect King of Fighters XIV's online play.
All told, I came into this hoping that SNK had stuck the landing. I prefer a fighting game field with a wide variety of choices and not having the company behind King of Fighters, Fatal Fury, Samurai Showdown, and more out there just depresses me. I'm happy to say that King of Fighters XIV is a worthwhile entry in series and well worth picking up. I could use some stronger art direction and perhaps some more inventive changes to the classic characters, but everything here is legitmately great for a first shot.
If that's your thing, most of the ladies in the roster are rather... healthy, probably due to artist preference. There's some variety I appreciate, with characters like Nakoruru and Mian going in a different direction. Mai Shiranui fans will be happy though.
It's a fighting game. Once you've played through the rather short and barebones story mode to get all the simplistic team endings, you're pretty much playing for online or the mission modes. KOF XIV is as long or short as you want.
The fighters are detailed, the attack effects look good, and the background are cool. Unfortunately, the overall look feels rather safe and the fighters have a plastic look to their faces.
With 50 fighters (17 of whom are all-new), 19 stages, and a host of gameplay modes, SNK is coming out swinging with King of Fighters XIV. The roster is diverse and interesting and the game is easy to get into. The game could definitely use a boost in the visual department, as the art style can come across as safe and bland, but the game itself is solid. As the beginning for a whole new era of SNK, King of Fighters XIV is a win.