After the excellent King of Fighters 13 released back in 2010 breathed new like back into the series, expectations for the sequel have been high. Those expectations took a big fireball to the ankle a few months ago when the first trailers finally dropped for the 14th instalment, unveiling a game that would have looked a little underwhelming had it been announced for the PS2. KOF has never been a game that pushed systems graphical capabilities, but always possessed a certain charm with its hand drawn sprites, especially in the beautifully animated KOF13, and that initially seemed to have been stripped away by the series’ first move into 3D models. So has this brave new twist brought the series back down to earth with a unrecoverable bump, or will personality triumph over looks?
Firstly, and probably not surprisingly, it actually looks a lot better than the early footage would have had you believe. Backgrounds are varied and interesting, and there are a good number of stages with a range of settings and themes to suit whatever mood you happen to be in. The characters are a bit more of a mixed bag, but with so many characters available at launch (50!!), it was always likely that some would be more fully fleshed out than others. Some of the animations are a little clunky, but generally speaking characters move in the familiar way fans of the season will expect, and it doesn’t take long before any quibbles you may have are no longer noticed. Visually, it certainly doesn’t compare to the likes of Guilty Gear Xrd, Street Fighter 5 or Mortal Kombat X, but it does make up for this in other ways as you get to know the game.
Again, there are 50 characters available at launch, and if you can’t find anybody you like from that lot then there really is no hope for you. There are a wide range of personalities from the series’ past, and a pleasing 19 new characters to explore and experiment with. For those unfamiliar with KOF, players need to choose 3 characters for their team, so the roster needs to be bigger than most 1 on 1 fighting games, but even with this in mind I am still finding it hard to settle on a trio when there are so many possibilities. When you start to consider metre management and the logistics of which characters to play in which order, the permutations and depth this opens up is almost endless.
So how does it play? Well, one of the biggest dilemmas that fighting games are currently facing is finding the balance between appealing to hard-core fans who will play online and competitively at tournaments, and keeping casual button mashers happy in order to sell enough copies to actually make some money. How do you marry up complexity and simplicity without over-compromising and annoying one side or another, or even both? Well, KOF14’s gameplay actually makes a reasonable stab at it, and seems to have done as good a job as anybody at this point. At its core, KOF14 is still very complex with some seriously challenging execution demands on some moves and combos. There is plenty in the system to keep the even the most skilled player happy for months and years to come, but less experienced players have been thrown a bone too. The “Rush” mode allows players to mash the light punch button, resulting in simple, but pretty good looking combos that can make you look and feel like a badass even if you have little to no idea what is going on. More ambitious players will welcome back a version of the Max Mode from older games, which allows endless EX versions of a characters special moves to be performed, as well as giving players access to longer and far more damaging combos via Max Super Special Moves (!) and Climax Super Special Moves (!!). It’s challenging stuff, but exceedingly rewarding when you pull it off and all explained clearly, if somewhat unimaginatively, in the tutorial.
It looks a little iffy, but plays great. What else does KOF14 offer in order to keep up with its peers in what is the most crowded fighting game market since the golden age of the early 90s? Well, most importantly, the online content is way, way better than KOF13. Admittedly this isn’t difficult, but I’ve had almost no problems getting matches and they’ve all played as least as well as the other fighting games currently available on PS4. The game has received a patch to sort out the difficulties people were experiencing on-line, and this should help the game last longer than its predecessor that was practically unplayable on line. There is the obligatory Story Mode which is essentially an arcade mode with a little baffling “story” tagged on. In the past, this would have been the norm but Mortal Kombat, Injustice and even Street Fighter 5 have all raised the bar here significantly, and it now feels disappointing to not have something more substantial. Elsewhere we have pretty much what you’d expect, with vs mode, a series of combo trials and a pretty decent training mode to hone what you’ve learned in the tutorial and trials. It’s all fine, and there is plenty to keep you busy, but in a time where fighting games are offering more and more ways to play them on and offline, it feels a little barebones.
For any serious fighting game fans, KOF14 should be an essential addition to their library. Its deep, complex and caters beautifully to what a competitive player would want, even down to legacy controller support. For casual fans, looking for a game to break out occasionally for a button mashing session, its ok. It certainly isn’t the flashiest game, and sometimes lacks the familiar charm of Street Fighter or the gory novelty of Mortal Kombat that would keep less dedicated players coming back over time. But for anyone looking to put a bit of work in, see past its plain exterior and appreciate its layers of hidden beauty, KOF14 is as good as anything currently on offer, and there aren’t many 13th sequels that can say that.
Reviewed on PS4