King of Fighters XIV (for PlayStation 4)

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The King of Fighters XIII was in a weird spot last generation. Many people in the fighting game community were drawn to the game's gorgeous 2D sprites and multilayered gameplay, which resulted in it being well received during the few years the fighter graced Evo's main stage. The sole issue plaguing KOF XIII? Horrendous online play that killed the competitive scene. Five years after KOF XIII's release, developer SNK gives us a delightful follow up with King of Fighters XIV ($59.99), a game that retains the series fun fighting action, while venturing into fresh territory. The PlayStation 4-exclusive fighting game boasts an insanely fun combo system, numerous new offensive and defensive options, and online play that while not perfect, lets you mix it up with people from around the globe. If you can look beyond the ho-hum visuals, you'll find that The King of Fighters XIV is the best fighting game to come out this console generation.

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You Get What You Pay For and More
Unlike Street Fighter V, KOF XIV boasts an absolutely stacked roster size right out of the gate. You can use any of the 16 three-person teams as soon as you boot the game, and two extra characters are unlocked by playing Story Mode. Thankfully, SNK didn't pull any Capcom-like shenanigans by locking characters behind paywalls or doling them out slowly over the course of "seasons."

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Anyone familiar with fighting games will recognize Story Mode. You pick your team of three characters (either one of the preset teams or any individual from a preset team to make a custom team) and play a series of matches against CPU-controlled opponents. The campaign showcases well-done cutscenes and humorous dynamic dialogue exchanges between characters with histories. For example, when my Luong faced off against Ramon, the fighters engaged in a humorous, custom dialogue exchange. This mechanic alone has encouraged me to play the story mode again to see more character interactions. Note: Bumping the CPU's Story Mode difficulty to Level 5 is a true test. It gets salt-inducing hard, just like a fighting game's story mode should.

Learning Ain't Easy
KOF XIV's tutorial does a decent job of introducing you to the game's core mechanics, but it doesn't truly teach you how to play the game. This hurts KOF XIV even more than Street Fighter V and Mortal Kombat X, because it's a deeper game than its competitors. SNK should have duplicated the remarkably in-depth tutorials found in Killer Instinct and Skullgirls 2nd Encore.

Then there are Trials, which teach you how to combo. In KOF XIII, each character had ten Trials, but they weren't very combat effective. In KOF XIV, each character has five Trials, all of which are practical. You begin with an easy link or confirmation move, which won't take more than a minute to master if you have any fighting game experience. From there, it gets more difficult, but in a logical way as you see your combos grow in length, and include more aspects of KOF XIV's gameplay. Execution is paramount in the KOF series. In order to get good, all KOF players must work on their inputs and button work, and that takes time. I strongly recommend people take some time to play through Trials, as the mode gives you the skills to inflict big damage on opponents.

Fortunately for inexperienced players, KOF XIV is far more accessible to newcomers, in terms of the wider execution windows and new Rush Combos (more on that in a bit).

Three is the Magic Number
KOF XIV follows KOF XIII and many other games in the series by focusing the fighting on three vs. three, team-based battle. There aren't tag-ins or assists in this game. Instead, a character plays until beaten. That means you could beat your opponent's team with just your first character. This is where strategy comes into play.

Team composition and fighter order is very important due to the Max Meter. The first character has a Level 3 Max Meter, the second character boasts a Level 4 Max Meter, and the anchor receives a Level 5 Max Meter. As a result, some characters perform best in the third slot, because they have highly damaging combos that utilize all five meters. Other characters can get solid damage and performance with fewer meters. This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the strategy inherent to KOF XIV's three vs. three play.

Kris-Kross Will Make Ya…
Jumping in KOF is far different than in other 2D fighting games: It's the equivalent of the third dimension in 3D fighters. Along with the standard regular jump, there are small hops and large jumps. The most important of the three is the small hop, as it's a great pressure tool. Because of its speed, the small hop makes it difficult to counter with an anti-air move. Most solid normal attacks done after you small-hop are relatively safe, even on block, so it lets you stay on the offensive and maintain pressure. Of course, there are tools to deal with constant small-hop pressure, but the mini-jump's impact is huge and landing a small-hop hit into a combo can lead to some devastating damage.

KOF also lets you roll through attacks, another offensive move you won't find in Street Fighter V. This is very useful for getting past projectiles, closing the distance on an opponent, or escaping from disadvantageous positions like being trapped in either the left or right corners. Rolls are not a get-out-of-jail-for-free card, though, as they make your character quite susceptible to throws.

Combinations!
What is a modern fighting game without combos? Even better, what is a KOF game without crazy combos? KOF XIV continues the KOF tradition of big combos that require great timing and execution, while doing large amounts of damage. In KOF, the amount of work you put into the game is shown in large part by the complexity and damage of your combos. For those new to KOF or fighting games in general, SNK has devised a clever way for you to do eye-catching combos with minimal execution and timing until you improve.

Rush Combos are auto-combos that players can bust out by quickly mashing the Light Button when in very close proximity to an opponent. With Rush Combos, you learn the timing of combo punishes after blocking or evading an attack. Rush Combos aren't static affairs. They change based on whether or not you have a full Max Meter or have entered Max Mode, an enhanced state you can enter to do more damage.

SNK balances Rush Combos by greatly reducing their damage. It is a clever mechanic, and implemented in a way that doesn't place veteran players at a handicap. They have no advantage over doing a regular combo other than ease of execution. Think of Rush Combos as an appetizer to a full course meal and actually doing combos as the main dish.

The Real Test
KOF XIV's online play is vastly better than KOF XIII's. In fact, as it is now, the online experience is roughly the same as Street Fighter V's, so you'll enjoy quite a few good connections. It is not perfect, however. At the time of this writing, Ranked Play has some truly horrible connections. Some people have voiced issue with the occasional slow-motion matches, and SNK has heard them. The company's working on a patch coming within a week of this writing. I will update this review with new Ranked Play impressions after the patch goes live.

That said, the terrific online Party Mode shows that SNK learned from what Arc System Works did with the Guilty Gear series. You enter a party (essentially an online arcade) with a lobby that can host up to 12 players. While in the party, you can spectate matches, chat, or set up a match with another party member instead of waiting in line for one match to finish. This is helpful, as it keeps you in the action.

KOF XIV also features an Online Training mode that lets you enter training mode with a friend over the internet. This is a great feature that a lot of games sadly lack.

Taping of the Fists
I played KOF XIV on PlayStation 4 using the default PS4 controller, as well as arcade sticks and fight pads. They all worked well, even when using converters that let me use Xbox 360 and Xbox One sticks. SNK released a day-one patch that added support for PlayStation 3 arcade sticks and DualShock 3 controllers.

I experienced very little performance issues outside of Ranked online play. My PS4 ran silently while playing, which has been rare of late. I did notice the occasional lengthy load times after a rematch, but it's nothing that breaks the experience. KOF XIV runs and feels great.

The icing on the cake is Gallery, which is fat with unlockables. Background music, sound effects, awesome illustrations, and movies can be unlocked by simply playing different modes. Some are hidden, requiring players to play using a specific pre-made team or custom teams. Story Mode playthroughs unlock much of the movies and artwork. It's a great way to encourage players to replay modes, unlike Capcom's frustrating Street Fighter V tactics.

In the Eye of the Beholder
KOF XIV is ugly in some places, beautiful in others. Yes, SNK has greatly improved the polygonal visuals from their horrid debut look that had many people seriously wondering if the game was intended for tablets and smartphones. Still, the character models aren't in the same ballpark as Guilty Gear Xrd Revelator, a fighting game that successfully made the leap to polygons without losing any visual fidelity. Some KOF XIV characters, such as Andy Bogard and Goro Daimon, look doll-like and could've benefitted from more shading. I'm not a fan of SNK ditching its incredible KOF XIII sprites, but I understand it was done to cut costs. KOF XIV is foundation-building game for SNK, especially in regards to the use of 3D models.

On the upside, KOF XIV's animations are quite good. Punches, kicks, Super Special Moves, Max Super Special Moves, and Climax Super Special Moves all look flashy and impressive, while conveying the insane amount of damage being doled out. The fighting pace is not quite as swift as the ones in older KOF titles, but it's not slow by any means. I believe this was intentionally done to aid newcomers in their ability to grasp the mechanics.

In addition, there are many cool character designs. Luong, Kukri, and Ramon immediately caught my attention because of their over-the-top looks design and move sets. The entire South America Team jumped out of the screen at me as if demanding to be learned, which is my current project. There is even a character in the game that is a Kyary Pamyu Pamyu homage. Her name, Sylvie Paula Paula, and the fact that she shouts "Pon Pon Pon", a reference to one of KPP's hit songs, is a testament to this.

The King of Fighting
KOF XIV's release is a great example for fighting games to emulate, especially after Street Fighter V's tepid launch. I'm sure that SNK will release DLC characters, colors, and costumes at some future time, but the developer has given fans tons of content out of the box. Having online play not only working at launch, but working better, is a huge plus, too. I wish KOF was bigger in the United States, so that there would be even more online competition (China, Mexico, South America, and a few other places have huge and dedicated KOF followings). It's about time the US stopped looking at KOF as a cool game to spectate, and picked it up for competitive play. SNK has done its part to make KOF XIV full of value and accessible, while still being deep and technical.

If you're a fighting-game fan on the fence about KOF XIV, give the demo a try. Ignore the character models and focus on the gameplay and animations. The King of Fighters XIV deserves to be the go-to fighting game of this console generation.

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