Launching itself into the world of 3D, SNK’s King of Fighters (KOF) series has joined the fray of modern 3D fighters, managing to make substantial changes from previous instalments, meanwhile capturing the core essence players are familiar with. With a brand new story, 3D models, and a host of DLC to tide players over, all signs look positive for the Ultimate Edition of KOF XIV – however, this is not quite how it plays out. Despite some remarkable strides taken by the developers, the game certainly falls flat in several areas. So, how exactly does KOF XIV fare in the arena of 3D fighting games? Well, let’s take a look.
KOF XIV Ultimate Edition is a re-release of the 2016 instalment, and comes packaged with the base game, as well as all DLC characters and costumes. I’ll mention these extra add-ons later on, but the primary focus here will be on the base game – KOF XIV. The game is essentially split into three core areas: story mode; tutorial/training modes; online multiplayer, and I’ll tackle each of these elements, before breaking down the gameplay mechanics and other key areas. We’ll start with the story, as this is the mode I certainly have the most (and least) to talk about.
Story (Spoiler Warning)
Simply put, the story mode included in KOF XIV is abysmal. I’m well aware that many fighting games, and to be honest most games with online functionality, forego single player content in favour of a greater focus on multiplayer. This is fine, however what irks me the most about KOF XIV’s attempt at a story mode is the sheer lack of effort put into contextualising it. Despite opening with a gorgeous and promising cinematic, players will be thrust into 10 consecutive fights (with a single cutscene midway through), before the story wraps up with zero explanation. Bearing in mind your opponent AI is mediocre at best, being thrown from fight to fight with absolutely no idea why you are there simply divulges into and endless grind of auto-combos and boredom. You’ll find yourself suddenly pitted up against the current King of Fighters, with minimal build-up, before a (totally unexplained) demon-thing appears, resulting in you apparently saving the world… from a threat that had appeared 5 minutes earlier. Roll credits. Honestly, the inclusion of this mode as a ‘story’ is an insult to every narrative designer to have ever lived. Had SNK decided to completely remove the story mode, that would have been fine. Had they openly placed players in a challenge mode instead, that also would have been fine. But what SNK had opted for is both lacklustre, and blatant content-padding. Frankly, there are many more issues I could point out with this mode, but I’ll leave it here on one final point – don’t bother playing it.
With the horrors of the story mode out of the way, let’s talk about the remaining single player content of KOF XIV. Training and Tutorial modes, a staple in any fighting game, come as expected, both giving beginners a chance to learn the ropes, and more experienced players the platform to hone their skills. There is not much to say about these modes – they will be very familiar to anyone who has played a fighting game – but I will note that I found the UI quite unfriendly for beginners. Disclaimer, I’m by no means an expert on fighting games, however I’ve played my fair share of them, and so probably sit somewhere in the middle in terms of experience. Nevertheless, being told to press ‘HP+LK’ for example, meant absolutely nothing to me without looking up the button list in the options menu. Granted, this isn’t the biggest of flaws, but I do think the inclusion of controller keys in the UI would have gone a long way in improving accessibility for new players. Aside from this, both modes are comprehensive, and are a great way to learn the plethora of combo moves available. The Missions mode is a surprise hit in KOF XIV, as one would expect a list of meaningless challenges, with no real value outside of beating your personal best. However, I found these a great place to practice combos, and become more familiar with each fighter’s move-pool, whilst simultaneously striving towards a greater goal. I’d definitely recommend players check out this mode, even if it is only briefly.
OK, here we are at the bread-and-butter of KOF XIV – multiplayer. Your standard range of modes are all included: ranked; non-ranked; local multiplayer, and so you’ll get what you’d expect upon entering multiplayer. Connectivity was fine for me (provided I was playing someone in the same, or similar, region), and I had little difficulty playing an opponent once I was in a match. However, this part is important – once I was in a match. Playing in 2021, the player-base of KOF XIV is astoundingly small, ultimately meaning I could only find a match in non-ranked rooms, which often only had 3-4 players in them. Considering you often cannot jump straight into another match, as you are dependent on an opponent joining your match (or finding an open one yourself), this results in more time spent waiting for a match than actually being in one. Ultimately this is the major issue with the online multiplayer – there’s almost no one to play with. Nevertheless, I will note that once you do find yourself an opponent, multiplayer can offer you the very best of what KOF XIV has to offer.
As previously mentioned, KOF XIV has made a sizeable departure from previous series’ entries, breaking new ground in the world of 3D. Nevertheless, SNK should be applauded for maintaining sharp, frantic gameplay, ensuring that the core of the game is neatly polished. With a huge roster included, creating your team of three fighters can feel fresh each time, as each fighter offers markedly different move-pools. This is a standout feature of the game, as it offers players an endless supply of content as they learn to perfect each fighters’ combos, and build their ultimate team. Once in the fight, fast and fluid movement allows you string together these newly-learned skills, and the inclusion of the rush mechanic certainly helps tip the fight in your favour when you need it most. Admittedly, the learning curve of KOF XIV is a steep one, but as with all great fighting games, it is the mastery of each fighter that provides the player with a sense of reward that drives them back into another fight. I do wish there was a little more, outside of the rush mechanic and auto-combos, to give beginners a chance of said mastery, but those dedicated to the cause will certainly reap their rewards.
Audio & Visual Design
Although the audio design of KOF XIV is nothing to write home about, with some decent backing tracks and suitable SFX, the visual design has plenty to note. I personally found SNK’s foray into 3D to be a successful one, with character models, fighting stages, and visual effects all looking sharp, albeit somewhat lacklustre considering the console generation. Much more could have been done in this regard, as I feel like SNK play it safe with much of the visual effects, however overall I was satisfied with the game’s visual design. I would expect KOF XV to make some notable improvements, but considering the base game came out almost 5 years ago, I have little to complain about. Lastly, considering how beautiful they were, I would have loved to have seen more cinematics throughout the game, as these almost always managed to ramp up my anticipation before a fight. However, that would require me to start again on the story mode… *shudder*.
Ultimate Edition Extras
Anyone already familiar with KOF XIV might want to know why they should opt for this version, rather than just the base game. Well, in truth, I can’t really give you an answer. Yes, you’ll get 8 new fighters, as well as a handful of new costumes to match, but that’s about it. New players probably won’t see the value in this, whereas fans of the series may wish to consume every drop of content they can. If you do find yourself falling into the latter bracket, then by all means, the Ultimate Edition may just give you what you had been wishing for. But the rest of us, these extra tidbits do little aside from prompting an “OK, cool”, before getting lost in the already existing pool of content. Ultimately, as with most ultimate editions of games, the extra content is great if found on sale, but often they are not worth paying extra for.
So, in 2021, is it worth picking up KOF XIV? In all honesty, no. With an appallingly-bad story mode, and notable absence of online opponents, there is really not much content to justify a purchase. Yes, the gameplay is fantastic, and these other flaws are not indicative of that, but simply put, you’ll be getting a very empty game. Waiting on KOF XV would likely be your best bet, but if you do opt of the 14th instalment, you will still get a fighting game with sharp, fast-paced and rich gameplay. Nevertheless, although I do have to hand it to SNK for their successful attempt at entering the 3D fighting game market, considering the other options available, I find it difficult to recommend KOV XIV over them. Who knows, maybe KOF XV will continue to build on the foundations laid here, but that awaits to be seen.