The King of Fighters series might not be as popular as Street Fighter, Tekken and Mortal Kombat, but it does offer an established alternative, and like many fighting games it has a die-hard fanbase. It might have had some time out of the spotlight (since the last main entry back in 2011), but the series' return doesn't disappoint.
KOFXIV features full 3D models that move on a 2D plane, much akin to Street Fighter V, which is a first for a main instalment in the series, although they've used 3D models before (in spin-off Maximum Impact). When the game was revealed, the character models didn't look that good, they lacked the detail that they once had thanks to the earlier art style. The various trailers that have been released for the game have shown improvements in the graphical quality over time, and playing the game now it's amazing to see how far the graphics have come since its reveal.
The character models are now quite detailed, some more than others, but they look a lot better now. Our appreciation of the art style improved accordingly, even if the visuals aren't perhaps up there with Street Fighter V and the upcoming Tekken 7. Even though the graphics have gotten better and we have warmed to them, we do miss the old art style and we're pretty sure that some fans of the series will miss it too.
King of Fighters is known for having large rosters and XIV is no exception. The game boasts a 50 character strong lineup, which includes 16 teams of three fighters, a sub boss and a final boss. All the characters have a unique move set which is an achievement in itself given the number of fighters. There are old favourites that return like Kyo Kusanagi, Iori Yagami, Billy Kane and Mai Shiranui, which is bound to please longtime fans. There are also some new faces introduced such as Kukri and Mian. One of the game's new characters is Nakoruru, who is from another SNK fighter called Samurai Showdown. The additions are well design and fun to play with, and fit into the KOF universe.
The stages in The King of Fighters XIV are beautiful, and a pleasure to fight in. There are 19 incredibly detailed backdrops and they're nearly all animated (only two are static; the Training Stage and the Derelict Church). There are three stages in particular where the attention to detail clearly shines (The Industrial Area, Neo Esaka, and the Antonov Super Arena). Stages are an important part of any fighting game, and it's clear that SNK worked hard on developing these.
Music is a big factor in too, as it can set the tone of the fight and increase the adrenaline levels. The genre more often than not tends to boast great music and King of Fighters XIV maintains that trend by having an awesome soundtrack. Each stage's music is distinguishable and fits each arena rather well. The music for Geese Tower, Industrial Area and Heidern Fleet are our favourites, and the theme used for the main menu is also rather catchy.
King of Fighters XIV has a story mode but it plays more like an old school arcade mode, where you go through the stages and at the end each character has their own conclusion. If you were hoping for a story mode like the one in Mortal Kombat then you'll be disappointed, although there is an overarching story you'll discover through cutscenes. Overall we found the old-school approach refreshing. Each team has their own story and some are connected to the overarching narrative, and when you go through with each team you'll unlock their respective endings. These play out in a manga style, but we'd have liked them to reflect the in-game art style more closely and overall we think they could have been better. The bosses aren't that difficult and the final boss (whose name we won't mention) is easy compared to Saiki and Evil Ash in KOFXIII.
Aside from the story there are other ways to play including Trial, Time Attack, Survival, Versus, Training, Tutorial and Online. In Trial mode each character has a set number of challenges which are completed by performing the moves displayed onscreen, and the challenge it presents means that it's not one for newcomers to the series. Time Attack, Survival, Training and Versus are self-explanatory. Tutorial teaches you the basic mechanics and even advanced technique, and it's actually pretty good. Online works well and has improved a lot since KOFXIII. We had a number of matches and all were stable and there was no noticeable lag. You can also share replays of your favourite matches and watch livestreams.
Now, finally, let's talk about the most important aspect of the game, the fighting mechanics. One of the features is Max Mode, activated by pressing R1. During Max Mode you can use EX Special Moves which themselves are more powerful than Super Moves. There are really powerful moves called Climax Super Special Moves and they can deal some serious damage to the opponent if performed successfully. There are also Cancels (Super Cancels, Advanced Cancels and Climax Cancels), which are hard to pull off but when done successfully they're rewarding.
The Rush mechanic is performed by pressing square repeatedly. If you have one power gauge or more and perform Rush then your last attack will change from a Special Move to a Super Special Move. If you perform Rush during max mode when you have at least one power gauge, your last attack changes from a Super Special Move to a MAX Super Special Move, and these are very powerful. Rush is a nice addition and will certainly welcome newcomers to the series, but it does feel a bit overpowered, and considering how easy it is to pull off it'll ensure some players rely on it too heavily.
Despite a couple of negatives, King of Fighters XIV is a solid fighting game with some great mechanics and a wealth of content that will keep players busy for hours. There are many teams to complete Story Mode with, a huge and diverse roster each with their own moves, and there's numerous offline modes. There's tons to unlock, with two of the game's characters earned by completing the story mode, and there's a gallery full of treats to discover, which will increase the longevity of the game for dedicated players. Online is great and much improved since the previous instalment. Overall King of Fighters XIV may not be the king of the whole genre, but it's still a decent fighter that longtime fans and newcomers alike will enjoy.