What *is* a Wheaties shell?
Finally, SNK has risen from the pachinko mines and bestowed a new, full game onto the weary masses. The King of Fighters XIV is the XIVth game in the franchise, and you’d expect quality not only because it’s SNK, but because these games have had twenty-two years to improve on their formula. King of Fighters has always been a nuanced, advanced fighting game, and the XIVth installment continues that trend for better or for worse.
First and foremost, the fighting in KoFXIV is stellar. Every character has a rich moveset, which is shocking considering the 50-character sized roster. Returning favorites including tough as nails Iori or fan-favorite Mai feel fresh, and new characters such as the Kyary inspired Sylvie or Terry’s biggest fan Alice fit right into the mold. I had no trouble getting a few Burning Knuckles off as Mr. Bogard, but things got a bit hairy when I went deeper into the roster. There are some characters with really bizarre inputs in this game, like quarter-circle back to quarter-circle forward and other frustrating swings of the stick. It’s frustrating to see neat mechanics buried under movements that made my wrist groan in frustration and confusion, making it nigh impossible to pull off without far more practice than should be necessary.
What’s especially confusing is how “accessible” the game is pushed to be. Atlus and SNK claimed multiple times the game would be welcoming to newcomers, but I found the game lacking in that regard. There’s a “rush combo,” which gives you a short chain of moves into a super, a la Persona 4 Arena or Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure: All Star Battle. Instead of feeling like a crutch you’ll eventually discard like in those games, KoF feels as if it wants newbies to base all of their initial tactics on fishing for this combo. There is a fairly robust tutorial, sure, but the trials, which usually run players through a gauntlet of special moves before linking them together and easing you into combos, skip immediately into the latter half. KoFXIV throws you into the deep end just after removing your water wings, which will prove frustrating if this is your first real bout.
At least the game launched with a variety of modes- take that Street Fighter V! Story Mode is incredibly run of the mill, but the ending scenes you get for each team are cute. It’s great to see the interactions between certain characters, too. Terry knows King of Dinosaurs is just Tizoc from Garou, Geese’s new butler has a friendly rivalry with Billy Kane, and what in the world is up with Xanadu? You get glimpses of the character’s personalities as you go, but an actual story with full cutscenes might’ve been more fun. There’s also time trial and survival modes, which speak for themselves.
On a more positive note, online capabilities are where KoFXIV shines. The netcode of previous games in the franchise was infamously horrid, but the new game has a solid connection and didn’t dip at all in the few matches I played. Lobbies have mini-rooms within them, so you can constantly match up with someone else and spectate a variety of games from one room. Perhaps the best addition is Party Mode, which takes KoF’s team based combat and takes it to the next level. Instead of two players cycling through three characters, six players are split into two teams and take turns playing. Getting matched up with experts will make you feel great as you sit back and watch them smite your foes, and the sweet sting of defeat will course through your bones when you whiff your chance to clinch a victory in the final round. There’s nothing else like it.
If you miss SNK’s sprites, KoFXIV won’t change your tune. A few colorful moments in the story mode are gorgeous, but the 3D models can be a bit stiff and lifeless. This is only punctuated by the art you’re constantly unlocking after every match. The in-game gallery is loaded with classic King of Fighters artwork, a reminder of the old days we’ve left behind. The stages, meanwhile, all look fantastic, and it helps that the songs playing on said stages are all bangers.
The King of Fighters XIV is an unwelcoming game initially, but if you’re willing to plug along or have hundreds of hours in the series prior, you’ll quickly find a lot to love. Rich combat mechanics are encased in the shell of this game, you just need to pry it open a bit to get the delicious filling within. This is a game for more serious fighters, so if you’re ready to put the work in, there’s a lot to KoFXIV. Just don’t expect something you can invite your friends over to play a few rounds in.