I’ve been playing beat em ups, fighters, brawlers, whatever you call them, for the best part of my entire life. It may have only taken until the release of Tekken 2 for the genre to really change my life, but I take pride in claiming to have played every fighting franchise going … or at least I thought so anyway. Sheepishly lurking in the shadows somewhere between Street Fighter & Dead or Alive has been The King of Fighters series, a series I had never heard of never mind realising that there had been 13 of them previously. Most beat em ups follow the same kind of formula, mash a few buttons and hope for the best, however here this isn’t the case, as it seems that learning what to do and how to actually play it will grant you success quicker than thrashing your controller around like a panda.
The King of Fighters XIV is the latest and no doubt surprising 14th entry in the classic franchise that debuted in 1994 by the hands of SNK. Continuing the tales of each of its challenges, this newest instalment once again follows a large roster of hopefuls as they try to beat the legendary competition and be crowned, I guess, The King of Fighters. Featuring the largest cast of characters to date, KOFXIV has dropped the 2D hand drawn look and reverted back to using 3D character models with a 2D backdrop, similarly to what Street Fighter has evolved into. Players will select a team of 3 combatants to tackle each stage with new and returning ability features will arm you with all you need to tackle the game’s final bosses. Having not played this franchise before, it will be interesting how it stacks up against my favourite fighters, and more to the point, how much more difficult it is, as from the off I could tell I couldn’t just wing it.
Fans of the franchise will be aware of how KOF works, and for those unfamiliar with it like me, will struggle to adapt to the task at hand without first diving into the game’s hugely helpful tutorial. Unlike the likes of Tekken, which gives each fighter umpteen thousand different combos and moves to accidentally pull off, each character here only has a small number they can perform unless they fill up the Max Mode Gauge. Executing said gauge will open up a new tier of special abilities to activate, filling up a 2nd bar will allow you to use a more powerful alternative, and storing up a 3rd will give you the opportunity to unleash a … ahem “Climax Super Special Move”, which will tend to completely decimate your opponent in one fell swoop. Each of these abilities is rather difficult to remember never mind perform unless you’re a seasoned pro, not to mention pulling off a Cancel Climax Super Special Move which with every attempt forms another blister on my left thumb. The gameplay of KOFXIV is one that is very difficult to get used to meaning it’s not the easiest fighting game to enjoy, unless you put the time into learning how to play it effectively, which to be honest is how a game should be played, but unless you were participating in world championships is it really what you want to do with a beat em up? There are nicely a few beginner shortcuts to help newcomers get into the game a tad easier, so at least they give pity to those less skilful.
Once I began to understand the mechanics behind this title I was eventually able to start enjoying it, and with such a big roster to choose from there will be at least half a dozen characters you develop tekkers with. From fast paced franchise favourites such as Kyo and Benimaru, to new powerhouses like a wrestler who dresses up as a dinosaur (aptly named King Of Dinosaurs), with such a large cast available it’s genuinely amazing to find that every one of them can fight, control and win differently, meaning you’ll easily find a few you like and perform better with, even with half an understanding of how they work. Newly added to this latest entry is the switch from hand drawn 2D models to entirely 3D rendered fighters, which though isn’t as lush as the gorgeous characters of old, it does show a look to the future, an advancement for the series, which is more refreshing than seeing a franchise stay safe and stick with the familiar.
The game’s story mode isn’t anything special, or anything particularly exciting as it’s really just an arcade mode with a couple of cut-scenes thrown in for good measure. The tale begins with KOF champion Antonov starting the competition off, followed by 4 rounds, followed by a random cinematic and tease for something demonic, followed by a further 4 rounds and rounded off with a fight against Antonov and the random unexplained appearance by demon entity Verse…emotional stuff I’m sure you’ll agree. To be honest, arcade games shouldn’t’ be overcomplicated by intricate storylines, but when you’re used to playing the likes of Mortal Kombat, you expect at least a little flesh on the bone; sometimes interactions between certain characters will play before a fight to add a little depth into the roster, but unless you’re familiar with everyone on it it’ll fly right over your head. Nevertheless, it’s a challenging and enjoyable mode that’ll test all your ability and patience, which is exactly what you want from a fighting game, so though it lacks in narrative it certainly does the job it’s set out to do.
King Of Fighters XIV is a difficult game to master, but an easy game to enjoy once you get the hang of it. Its large and impressive roster is one of the best and most varied I’ve encountered with each of them hugely unique to one another, making it hard to find one that you genuinely don’t have fun playing with. The title’s story mode is really just an arcade mode with a couple of throwaway cutscenes here and there, but what it lacks in narrative is more than made up by being a very challenging and addictive experience. In all honesty, it’s not a series I would consider following into the future, I’ll stick with my OTT button mashers with perplexing plots thank you, but if you are looking for an arcade fighting game the way they should be, you’ll be hard pushed to find a better one than this.