An intentional foresight or otherwise, you can’t deny the arrival of a new King of Fighters title poses an intriguing state of affairs. In the wake of Street Fighter V’s mixed reaction and debate over its launch content, of which Capcom are at least trying to rectify (albeit with drip-fed additions here and there), developers SNK are hot on their fellow countrymen’s heels with what is arguably the company’s most renowned and popular franchise. Though, for the record, I’ve always been more a Metal Slug type person. The series has been on a bit of a hiatus as of late; for a series that had previously run an annual chain all the way back to its original title in 1993, The King of Fighters has been away from public view for the past six years – the series thirteenth installment in 2010 on the PS3 marking the last time players experienced the series’ staple three-on-three, sprite-based 2D brawler. And in the latter case, this really will mean the last time.
XIV marks the series’ full transition to in-game 3D animation modelling complete with an overhaul in its general presentation, both in gameplay and in interface. Gone are the bustling sprite-filled backgrounds and hand-drawn visuals that continually harkened back to the forth-gen days. In its place, XIV follows in the same suit as Street Fighter with its fusing of a vibrant palette of colour, fluid animations and parallax-swerving backgrounds that aim to add a considerable amount of depth to the game’s stages. Of course, very few stop to gawk at a fighting game’s settings and (admittedly varied) aesthetics of fantasy, contemporary and often surreal environments – no matter how lush. But it’s pleasing to find SNK have not sacrificed mechanical control simply for an upgrade in visuals. XIV handles in much the same fashion as its last outing with attack patterns and frames delivering near-precise a flow as sprite-based combat has showcased. Aesthetic touches in several of the game’s fifty-strong roster also receive a notable upgrade with slashes, energy blasts and general visual effects moving away from the flat-if-flashy style of previous.
It’d be foolish to assume this will be an easy, or perhaps favorited, move away from an established art direction. I won’t doubt the most intuitive and hawk-eyed of fans will be able to pick apart the game’s handling from the most subatomic of components, but the benefit in its interface and design principle greatly outweighs any concerns fans might, rightly, raise. XIV certainly upholds the principle of being both engaging and manic, but its slick and more contemporary overhaul doesn’t overcomplicate or even degrade what is still a very emergent genre. So while the game’s menu screens might go along with the tile-based ‘large boxes; sleek font’ concept many Western developers have eagerly taken to, there’s still ample amounts of flair and, it has to be said, light-hearted playfulness in its core, over-the-top gameplay. And for those most dedicated of fans, there is still plenty to get your teeth stuck into with its overhauled Max combo system.
But for newcomers – those of us who perhaps aren’t as clued-up on such matters as frame-times – XIV introduces a simplified combo system and a more intriguing, in my opinion, yet beneficial component with its Online Tutorial mode. While tutorials are nothing new in competitive fighters, seeing this evolve and expand into more communicative means signals SNK’s awareness, and smart thinking, in adding further accessibility without damaging the appeal long-time fans will dedicate themselves to. Of course, all of this will be determined ultimately by volume, co-operation and the general attitude fans have towards something as logically and philanthropically-simple as “helping one another out”, but the fact SNK have gone out of their way to implement this – alongside a simpler combo input mode for fellow newcomers – with no guarantee it’ll even be used, seems far more welcoming and inviting than consolidating your focus to the pure tournament-mad competitive folks.
How about that: giving players the choice to decide which modes they prefer, instead of simply cutting them altogether. Not pointing any fingers, but you probably know who/what I’m referring to. But on a purely online-focused front, XIV introduces a new co-operative angle to its 3v3 combat where players are confined to a particular first/second/third position and the stakes on giving it your all for the team, becomes a lot more crucial. Crucial if you want to avoid the inevitable post-match arguments on why you failed to miss that dodge and so on.
The King of Fighters has always been a series that aims to certify its audaciously loaded premise with content that aims to both justify and please what is an exceedingly wide parameter of tastes and preferences in a genre of this caliber. And be this through its considerably high roster count (all of which, the developer states, will be accessible from the get-go and are a mixture of series-spanning, fan-pleasing returns…and newcomers alike), its dedication to the series’ focus on a story mode – of which will follow a new tale/arc it’s been confirmed – and…as we see here…still leaving the door open to those brave enough to venture into SNK’s realm for the first time. We’ll have to see what level of impact The King of Fighters XIV will have when it launches in both North America & Japan – us Europeans may be destined to importing barring a late confirmation for this particular territory – on August 23 and 25 respectively, both from an established series stand-point as well as from a collective genre perspective in general.