In terms of sheer name recognition, the King of Fighters franchise has always lived in the imposing shadow of the ever-popular Street Fighter. But as of this moment, I'd much rather be playing The King of Fighters 14 than Street Fighter 5. SNK's PS4-exclusive, 2.5D fighting game is a stellar addition to the genre, blending old-school style and smart sensibilities with fresh visuals and a host of new fighters in the massive roster. It's fun, frantic, and remarkably deep, perfect for series beginners and KOF veterans alike. KOF 14 isn't revolutionary, but everything it does, it does so right.
This sequel stays true to the KOF formula: players assemble a team of three fighters to spar in a sequence of consecutive one-on-one duels, sans any tags or assists. If you best understand the feel of a fighting game through Capcom's hits, KOF 14 is akin to Street Fighter's footsies, where spacing and knowing the range of your normals is crucial, mixed with Marvel vs. Capcom's meter management, strings of super attacks, and breakneck speed (to a lesser, more manageable degree). But two particularly crucial mechanics give KOF 14 its own identity: MAX Mode, which spends a bar of super to temporarily enable EX moves and extend combo strings, and Emergency Evasion, which lets any character quickly roll forward or back to bypass fireballs or escape the corner at the risk of being thrown.
The biggest change in KOF 14 is plain to see: the switch from KOF 13's gorgeous hand-drawn sprites to 3D renders fighting on a 2D plane. And while the anime-style visuals won't appeal to the mainstream, I'm happy to say that they've been refined far beyond the plastic-looking, Barbie-doll-esque character models that were a major turn-off for many when the new graphics engine first debuted. Things like lighting and shading have been completely redone to give everyone a softer, more lifelike appearance, and fancy visual effects perfectly mimic old moves that are fast enough to be a blur.
Classic cast members like Kyo, Iori, and Terry Bogard look and move just like you remember, only now with an extra dimension, and the fluid animations complement the fighting's frenetic pace. It's highly unlikely that anyone will be amazed by the visuals, but KOF 14 commits to its unique graphical style with such panache that I've become quite endeared to it. Same goes for every aspect of the presentation, from the varied soundtrack full of hard rock, jazz, and blippy techno to the lovingly old-school (and often hilarious) exclamations of the announcers. I only have a few minor gripes with the new look: compared to the vibrantly shaded fighters, the somewhat muted hues of the backdrops don't pop like previous games, and there are only four costume colors per character, as opposed to KOF 13's wildly diverse palette options.
Speaking of 'wildly diverse', KOF 14's roster is absolutely excellent, boasting a whopping 50 fighters to master and combine as you see fit. Your old favorites like Mai, Kim, and Joe are all here, alongside plenty of creatively designed newcomers that accommodate all kinds of distinct playstyles. Some of my favorite additions include Meitenkun, a perpetually sleepy charge character who flings his pillow as a projectile, King of Dinosaurs, a T-Rex-costumed wrestler, and Sylvie Paula Paula, an electricity-flinging lookalike of real-world J-pop idol Kyary Pamyu Pamyu. The only new character I actively dislike is Xanadu, a bug-eyed, blue-bearded weirdo who can damage opponents by screaming in their faces.
You can play as these largely lovable misfits in a variety of single-player modes, including standards like Time Attack and Survival, or sets of character-specific Trials which are far less intimidating than the finger-torturing combos of KOF 13's challenges. The marquee solo mode is Story, but it's pretty much just a 10-stage Arcade Mode, peppered with a few generalized cutscenes starring the goofy antagonist Antonov (one of two unlockable characters). There are a handful of character-specific exchanges if the right fighters cross paths, and you're rewarded with slideshow endings (packed with SNK references) depending on the team you piloted to victory. It's by no means bad, just basic - especially compared to the branching single-player storyline in KOF 13.
There's no need to be intimidated by the size of the roster, either: KOF 14 smartly implements a mechanic called Rush, which lets you bust out a short automatic combo by mashing Light Punch up close. Rush allows newcomers to pick up any character and do ok while still giving dedicated players the advantage, which feels like the perfect balance of accessibility. KOF 14's four button layout feels great on an arcade stick or gamepad, though I highly recommend using a stick (PS3 or PS4, with a day one patch adding legacy controller support) due to the sometimes tricky motion inputs for certain specials and supers. That said, the animation-based timings for combos feel far more transparent than other contemporary fighters, which goes a long way towards learnability and makes KOF 14 feel more welcoming to players of any level. Meanwhile, experts will be enthralled by the depth of the combo system, where MAX cancels create absurd attack string opportunities for those with highly developed muscle memory, as well as the complex movement mechanics that can completely change your offense based on the angle and height of aggressive jumps.
As with any fighting game, KOF 14 competition is best enjoyed via versus matches in person, but the majority of players will be sharpening their skills online. And fortunately for them, KOF 14's online netcode felt rock-solid during all my matches. The connection speed of both you and your opponent will always be the determining factor of whether or not you'll encounter lag, but the majority of my encounters were smooth, and even fights against people with a one-bar connection were merely sluggish rather than unplayable. A fantastic lobby system makes it easy to arrange (or spectate) friendly matches with strangers, while online warriors can enjoy the challenge of climbing up the Ranked ladder.
Sure, there will be plenty of people who take one look at The King of Fighters 14 and dismiss it for its less-than-perfect visuals. But if you'll pardon the pun, gameplay is king, and KOF 14 delivers some of the most refined one-on-one fighting around. It hits all the right notes with its pacing and mechanics, showcases a wide array of charming characters, and shines with presentation that evokes classic SNK. When it comes to fighting games, KOF 14 is the complete package - which is more than can be said for some other fighters at launch.