For many, King of Fighters XIII was certainly one of the series’ high points and, although King of Fighters XIV doesn’t quite hit the highs of its predecessor, it is still a complex and rewarding fighter and another solid entry in SNK’s long running fightfest.

For those of you unfamiliar with King of Fighters, let me take you through the basics: players construct a team of three fighters, and then choose which order they will appear and fight with each character until they have run out of health (there is no tagging like in Marvel vs Capcom or Tekken Tag). Last team standing wins.

To the uninitiated, it might be easy to think that King of Fighters is a simple Street Fighter clone (there is in fact a fighter called Ryo, who is a spoof of Ryu, who in turn inspired Street Fighter’s own Dan). The 2.5D fighter is in many ways a much more complex brawler with just as much focus on out maneuvering your opponent as there is on dominating with powerful attacks.

As well as walking, players can dash, back step, and roll, used to dodge projectile attacks and the key to victory in many matches. There’s also two types of jump, and rather than being able to hold back and guard until you find an opening, there is a guard meter. Once this is depleted players will find themselves wide open to more powerful attacks.

There are also several kinds of supers, counters, and the ability to parry throws. It also manages all this with only four attack buttons, 2x punch and kick, compared to Street Fighter’s six. The bonus of this is that it’s very easy to create complex combos on the face buttons while the shoulder buttons are left free for macros, making those supers and charged moves easier to perform.

Sound like a lot to take in? Don’t worry about it too much. While the game is installing on your PS4 you can go through King of Fighters XIV‘s fairly comprehensive tutorial which takes you through the basics of the game’s various systems and lets you practice some of its more complicated commands. The Climax Cancel super move took me a while to pull off.

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Once you’ve got the basics down, it’s time to launch yourself into the game proper. While it has much more to do than Street Fighter V did at launch — with several single player modes including survival, time trial, and challenges, as well as both online and local versus modes — unfortunately, story mode has been pared down significantly compared to the multi-path odyssey found in KOF XIII. Instead, story mode in KOF XIV is merely a ten match arcade mode with the occasional cut scene thrown in that culminates with a battle against KOF’s goofy boss Antonov (who also teaches you the basics in Tutorial mode). Then the real final boss, who, as you would expect, is a cheap bastard, but despite his penchant for kicking you while you’re down, he is by no means unbeatable. This is a nice change of pace considering most fighters are content to have final boss fights that aren’t so much “tough but fair,” but are an exercise in controller-snapping vexation.

King of Fighters XIV also boasts a humongous roster of 50 playable characters for you to master. The diverse cast features all manner of misfits and distinct playstyles, including old favorites like trucker hat-enthusiast Terry, KOF’s voluptuous answer to Chun Li and diminutive Freddy Kruger impersonator Cho. There’s also a whole truckload of bonkers new additions too, like the hulking wrestler known only as the King of Dinosaurs and the absolutely batshit Xanadu, whose bug eyes, sky blue beard, and combination of wild flailing and ability to hurt opponents by screaming at them has rapidly made him one of my new favorites.

To accommodate the new players and make the roster a little bit easier to handle, King of Fighters introduces a new mechanic called Rush. This allows you to perform a fairly decent combo by mashing LP once you get up close to your opponent and has a single bar of special meter. This helps you to see the benefits of the new characters and break in newcomers by making that button mashing actually do something useful, while providing long time players with another tactic to add to their arsenal. It also adds an element of accessibility to a series which has always felt like the more complex cousin of Street Fighter.  That being said, King of Fighters XIV’s learning curve feels just right; if you’re used to Street Fighter‘s quarter circle inputs you’ll feel right at home. While its animation based timings for combos, and interconnected systems mean that there is a deep and rewarding fighter there for those that want to put in the time to learn its finer points.

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Eventually, you’ll want to test your skills against another player. While ultimately playing against other people locally is always going to be the best way to experience any fighting game, King of Fighters XIV’s online multiplayer is a pretty decent alternative. Featuring both ranked and free play in both 1v1 and 3v3, the game’s simple to navigate lobbies will have you watching and whaling on the competition in no time. It also performs admirably and a hell of a lot better than KOF XIII did. The netcode felt rock solid during the few fights I played online and went smoothly even against opponents which, according to the game at least, had a fairly shaky connection.

The only thing that King of Fighters XIV has working against it are its 2.5D visuals. Though they’re not ugly by any stretch of the imagination, they’re bright. The characters look distinctive and the backgrounds are pretty without being too distracting. Taking the Street Fighter route feels like a step in the wrong direction after the stunning hand drawn sprites and detailed backgrounds of King of Fighters XIII (though they do still have a certain whacky charm to them).

Its more bog-standard visuals aside, King of Fighters XIV is an incredibly refined fighter with rock solid mechanics, excellent pacing, and a superb roster of charming characters that are as diverse as they are absolutely bonkers, from series mainstays that feel more traditional in tone to some completely left-field newcomers. There is bound to be a character to suit your particular playstyle. Hell, you’ll be hard pressed to only find three. The presentation feels like classic SNK brought up-to-date. If you’re looking for a serious fighter to get into, King of Fighters XIV is the complete package, which, sadly, can’t be said of a lot of other fighters lately.

King of Fighters XIV was reviewed on PS4 with a copy provided by the developer.

Developer: SNK | Publisher: Atlus/Deep Silver | Genre: Fighting Game | Platform: PS4 | PEGI/ESRB: 12+/T | Release Date: August 23, 2016

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