So here we are, a little over a solid week into KOF XIV's (actual) release. By the way, this month's title is simply a nod to any fellow Tolkien fans out there. Nothing more, nothing less...
This isn't going to be a review of the game. By now, I feel that enough people -- most of whom outrank me on any number of levels in society & the FGC -- have already given their proverbial two cents on the matter. More power to them. No, I won't be attributing any numerical values today. What I'd like to do is, frankly, talk to you about the experience of this game from the perspective (see what I did there?) of a longtime fan of the series. Also, just a heads-up, I've never been one for the blatant, overt fanboy gushing. Whenever I do that in my writing, it's usually for comedic effect or quick emphasis to a point.
First & foremost, I need to express the skepticism I had towards this game when it was first announced. I'm not going to lie, XIII cast a pretty deep shadow. No matter how you slice it, that was going to be a tough act to follow. From both a stylistic & narrative standpoint, KOF XIII was something of a masterstroke. In terms of visuals, seeing each character so lovingly reimagined took my breath away. You see, with the later exception of Mark of the Wolves, SNK had a reputation for "sticking to its guns" when it came to sprite design. The images during gameplay almost always harkened back to the arcade feel. Sure, they would be some polishing up or expansion here & there, but it was always that very rigid 2D approach. That's not to say that it never worked -- seriously, look at Last Blade 2 -- but it was a highly visible weakness. Then here comes KOF XIII and it just blows everything out of the water. You can tell that every single character design was broken down & rebuilt from the ground up.
Now imagine that the followup to that game... was to be rendered in 3D. People were almost immediately having unpleasant flashbacks of Maximum Impact. (For the record, I actually had a lot of fun with KOF:MI2. Sucks that the storyline was never resolved, though.) Needless to say, the fans were very worried & justifiably so. The idea that a company would take its next step after such an opus in the perceived wrong direction was unnerving. However, in all of our fervor -- yes, I say "our" because I was also freaking out a bit -- we overlooked something. Something vital. It was that simple sentence in the bottom left hand section of the screen during each of the trailers: "All in-game footage displayed is work in progress." Gamers in general do not give that disclaimer enough credit. We collectively have a bad habit of taking the wrong things at face value & running with whatever ideas they represent. Mind you, the industry itself is just as much to blame here as we are, what with all the shenanigans & tomfoolery that go into promising one thing and then turning around to give us something almost entirely different. I call it the 'My My, Hey Hey' Syndrome: "They give you this, but you paid for that."
With all that being said, the more & more I saw of the game, the more & more my concerns were silenced. As embarrassing as it is to admit, I lost myself for a bit in all that worry. For as long as I can remember, SNK's games have always prioritized mechanics over aesthetic. They have made some beautiful games, but all those titles relied on their fighting engines to bring home the bacon. Innovation took precedent over presentation. That can be a troublesome MO, but they made it work for a remarkably long time. This latest installment isn't any different. Yes, the graphics & character models have all been rendered to fit into this new dimension, but that doesn't mean they play any less efficiently than before. To loosely paraphrase a man far more recognizable than myself who recently had some fun with KOF XIV: "Graphics are only meant to entice & engage you for that first hour or so". After that, it's up to the core mechanics of the game to either make or break the deal that we, as consumers, are looking for in a purchase.
Which brings me to the demo. As someone who thoroughly enjoyed, but could never really excel at KOF XIII, I have to say that this time around, the trials & tutorial do a great job of acclimating you to the system... but not necessarily to the game. As I'm sure anyone who has seen me call matches for this game on any of the streams I've been on in the last week or so, you know that I'm a fan of how this game does not bombard you with command inputs while it's trying to show you how to play. The trials & tutorial now are only concerned with introducing you to the game's system. They want you to find your own way because the engine lends itself to modest improvisation over systemic repetition. Personally, I think that's brilliant. Because of this decision, the odds are now in favor of the miraculous comeback instead of the pseudo-infinite combo. However, that's not to say aggressive offense has no place in this game. Nothing could be further from the truth. That's what make this game so enjoyable to watch/commentate for me.
This is what I was referring to when I mentioned the "experience". There are two sides to the coin here, the player returning to the series after XIII or the player being introduced to the series. In both cases, there's something for everybody to enjoy. The veteran has the challenge of discerning which of their skills translates over from the old game to the new game & reestablishing their (various levels of) dominance, while the rookie is given not only the opportunity to develop new skills, but also the tools to do so in the form of the game's engine. Can't lie, this is very refreshing. As someone who has enjoyed this series since he was 10 years old, the payoff of watching it go through its arduous journey -- breaks in schedule, different studios at the helm, name confusion between titles, countless moments of complete uncertainty, etc. -- to see it reach this stage in its history is nothing short of amazing. That, my FGC brothers & sisters, is what sells me on this experience. In a roundabout way, I've gotten to watch one of my oldest friends discover their confidence & then implement it by attempting to take their life in a new direction. If that's not one of the best experiences you can witness with your own eyes, gamer or otherwise, then I don't know what to tell you.
However, if you're among the collection of people that are still too hung up on how it looks to try your hand at the game... that's cool, too, because I damn sure am not going to be the one who tries to belittle you for having that opinion. Besides, there are too many great games out right now to be hung up on something like that. As long as everybody has the ability to play the games they love, that's all that will ever matter to yours truly.
Until next time... keep fighting the good fight, my friends.