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Review: The King of Fighters XV

11 Feb 2022
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The King of Fighters is a series long-beloved by fighting game fans. It’s consistently sported a colorful cast of memorable characters, flashy specials as satisfying to watch as they are to input successfully, and a high level of overall speed that sets itself apart not just from other team fighters, but the fighting game genre at large.

Coming nearly six years after King of Fighters XIV stumbled through the noticeable growing pains inherent in the switch from 2D to 3D graphics, King of Fighters XV stands as proof that the series is starting to come into its stride after making the leap into the third dimension.

Developed by SNK and published by Koch Media, the title is set to release on February 17th, 2022 for PlayStation 4/5, Xbox Series X/S, and PC, with the PS5 version being played for this review.

Well and Truly Versed

As the third game in the Shun’ei Saga story arc (which started with the fourteenth entry and also includes the events of SNK Heroines Tag Team Frenzy), King of Fighters XV picks up an indeterminable amount of time after the defeat of Verse at the end of XIV. The titular King of Fighters tournament is once again underway with the backing of a new sponsor, and all 39 characters have formed 13 teams of three to get in on the action.

In full honesty, it’s hard to imagine many people dropping full price on this game exclusively for the story elements. Even among fighting games as a whole, the amount of narrative content on offer here in the Story Mode (which has a lot more in common with an Arcade Mode) is on the sparser side, though that’s not to say it’s lacking in enjoyability or an ignorable aspect of the experience.

Even if the gameplay is what you’re probably there for, King of Fighters XV offers a plethora of specific character interactions between battles that reference the events of past games, and the individual team cutscenes do a lot to advance the larger storyline by priming character arcs for the next entry. It’s exactly what you would expect from a KOF title, which is a drawback only in the sense that these are great characters, and it would be equally great to see more of them than we get to.

MAX Fun

The heart of King of Fighters XV is in forming a team of your three favorite characters and taking a deep-dive into their toolkits. This has been something true of the series since the first release in 1994, and there’s no getting around the fact that it takes a considerable amount of time and experience to get your head around the ins and outs of the game. There are a lot of universal mechanics on top of individual character normals and special moves, and to top it all off, you have to remember which tools are at your disposal for three separate characters in the middle of a match. Thankfully, as long as you vibe with the aesthetic of King of Fighters’ character design, it’s easy to find three that’ll appeal to you.

As mentioned earlier, the bouts in King of Fighters XV play out at a much faster pace than is typically the case in 2D fighting games, owing in large part to the amount of defensive abilities the entire roster has access too. When every character has access to an invincible-on-startup dodge roll and four separate ways to jump, it creates a neutral game that requires you to stay constantly alert in tracking your opponent’s attempts to stifle your game plan.

It’s a tall order if you’re not already familiar with the series, but therein lies the beauty of the complexity. You can really feel yourself getting better at King of Fighters XV. Every match gives you new information to take back into the training mode, whether it’s a new situation to better your defense with or experimenting to see if you can squeeze out just a little bit more damage from your go-to combo. There’s always something to get better at; the skill floor is low enough to have fun while the ceiling remains high.

The game is similar in feel to its predecessor—the controls are still just as demanding of accuracy in inputs and the movement feels just as tight—but that doesn’t mean it’s the same game by any stretch. There’s been noticeable refinement to the mechanics here, particularly with regard to resource/meter management. As you fight, you build towards both a Super Meter and a MAX Mode meter. The former is consumed by super moves or EX attacks (powered up versions of special moves) while the latter can be activated to enter a stance that increases your damage output (or allows you to extend your combo without the damage buff, if you activate it in the middle of one).

Unlike the previous title, KOFXV allows you to execute EX attacks by spending half a bar of Super Meter without requiring you to be in MAX mode first. With how many options EX attacks offer, having access to them at any given time has greatly increased the number of offensive choices the player has at their disposal. Also tying into the Super Meter is the new Shatter Strike mechanic, which can automatically crumple an opponent for even longer combos at the cost of a single bar. Coupling these changes with the two very different uses for MAX Mode has lifted a lot of the barriers in decision making, paving the way for more situational flexibility.

Perhaps the greatest improvement of all, though, is the implementation of rollback netcode for online matches. It’s become something of a standard in fighting games for how greatly it improves online play for even distant connections, and all of my matches felt incredibly smooth. This addition alone will make it a lot easier to get stuck into the grind of online matches.

There are a few other bits of side content worthy of note, like the DJ Station. This allows you to play songs not just from King of Fighters XV, but the entire mainline series in totality, with specific tracks unlocking after completing Story Mode with certain characters. There’s also a Mission Mode for every character that has a series of five increasingly difficult combos to practice, but especially great is the inclusion of an online Training Mode. It’s great to be able to duke it out and practice with a friend without having to worry about resetting the match over and over again.

All of the above is to say that KOFXV more than meets the standards held for it as the next mainline entry to the series. It advances the formula while staying true to its roots, carving out and cementing its niche.

King of Visual Upgrades

It’s easy to see that King of Fighters XV has developed a style representative of confidence in visual fidelity that simply wasn’t there in XIV. While a lot of the models of returnees are carryovers from that game, the cel-shading and improved lighting cause comparison of the two to feel like comparing night and day. The animations are smooth, the particle effects are explosively well-defined, and the crisp heft of the sound design brings it all together.

The characters might benefit from the graphical leap the most, but the stages are no slouches either. They each offer a ton of variety and are fun to look at without distracting from the action itself. My own personal standouts are the Sahara stage (featuring a bunch of references to Metal Slug) and the Beach Resort stage with its cutesy tourist trap setting. And speaking of avoiding distraction from the fighting, the UI is clean and expresses everything you need to know at a glance, though I wish the main menu was a little more interesting.

On the auditory front, King of Fighters XV features what is, earnestly, one of the best fighting game soundtracks I’ve ever had the pleasure of listening to. Varied and catchy, there isn’t a single lackluster track in the whole lot, including the unabashedly cheesy main theme. The last thing I was expecting to hear when I booted up the game was mid-2000s alt rock vocals over djent-metal guitar riffing, but I was immediately boarding the hype train all the same.

Shatter All Expectations

With the release of King of Fighters XV, SNK has done what they always do with the King of Fighters series of late: provided a complex, difficult, engaging, and satisfying team fighter. It offers incredible levels of depth to those who really delve into its systems, but vitally presents them in a way that’s still approachable, even if it’s not quite as approachable as the latest entries of its contemporaries.

It may be more initially intimidating to genre newcomers than, say, Guilty Gear Strive or Dragon Ball FighterZ, but being fun to pick up yet challenging to master is the hallmark of any great fighting game. It’s part of the appeal, even, and when you take the consistently deep gameplay of KOF and combine it with greatly improved graphical presentation, solid rollback netcode, and mechanical changes that allow for more player freedom, you get something that truly does “shatter all expectations” as the tagline implies.


~ Final Score: 9/10 ~


Review copy provided by Koch Media for PS5. Screenshots taken by reviewer. Featured image courtesy of Koch Media.