Few fighting game series can claim to have such a cross-generational impact and lasting history as King of Fighters, but in recent years developer SNK has struggled to stay on par with its competitors. With 2016’s The King of Fighters XIV suffering from outdated visuals and shaky online matchmaking that even the most polished gameplay would struggle to overcome, the new generation of KoF stumbled out the gate, the new blood it set out to bring in and through which many series stalwarts somewhat dissatisfied. However, sometimes you learn by knocking hard, and SNK has clearly taken the reception of KoF XIV to heart by giving the latest title a pleasing visual revamp, cleaning up the gameplay, adding some extras and making the online combat better. than it ever has been before. While it won’t mop the floor with its opponents, it’s enough to make KoF XV a serious contender again.
The fame of the King of Fighters series is that it introduced the concept of a team-based fighting game. Instead of a single character, in KoF you create a team of three fighters to take on your opponent’s squad. But unlike other well-known 3-on-3 games, such as Marvel vs Capcom 2 and 3 and Dragon Ball FighterZ, there is no tag element. Once a character is in the arena, they will not leave until they are knocked out. This makes team building a crucial part of strategy: the characters you place as point, center point and anchor can drastically influence the course of a match.
Another big part of KoF is its movement. While it’s not quite as free as games like Guilty Gear, KoF still offers a lot of mobility options, such as short invincible dodge rolls and quick jumps, which give it a distinct feel and push the gameplay in a more offensive direction. These move options include a range of normal and special moves unique to each character, along with cast-wide tools such as a guard that cancels evasion/counterattack, recoil attacks, the power-boosting MAX mode, and a newly introduced ‘Shatter Strike’. a unique combination of defensive/offensive counter-attack that can also be used as a combo starter. The controls are smooth and fluid, and learning how to blend movement and attack is a fun and rewarding part of fighting.
But perhaps KoF’s biggest draw is its large selection of cleverly designed and instantly memorable characters. King of Fighters XV doesn’t have the largest playable roster in the series, but it’s still pretty packed, with 39 new and returning cast members out of the box. Each character has a unique look and playstyle that makes them stand out, such as the easy-to-understand gameplay and gritty charms of Fatal Fury veteran and recent Smash Bros. guest Terry Bogard, the sultry suplexes and fast-moving grab attacks of the long-absent Shermie, and the special moves and air strikes of the new rival main character Isla. Even if your favorite didn’t make the roster, there are still plenty of new and old characters to spend time learning and team building.
SNK has also included a number of modes and extras in KoFXV to accompany the sizeable cast. Story Mode is an arcade-style single-player mode where you choose one of 13 preset teams (or create your own) to get through a series of CPU opponents while watching cutscenes and exhibits between matches. The CPU AI is somewhat puzzling – it reads and can provoke superhuman reactions, but also falls victim to some very simple patterns, which can make playing solo a bit frustrating. The cutscenes and endings put in a surprising amount of effort though – the endings, while mostly made up of stills and text, are quite long and feel like a good reward for your effort. Longtime KoF and SNK fans will get a kick out of certain team endings, which are full of references and cameos and sometimes land in some really silly territory. There are also some secret endings and soundtracks in DJ Station mode that can be unlocked by using specific player-created teams. The concept is interesting, but the game deliberately obscures which character combinations are needed for unlocks, forcing you to play a guessing game to get everything.
Versus mode lets you fight another player or CPU opponent in standard 3-vs-3 or single-character battles, while a new Draft VS mode prevents competitors from selecting one of the same characters as their opponent. Online modes include ranked, casual and lobby competitions, as well as match sharing and an online training mode to practice technology with a friend. Mission mode teaches you combos ranging from easy to advanced (without getting as demanding as previous KoF combo trials), and an adequate tutorial mode exists to teach you the basics of moving and attacking – although it you don’t really learn much about the skills to use in the context of a real battle. There are also some small but thoughtful extras, such as the ability to adjust the contrast between the background and the characters to make the fighters easier to see against a busy background.
Perhaps the biggest selling point for competitive players, however, is the online rollback. Many of SNK’s previous titles, such as KoF XIV and Samurai Shodown, suffered from netcode that was decent at best, but got very messy very quickly if something wasn’t optimal on either player’s side. While rollback netcode can’t solve every connectivity problem, it goes a long way in making the online experience better and more playable for a wider audience. KoF XV runs very well online, with matches both in neighboring countries and abroad feeling smoother and more enjoyable than any new KoF has ever been on initial release.
KoFXV is undeniably a solid package and offers a lot of character variety and gameplay modes for your money. Perhaps the biggest downer is that there’s nothing particularly new or revolutionary about the combat itself. KoFXV’s combat builds largely on the foundation King of Fighters XIV has established, with some tweaks to how EX moves and MAX mode work, sharpening the move properties, rebalancing, and rearranging the roster a bit. The few new mechanics like Shatter Strike – at least at this very early stage of the game’s life – haven’t changed much about the game. Even the addition of online rollback seems less of a revolutionary step forward than SNK catching up to the standards that fighting game players expect. For a game whose tagline is “shatter all expectations”, KoF XV generally feels like it’s simple meeting expectations instead of surpass them.
But most King of Fighters veterans and newbies looking for a new title to dive into probably won’t care that KoF XV doesn’t shake up the fighting game paradigm. It delivers punches that overflow with a unique style and personality unlike other fighting game series, which is more than enough to satisfy many players. The King is back and personally I’m happy to see SNK swinging strong again.