The King of Fighters series has built up a lot of momentum since 1994, and King of Fighters XV certainly keeps that going, if nothing else. The latest in SNK’s premiere fighting games plays it safe by focusing on subtly refining the already solid mechanics of 2016’s King of Fighters XIV and bringing the graphics up to a more modern standard, but never really reaches beyond that in an attempt to take the series to the next level. Because of that lack of ambition it won’t do much to grab the attention of those who don’t already have eyes on the series, but for longtime fans this is a reliable return for the king.
As is tradition, KOF XV is primarily a 3v3 fighter (though it can be played 1v1 in casual modes), with the twist of there being no tag or assist mechanics to speak of. Instead, matches play out in a series of 1v1 duels with the winning character staying in play with a persistent health bar until the opposing team’s three characters are all defeated. This means you don’t get the team dynamic and synergies found in tag fighters like Marvel vs Capcom or Dragon Ball FighterZ, but KoF requires you to think strategically in making sure that you craft a well-balanced team from the roster of 39 characters. Since you get more bars of super meter as your team is depleted to two and then one, you have to consider the order in which you place your characters. (Those who can build meter but don’t necessarily need it should go first, while those who excel at dealing massive damage once they’ve got a fully stocked set of five meters should be used as the anchor in the third position.) It’s a great and well-proven formula, and while I’ll personally always prefer to only have to specialize in one character at a time as opposed to three, King of Fighters XV’s team mechanics allow for exciting matchups with great potential for comebacks thanks to its big-damage combos that can essentially delete your opponent’s life bar in a single combo, if you have the resources for it.
What We Said About The King of Fighters XIV
King of Fighters XIV offers an astonishing amount of content, with nearly double the playable characters of most other games available on day one. The fighters themselves are interesting and well designed, both visually and mechanically, and they push limits with an execution ceiling higher than perhaps any other fighting game. King of Fighters XIV’s netcode and technical shortcomings are itis biggest stumbling blocks, but mastering its characters and leveraging what you’ve learned remains satisfying regardless. There are no shortcuts to becoming the new King of Fighters, but the journey to the top is well worth taking. – Darry Huskey, August 24, 2016
Read the full The King of Fighters XIV review
Taking it to the Max
On a fundamental level, KOF XV plays very much like a prettier version of KOF XIV. They’re both four-button fighters with two light attacks and two heavy attacks; both have those tricky hops and super hops that help make approaching from the air hard to react to and awkward to punish; every character in both games can roll to safely move through projectiles and close the distance; and both have those auto-combos that people will be arguing about on Reddit threads, message boards, and social media until the end of time. Auto-combos are actually even more powerful this time around as just mashing light punch from close range will net you a four-hit combo that ends with the most powerful super move your meter can afford. If you have at least three meters stored, that’s a nearly 50% damage combo just for hammering a single button. That sounds dramatic, but even the simplest of combos that incorporate a level 3 super can deal more damage than that, and if you were to use KOF’s trademark system of canceling supers into each other, it’s very easy to leave a button masher in the dust. Still, it’s an awfully high reward for a bad habit, which does more harm than good for players truly looking to get into the series.
Beyond the changes to auto-combos, there are two really big changes that keep KOF XV from feeling like a complete retread. The first is a new universal Shatter Strike that will crumple an opponent when it hits, allowing you to extend a combo. More importantly than that, it’s also a great defensive ability that can absorb hits and simultaneously deal one that will stun your opponent, much like a focus attack from Street Fighter 4. I love this addition because, among other things, it gives every character a really strong anti-air option that reduces the need of remembering specific special moves with anti-air properties. KOF XV is a game where jump-ins are extra effective because of the multiple angles of aerial approach that having both short hops and regular jumps allows for, and giving every character an answer to that problem helps to bring up those who don’t have those built-in anti-air options.
The other substantial change is a revamp of MAX Mode that disappointed me at first, but I’ve come to appreciate it as a worthwhile trade off. MAX Mode still grants you a limited-time buff that increases your damage and lets you use EX specials and super moves without spending actual meter, but it now costs two bars of meter instead of one, which means it’s much more expensive to convert damage off of pokes in the neutral and really requires you to get in close if you want that bigtime damage. Not only that, but canceling an attack into MAX Mode now triggers a shorter version of the buff called MAX Mode (Quick) that has a much smaller meter and doesn’t offer the same damage buff that regular MAX Mode does. To compensate for this, EX Special moves can now be performed outside of MAX Mode and only cost a half a bar of meter, which greatly expands every character’s options when it comes to getting in and starting their offense.
A Royal Invitation
Even though 39 is fewer than the number of characters that KOF XIV launched with, KOF XV’s roster is still a very impressive number relative to most fighting games right out of the gate. Newcomers to the series include Dolores, a psychic who looks like she was plucked straight from Bayonetta and uses sacred dirt to attack her foes; Isla, a stylish young girl who fights with phantom hands that allow her to attack from mid range and use some really tricky crossups when she rides them towards her opponents; and Krohnen who – let’s just be real – is basically Tetsuou from Akira.
Apart from those three, who are brand new, Shermie and Elisabeth make their return to the roster [Correction: Chris, Ash, Yashiro and Shizuru also make their return to the roster]. Elisabeth was in KOF XIII and only returns after taking just one game off, but Shermie makes her first return to the mainline franchise since 2002. The other 34 30 have basically been plucked from KOF XIV wholesale, with very little changes outside of better-looking character models. A handful of characters have gotten new level 3 Climax Super Moves, but many others have all of their animations ripped directly from KOF XIV, and that’s kind of disappointing, because even though the new models do look great, they’re just a fresh coat of paint on animations that are now six years old.
Hitting Where It Matters Most
While King of Fighters XV is certainly a modern-looking KOF game, it still feels left woefully in the past when it comes to its modes. Its tutorial does the bare minimum of teaching you its mechanics without going any further into conveying when or why you should use things like a MAX Mode (Quick) cancel; its story mode is the same archaic style of arcade mode that just has you fighting a series of uncontextualized battles that culminate in a unfairly balanced boss final boss fight, with the only reward being an unvoiced ending cinematic with static pictures and text boxes; and its mission mode offers only five combos per character. As far as single-player content goes, that’s all there is to it. With games like Mortal Kombat 11, Guilty Gear Strive, and even fighters on the indie scene like Them’s Fightin’ Herds all raising the bar both in terms of how they introduce new players to their mechanics and their single-player story modes, King of Fighters XV feels utterly bare bones by comparison
Fortunately, it makes it up in the area that matters the most to fighting game communities: excellent online fighting. Its rollback netcode is fantastic; it’s super easy to set up a private lobby with queues, spectators, and customizable rules; there’s an online training space where you can practice with a friend; you can search replays by character to study up on a match up; and there are both ranked and casual playlists for matchmaking. Of course, this is going off of my pre-launch experience playing against other journalists and content creators, but even in matches against people who were across the country, outside of a small handful of exceptions that weren’t even that bad, performance has been consistently smooth.