The King of Fighters XV is a 3-on-3 fighting game from SNK that stars characters from several past SNK fighting games. It’s been six years since the series’s last release and 16 years since I last played one seriously, so I’ll mainly be looking to gauge how inviting the 15th installment in this long-running franchise is to new or returning players.

KOF boasts a roster of 39 fighters, with returning fan favorites like Mai Shiranui and Terry Bogard, but two new fighters, Isla and Dolores, feature heavily in the game’s plot. The King of Fighters XV plotline is absurdly complicated even by fighting game standards, and not even binging an hour and a half of lore videos ultimately helped. Story mode has three cutscenes that play at the start, middle, and end of a gauntlet of matches, but your team composition might trigger a few additional scenes starring those characters. However, there’s just not enough context for what’s happening in those paltry few cutscenes, and you’ll only unlock story ending videos by selecting canonical teams to finish the mode. These endings are more like traditional fighting game endings and clue you in to what those characters plan to do next. Some are funny, but many of them are just boring.

Luckily the actual fighting is easy to pick up; as a 4-button fighter, all characters have access to light and heavy punches and kicks. Super moves tend to have variations based on which level attack is used. For example, fireballs move slower with light punch than they do with heavy punch, or the angle or distance of some moves will change. There’s also a universal auto combo called a “Rush.” Mashing weak punch four times will end a combo string with the strongest super move you can muster, and choosing a different ending attack allows you to use a corresponding lower level super instead. Max Mode allows you to consume your super meter for increased attack power, and each of your super moves can be canceled into higher-level ones if you have enough meter to burn. Even basic attacks can be canceled into others using Max Mode mid-combo, opening up a lot of options for players who want to dig deep. SNK’s fighting system is as solid as ever.

The tutorials get you up to speed on the basics, but Mission mode offers additional help. Missions are essentially just character-specific tutorials that give you combo strings to practice on your own. I love this extra assistance as a novice wanting to get better, but the presentation is dry and unhelpful. You’re given a list of the inputs on screen but not given advice for how and when to best perform them. The input timing is also incredibly strict. I failed to get a basic 3-move combo to read as successful by the game’s standards despite hitting it multiple times on the character. Even after successfully landing one of the more complicated strings demoed, I felt no more confident in my ability to pull it off in a match.

Since online servers were not live at the time of this review, I couldn’t test their functionality, but  ranked, casual, and room lobbies exist as well as online training. And rollback netcode will be implemented at launch, so hopefully there will be no issues on that front.

The King of Fighters XV is only the second game in the mainline series to use 3D models instead of 2D sprites, and while the cartoonish filters on the characters are an improvement over the lifeless ones in XIV, I feel like it still loses a lot of its personality as a result of the shift. The characters are either forgettably plain or laughably garish, but at least the sounds and effects of their flashy combos and super moves leave a lasting impression.

The King of Fighters XV feels like it wants to appeal to a new audience but really only knows how to make the hardcore happy. It’s not outright hostile to newcomers, but if you’re not a returning veteran of the series, there are likely friendlier options out there. The game is out February 17 for $59.99 on PC, PlayStation, 4 PlayStation 5, and Xbox Series X | S.

Watch the Review in 3 Minutes for The King of Fighters XV.

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