I don’t think it’s a stretch to say we’re going through a second golden age for fighting games right now. For the past 5 years or so there’s been at least two or three big new fighters every single year, with the exception of 2020 for obvious reasons, and downloadable content for older games have greatly increased their staying power. Pair that with re-releases of classic games with greatly improved online play and we are absolutely spoiled for choice right now. All of this brings us to today’s topic of discussion: The King of Fighter XV, the first big triple A fighting game release of 2022.
The plot of The King of Fighters XV picks up right after The King of Fighters XIV in which a destructive deity-like being from another dimension known as Verse appeared at the climax of the tournament, but was stopped by the new protagonist Shun’ei. However, the fallout of this event has destabilized reality and has caused previously dead fighters like Ash Crimson and Team Orochi to return from the grave. Now a new King of Fighters tournament is about to begin, but the threat of another supernatural disturbance has some fighters on edge.
I know this all sounds pretty crazy for a game about an international martial arts tournament, but believe it or not this sort of thing is surprisingly common in the KoF series. Not only is the story confusing for people who aren’t up-to-date with the previous games, but it’s also incredibly safe and uninspired to long-time fans. However, the biggest issue for me personally is the resurrection of deceased characters since it means death no longer has serious consequences for the story moving forward. At the end of the day, the narrative is nothing more than a vehicle to justify bringing back fan favorite characters who haven’t been playable in decades.
Speaking of characters, The King of Fighters XV features a roster of 39 fighters divided into teams of 3, a step down from KoF XIV’s roster of 48, but considering they had to remodel most of the cast when development moved to Unreal Engine 4 it’s somewhat understandable. As a result, the game’s graphics are substantially better than its predecessors, but not quite on the same level as other fighting games artistically and definitely not as good as the beautiful (and expensive) sprites of KoF XIII. Most of the series mainstay veteran characters are all here alongside the previously mentioned fan favorites like Ash, Elizabeth, Chizuru, Yashiro, Shermie, and Chris whom we haven’t seen in a long time. The game also has 3-ish newcomers named Krohnen, Dolores, and Isla.
Krohnen is only partially a newcomer since he’s based on an older character called K9999, a character SNK created as an homage to the popular 1980’s cyberpunk manga/anime Akira who may have been a bit too faithful to the source material. Therefore Krohnen is basically a reimagined K9999 who is far less likely to get SNK accused of copyright infringement. Dolores is an African priestess/hermit who enters the tournament with a plan to lure out Verse and destroy it. Personality wise she’s a perfectly fine character, but personally I think her playstyle is aggressively not fun and combined with her needlessly sexy outfit made me like her a lot less than I otherwise would have. The last newcomer Isla is a rebellious teenage graffiti artist with powers similar to Shun’ei, positioning her as his rival in the tournament. Isla has a very unique playstyle focused on airborne attacks that I think is super interesting, but man is she an obnoxious little brat who gets on my nerves every other sentence…
As you can probably tell, I’ve got pretty mixed feelings about the game’s newcomers, but honestly I could say that about the entire roster. I’m happy fans of some of the older characters like Ash and Chizuru are finally getting some love, but the absence of some of the series’s biggest legacy characters like Kim Kaphwan (who up until this game had perfect attendance going all the way back to the very first KoF) makes the whole situation feel off. Perhaps the upcoming DLC characters will help fill the void, but only time will tell.
Regardless of the strange roster, the core gameplay of The King of Fighters XV is about as strong as it ever has been. Players build a team of 3 characters and duke it out in 1 one 1 battles utilizing punches, kicks, special moves, and super moves to form damaging combos while defending themselves from counter attacks. Staple series mechanics like dodge rolling, super jumps, and Max Mode all make a return and work the way they always have. In terms of new mechanics there’s “Max Mode Quick” which allows you to cancel an attack in the middle of a combo and immediately take additional actions, but unlike regular Max Mode it doesn’t increase damage or guard crush and lasts a shorter amount of time. There is also the addition of “Shatter Strike,” which can power through an enemy’s attack and stun them at the cost of some super meter and is a very strong defensive tool. Lastly there’s the “Rush Attack” which automatically performs a combo by pressing light punch repeatedly, and it’s handy for beginners still trying to learn how to play but overall the damage is often lower than a proper combo.
Speaking of beginner friendly, the timing of combos feels slightly more forgiving than previous KoF games. However, the key word here is “slightly” because overall The King of Fighters XV is designed primarily for experienced players rather than new players. This approach stands in opposition to the vast majority of new fighting games coming out these days which will be a selling point for some, but a turn off for others. I for one welcome the challenge of learning a difficult game as it often becomes more fun in the long term as I strive to achieve mastery. I would even argue the appeal of hard games is somewhat similar to the appeal of Catholicism. Being Catholic isn’t easy, but in many ways that’s why it is such a fulfilling faith to be a part of.
The other major point of contention in regards to the game’s appeal is the game’s content. There’s a basic tutorial and combo trials to help players learn the ins and outs of the combat mechanics and a training mode for more freeform exploration. In story mode the player fights their way through an arcade style gauntlet of computer opponents with cinematic cutscenes to break up the action with expository dialogue or short character interactions, the latter of which I find much more enjoyable than the former. And of course there’s good old versus mode where two people can spend hours upon hours beating the everliving snot out of each other, the heart and soul of any great fighting game. There’s also online versus mode which I am happy to report has pretty good netcode, so there’s no need to worry about lag even when playing with opponents hundreds of miles away.
While The King of Fighters XV has all the basic necessities of a modern fighting game, it doesn’t really have much beyond that and the mileage you get out of it will largely be dependent on how much you enjoy the core game. However, there are unlockable movies for playing through story mode with the different teams including secret teams which will unlock soundtracks from classic SNK titles to use in versus mode so there is at least some incentive there to keep you playing. I for one think SNK has a legacy of fantastic music in every game they make so I’ll happily play story mode over and over again to just unlock it, though the new music in KoF XV is just as good if you’d prefer to content yourself with just that.
So despite my grievances with The King of Fighters XV, I can honestly say it just might be one of my favorite fighting games to come out in the past few years. Sure, it has some flaws and won’t be to everyone’s taste, but I can’t help admiring SNK’s continued efforts to make mechanically deep and interesting fighters while the rest of the market continues to simplify their games in an attempt to appeal to wider audiences. So if you’re looking for a challenging yet rewarding competitive experience, The King of Fighters XV is absolutely the game for you.
Morality/Parental Warnings:The King of Fighters XV is a game where martial artists face off in one on one battles. Many fighters have supernatural abilities to augment their fighting styles. In the story mode the final confrontation is against an otherworldly being referred to as a goddess from another dimension. There are several playable characters who dress in very immodest or provocative clothing and make sensual gestures. Some characters use swear words in their dialogue. The character Antonov frequently smokes a cigar.