When it comes to established fighting game series, there aren’t many that touch the durability and tenure of The King of Fighters. Pushing three full decades since the original’s launch, the franchise has had its ups and downs throughout the years, but it’s seen a bit of a turnaround with the launch of KoF XIV in 2017 and XV now almost five years later. As it stands, XV doesn’t reinvent the wheel for the franchise, nor does it offer any major new mechanics or features that will make anyone familiar with the series uneasy or uncomfortable, but the upgrades to its presentation and refinement of its mechanics put it firmly back in the conversation of top tier fighting games, even if its structure leaves a bit to be desired.
If you’ve played any of the most recent King of Fighters games, particularly XIV, you’ll be immediately at home in XV. From a gameplay perspective, the foundation is left primarily unchanged with only some minor tweaks. Fights occur between teams of three, consisting of multiple rounds of one-on-one fighting. The losing fighter of each round is eliminated, and the match ends when a team has lost all three of its fighters. You choose the order your team members fight, and there is some strategy to it, though still not as much as I would like. As your attacks connect, you build a MAX meter, first introduced in King of Fighters XIV, which carries over for each of your fighters. You can accrue up to four bars of your MAX meter, and you can use these for a variety of stronger and faster attacks. If you activate your MAX meter as part of a special, higher level attack, you can perform flashier, more devastating moves that are equal parts difficult to execute and fun to watch. You can also utilize the new Shatter Strike mechanic, which uses one MAX bar that works to break an enemy’s guard and continue a combo.
"King of Fighters XV doesn’t reinvent the wheel for the franchise, nor does it offer any major new mechanics or features that will make anyone familiar with the series uneasy or uncomfortable, but the upgrades to its presentation and refinement of its mechanics put it firmly back in the conversation of top tier fighting games, even if its structure leaves a bit to be desired."
There are, of course, tons of nuances that make the gameplay easy to jump into but almost impossible to master. Each of the 39 playable characters has a unique move set that centers around light and heavy punches and kicks. If you’re not familiar with a character’s move set, there’s not a huge barrier to entry, since most characters have moves that generally utilize the same combination of stick movements and button combos. This means that it’s very accessible to jump in with a new character without having to spend a ton of time in training first. However, as is commonplace with the King of Fighters series, the ability to find, execute, and master combos and special attacks is where players will find the biggest learning curve and the most satisfaction. S
ure, it’s fun to beat up on someone when mashing light attacks, but it’s immensely more satisfying to perfectly execute a higher-level MAX attack, and the game does a great job at allowing you to learn without being overly punishing for having to fall back on a crutch at times. In truth, though, the gameplay here hasn’t changed much, especially in comparison to King of Fighters XIV. The specific move sets have changed, and the addition of new characters like Isla and Dolores offers a bit of variety, though they aren’t differentiated enough to offer much of a new type of gameplay overall, but you won’t find enough value here from a perspective of purely mechanical upgrades to justify a new addition to the series.
Instead, the real value of KoF XV comes from the upgrades or pure fixes that smooth out the rough edges that XIV encountered in its transition to the purely 3D art style and a more online-focused experience. The visuals, for one, are a marked upgrade from XIV. Character models are no longer quite so flat and muddy, and instead they have a lot more life and color, not to mention visual quality, to make them a lot more interesting to look at. Stages and environments, too, are much more detailed and while they don’t all have much going on in the background, they’re differentiated enough to avoid feeling like you’re fighting in the same place over and over. I’m even a bigger fan of the menus and UI, which feel sleeker and more modern than XIV’s.
"The real value of KoF XV comes from the upgrades or pure fixes that smooth out the rough edges that XIV encountered in its transition to the purely 3D art style and a more online-focused experience. The visuals, for one, are a marked upgrade from XIV."
Some issues from XIV do carry over, though. Character animations aren’t as refined as they could be, with many of the lighter attacks feeling much more direct than their characters, though the heavier and special attacks are frequently very fun to watch. When fighting against the CPU, too, enemy AI can range from startlingly stupid to professional-level talented, even within the same match. Sometimes an opponent would allow me to button mash with little in the way of guarding or avoiding, and later in the round they’ll seemingly know my next move before I do. Especially in the story mode, this can be a frustrating difficulty spectrum to get used to.
While KoF XV focuses clearly on its PvP modes, it follows in XIV’s footsteps and includes the story mode that resembles a campaign, though it isn’t as substantial as you may hope. It isn’t so much a story as it is a loose structure for getting you and a select team into a series of matches that are vaguely connected, and though it shows potential for a larger story like the ones that NetherRealm has put into games like Mortal Kombat, it isn’t strong enough to hold its own weight. You’re put into the King of Fighters tournament and fight your way to the end, and you ultimately win the finals after just 6 matches.
Once you’ve won the final, there’s a boss fight that is interesting for fans of the lore of the series but feels more out of place than anything, especially because the fighter isn’t a playable character and doesn’t seem to be as balanced as those who are. The times where I beat the final boss boiled down to my finding a move that could juggle them more so than actually finding their weak point. Given that it only takes about an hour or two to beat the entire story, this is more of a training ground than anything, exemplified by its save structure, or lack thereof. You can’t save a run, nor can you exit out and return, so you either beat the whole thing in one go or restart from the beginning. This would make sense for a training setting, but not so much for a story with defined cutscenes. It’s really funneling you through it to get your bearings, but the game clearly wants you to focus on its other online and offline versus modes, improving your characters in ranked and unranked matches.
"King of Fighters XV is the type of upgrade that feels more like a high-level overhaul than a ground-up rebuild of the series, and that’s okay."
King of Fighters XV is the type of upgrade that feels more like a high-level overhaul than a ground-up rebuild of the series, and that’s okay. The series has enough of a foundation that it doesn’t need to throw everything away every time, and XV opts to focus on revamping its visuals and its presentation with only a few small tweaks to the gameplay. In short, if you’re familiar with the series, especially if you played XIV, you not only will be comfortable here but you’ll be able to jump in with no questions, but you shouldn’t expect an entirely new experience to boot.
This game was reviewed on the Xbox Series X.
Refined gameplay as always; Highly upgraded visuals; Great balance of learning and mastering.
Story mode structure; Lack of any major mechanical upgrades.
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