“Oh, this is just like Smash Bros.” I thought to myself as I selected my first fighter based on cool factor and was prompted to change his colour scheme. Frankly, that immediate thought I had should tell you everything you need to know about my history with fighting games such as King of Fighters XV. I’ve never gravitated toward them or been repelled – my old housemates had an obsession with one of the recent Tekken entries and we had our fair share of fun if a little competitive, nights crammed around the PlayStation. But short of that this is a genre that has largely passed me by for generations of hardware now.
So the self-appointed king of fighters, King of Fighters XV presents me with a bit of a challenge. Perhaps more than any other, this is a genre that essentially belongs to its most ardent fans and I do (mostly) respect that. Easy to grasp, difficult to master seems to be the general way of things here and having an outsider whose entire perception of the mechanics can be surmised by knowing how to get Link back onto the Hyrule Castle stage try to critically engage with a storied franchise would be…well, frustrating. To the end, this distinctly isn’t a review of King of Fighters XV, it’s just a boy, standing in front of a game, trying to get it to love him and riffing on that experience.
King of Fighters XV
But I’m nothing if not studious and King of Fighters seems to be having a bit of a comeback moment with the latest entry. Developer SNK’s fifteenth entry into the franchise, which has been punching its way into hearts since ‘94, is something of a mea culpa after King of Fighters XIV failed to live up to exceptions. By all accounts, some outdated visuals and shoddy network coding tanked an otherwise decent experience so King of Fighters XV has been designed to address those concerns and then some.
First and foremost the game is an aesthetic powerhouse. Everything from the key art to the stages pops with colour and life, a fantastic blend of cultural inspirations and absurd, anime goodness. There are a couple of notable exceptions to this (that training room is so drab) but King of Fighters XV is by and large a very nice game to look at. Add to that the game’s killer soundtrack and audio design and you’ve got a greatly packaged experience. Matches are scored by an array of funky tunes, the highlight being the very first match I played being matched with the absolute bop “Time for Revolution, It’s our Generation”.
Naturally, King of Fighters XV’s penchant for vibrant designs is at its best with its roster of characters. There are 39 to choose from out of the gate and while I may not have the franchise literacy to understand the history of them all, I can still recognise how much some of these folks slap. Personal favourites of mine included Kukri and his weird sandman-like powers, King of Dinosaurs (please don’t explain how he exists, I want to live in the mystery) and my main, Isla. Though this is only really scratching the surface, more time invested would likely yield more favourites but striking the right balance between mechanical diversity and general Coolness is key (to me).
King of Fighters XV is a four-button fighter – two light attacks, two heavy attacks. Light attacks do less damage but get you in and out in a pinch, heavy hit harder but leave you open to a nasty rebuke if you’re not careful. Building out from this relatively simple core set of moves you’ve got a bevy of options available to you including a very generous dodge, blocks, counters, stick movement and button combos to deliver special attacks and much, much more. You choose three fighters to form your team and they participate in 3v3 matches, no swapping in and out, just go until you can’t go no more. It’s not exactly a simple system to get used to, though initially, I had some luck oscillating between trying to remember combos and panic mashing.
Which I wouldn’t have felt the need to do so often if the game were a little better at onboarding new players. There is a tutorial mode for basic and more complicated attacks but the game is content to just put up the button combos on screen, have you do it three times and move on. There’s no context, no deeper connection with the player fostered. Again, this would be fine if the game didn’t demand some degree of mastery over its mechanics as you progress through the story mode or, god-forbid, want to play online. I don’t expect the red carpet, but it would be nice if the game at least opened the door instead of cracking a window.
That story mode is also a bit lite on the content side of things, though I’m not sure anyone is coming to these mechanically rich games for a narrative. There are three core cutscenes, some extra ones can play if you have the right combination of players on your three-person team, but it’s largely just set dressing to the matches. The game’s beautiful presentation helps elevate these things somewhat though and my anime-loving heart was mildly amused most of the time.
Ultimately, King of Fighters XV leaves me intrigued and somewhat exhausted. Everything about the game’s aesthetics and style drew me in almost instantly and the combat systems initially had me excited, though that soon soured as my skill ceiling collided with the game’s lack of onboarding. For fans of the series, this must be a killer entry – already the net code seems far more stable and the revamped visuals are a treat – but as a newcomer, I’m left out in the cold a little by its haphazard tutorials and distinct lack of context for its history and characters.
King of Fighters XV was (not) reviewed on PlayStation 5 using a code provided by Koch Media. Assets featured in article provided by Koch Media.