The Recycling Of Fighters?

HIGH The core fighting system remains excellent.

LOW The roster’s smaller and less diverse than when KoF XIV launched.

WTF They asked people on Twitter not to spoil this story online?

Unbelievable as it might seem, it’s been about five and a half years since the King of Fighters franchise last burst onto the scene with the excellent KoF XIV.

For those unfamiliar with the series, it’s a long-running team-based fighting game that draws on characters from various SNK franchises such as Fatal Fury and Art of Fighting and pits them against each other, as well as a large number of original faces. They typically fight in teams of three, though it’s just one on one fights instead of Tag Team style. Nobody’s sitting on the sidelines to help out during these battles if the active fighter’s in trouble.

Characters typically enjoy a high range of mobility with everyone able to dash, roll evade and hop around to quickly reposition. It’s intentionally slower than the lightspeed pace of some anime-style fighters, but there are a lot of options for getting around. Additionally, characters range from buff grapplers who need to close in on their opponent to fireball chucking zoners who don’t, and there’s a wide cast of skullcracking misfits to choose from, so nearly everyone should be able to find a character that fits their preferences.

For example, Dolores looks cool and plays well — she’s a dreadlocked shaman spiritualist who can clobber her opponents with the power of the Earth. Isla’s a bit goofier as a hip hop-inspired street artist with a gas mask and a pair of phantom hands helping her crush enemies. And then there’s Krohnen, who isn’t really new at all, he’s just a less copyright-infringing version of ‘Tetsuo’ K9999 from KoF 2001, much like Nameless was before him.

There are also returning characters who feel refreshed thanks to the engine changes. The New Face team initially introduced in KoF 97 returns, with Yashiro, Chris and Shermie all looking ready to go. Ash and Elizabeth are also back, and personal favorites Vanessa, Blue Mary and Whip are no longer gated behind DLC. However, there’s one sticking point here — The King of Fighters XIV had 50 characters at launch, and 58 by the time it was finished with DLC. KoF XV has about two thirds of that total, and the overall selection will look very familiar to series vets.

King of Fighters is a series that often adds and subtracts characters from each release, so having some folk go missing isn’t a new thing, but this time there’s more removed than seems normal. This isn’t helped by SNK having shown off some fantastic preview footage of the first DLC including Gato and every’s favorite shoe wielding pirate B. Jenet coming at a later date. They’re sorely needed in the roster right now, not as DLC a month down the line.

Character selection aside, the core fighting engine should feel instantly familiar to anyone who’s played the previous installment, KoF XIV. It’s a little more user friendly now, with each character’s cinematic ultimate super and Climax Cancels all sharing a universal input (QCB, HCF+HP+HK) that should hopefully cut down on the confusion commonly experienced when trying out new characters. There’s also a new “Shatter Strike” mechanic where characters can exchange some of their super meter to perform a quick crushing attack which will briefly stun their opponents and afford a brief opportunity to extend or initiate combos. It’s nothing revolutionary, but it is a neat twist. On top of this, the MAX meter’s been reworked to allow for new super move chaining. All good, useful changes.

In terms of content, it does the job without offering anything groundbreaking. The singleplayer offerings are the usual fare, such as a short tutorial for the basics and a mission trial mode which doesn’t offer particularly useful combos for real life scenarios — I found Vanessa’s intermediate combos are overly taxing for a substandard damage payoff. There’s also a Story mode taking the place of an Arcade mode. It’s not very interesting, with bland cutscenes detailing the events of a bland story before culminating in a typically-overpowered, cheap-as-hell SNK boss.

Oh, and a jukebox where players can attach tunes from the series to whichever stages they like. It’s a nice addition, but the method of unlocking new tracks without a guide relies too much on guesswork. Just give us the damn tracks from the outset, SNK.

The online options are thankfully a bit more robust, allowing for online training sessions, room matches, ranked and casual play and an optional pre-play test for new players to see how well they handle themselves against AI teams meant to grade them appropriately before they square off against other players. It’s a decent offering.

The online scene was obviously somewhat limited while testing the game pre-release, but fortunately the net code looks to be pretty decent this time out. I got a few good matches in where lag seemed minimal, though there were some less desirable connections where latency was more tangible. However, that’s to be expected considering that I was playing people in different countries, and it was never unplayable or super frustrating at any point. Based on time spent, I’m pleased to report that the online’s looking significantly better here than it was in XIV.

Graphically, there have been significant upgrades. Characters are much larger and more detailed than before, and as a result, battles feel a little punchier with meaty-looking pugilists duking it out. Backgrounds are good too, with a frozen forest stage that immediately became a firm favorite, and one located in the Sahara that’s channeling strong Metal Slug vibes. The background characters animating at weird framerates looks a little off, but it’s not too distracting.

In a world where competitors like Mortal Kombat 11 and Guilty Gear Strive are making great strides in presentation and content, it’s hard to feel like KoF XV is keeping pace. It’s still an excellent fighter and KoF is one of the most reliable franchises out there. However, for an installment that promised to ‘shatter all expectations’ in the publicity leading up to launch, the final product seems content to barely meet them — a real shame since the fighting is still some of the best out there.

Rating: 7.5 out of 10

Disclosures: This game is developed by SNK Corporation and published by Koch Media. It is currently available on XBO/X/S, PS4/5 and PC. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PS5. Approximately 7 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed multiple times. 3 hours of play were spent in multiplayer modes.

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated T and contains… well, the usual fighting game shenanigans. Pretty ladies and handsome men kick the bejeezus out of one another in a largely bloodless display of anime-style violence.

Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: This game offers subtitles. The subtitles cannot be altered and/or resized. The game is fully playable without sound, so Deaf and hard of hearing players should have little problem when playing.

Remappable Controls: Yes, this game offers fully remappable controls.

Darren Forman
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