Despite being readily available across a number of formats over the years, SNK’s flagship one on one fighting franchise has never really had a standout mainstream crossover success that it probably deserves, but hopefully that’s about to change with The King of Fighters XV. With its super accessible fighting system, no-nonsense presentation and fun, addictive gameplay, there is hope that this could be the one.
The gameplay is deep, but easy to learn thanks to a simple control scheme employing the Neo Geo standard four buttons, and a decent tutorial and combo-led mission mode that allows newcomers to pick things up and brings long term KOF nerds up to speed with the current mechanics in play. A lot of time-honoured features are retained – the evasive roll, hops, five-bar super meter, Climax and Hyper Climax special moves – and there is also the ability to trigger a MAX mode which boosts your attack power for a brief period.
The King of Fighters XV: MAX mode
There are a few different varieties of MAX mode to tinker with, one which can be triggered in any situation and improves damage and the strength of Guard Crush, and a second Quick version which sees your avatar bathed in a pink hue and is activated either when you guard or carry out an attack – allowing you to combo straight into your next desired action without leaving yourself wide open. New to the mix is the Shatter Strike – a powerful tool that is best compared to the Focus attack from the modern Street Fighter universe, debilitating your opponent and opening a window of opportunity to cause a huge amount of additional damage as they crumple in front of you.
As is de rigeur in a lot of modern fighters there is also a single button combo system, called Rush. This can only be activated from a neutral position, and involved four consecutive button presses, which must begin with three light punch inputs. How the combo end is decided what the fourth input is, and how many bars of your power meter remain. Four LP on the spin will automatically end the combo in either a spectacular Climax Super, or the most powerful attack currently available if you don’t have enough meter juice, with LK, HP and HK resulting in special move, super special move (think EX attack), and Max Super Special Move respectively.
A vast selection of legends to try
The gameplay features teams of three, with a vast selection of KOF legends included, alongside a trio of new entrants. Isla is a streetwise, Harajuku youngster with an Iori-esque set of disembodied flaming purple hands. She enters the fray as the principle rival to flames-wielding hero Shun’ei. Dolores is a mysterious psychic priestess who is key to the nonsensical magical shenanigans that form the story of XV. Rounding out the newcomers is the excellently named Krohnen McDougall, who may sound like some kind of Hebridean lager, but is in fact a shady NESTS-linked enigma with a crazy shape-shifting arm. Keen-eyed fans of KOF 2001/2002 may feel he is strangely familiar.
Characters look fantastic across the board, with some wild and crazy costumes on show that make it seem as much a riotous cutting-edge fashion show as a kick ass fighting tournament. Returning heroes have never looked better. I particularly liked the beefy Shotokan look of Ryo, and his dapper Art of Fighting pal Robert Garcia, who looks like a wonderful combination of Steven Seagal in Out For Justice and a well turned out Romany Gypsy. The story I won’t give away too much of here, but needless to say it culminates in a familiarly cheap as balls boss encounter, something no self-respecting King of Fighters should do without.
New-gen or old, it looks great
I tested it out on both PS4 and PS5, and it is fair to say that there is not a great deal of difference between the two versions. The current gen iteration has slightly sharper textures and the loading times are a tad quicker, but overall the 2.5D sprites look fine, the stage backdrops are varied, interesting and in the case of the Metal Slug-themed Sahara setting, extremely amusing.
It doesn’t look as jaw droppingly beautiful as something like Guilty Gear Strive or Granblue Fantasy Versus, or indeed the hand-crafted splendour of KOF XIII, but the characters have that timeless SNK charm and some of the colourways and outfits are full of detail and really pop, and are animated smoothly. It goes without saying that the soundtrack is the absolute corker you always knew it would be. There is even a mode which allows you to spin a selection of classic tunes from the history of the series, some of which are locked to begin with, but well worth fighting for.
Return of the King of Fighters
Vs fighters live or die these days not in the arcades but by the quality of the netcode and online stability. Matchmaking is a pleasingly simple affair, something comforting after the bonkers lobby system in Guilty Gear Strive. In the interests of fairness, you are first required to undertake three battles against the CPU to determine your skill level and online rank. Of course, you could diddle this by performing badly, but I didn’t – and was rewarded with some well-matched opponents and enjoyable battles, rather than just getting wasted on the regular. The rollback netcode – a first for KOF – appears stable; I had very few issues in my time spent with it. There is sadly no inter-platform crossplay between Xbox, PlayStation and Steam; however PS4/5 and the various Xbox incarnations can all happily be matched within their family of consoles.
Simply put, King of Fighters XV is a delight. I am a long-term fan of the series, and while it isn’t visually the huge step into the current powerful gen of consoles you might expect, the lengthy gestation period was more than worth the wait. SNK have focused on delivering a smooth and intuitive gameplay experience that will hopefully entice new fans, satisfy the existing KOF community and feature prominently in the competitive scene. Most importantly, it is bloody great fun. I haven’t been as instantly drawn into and addicted to a fighter quite like this since I first got my hands-on Street Fighter IV. It feels like a new dawn for a legendary series, and I am genuinely excited to try out some of the future DLC characters that are on their way over the course of the year.
Fantastic, intuitive gameplay
Terrific character designs old and new
Decent matchmaking and stable online
Graphics are not earth shattering
Not a huge amount of gameplay modes