The King of Fighters is long past due for the big mainstream breakout it deserves. In Japan, Korea, and China, it’s popular; in Brazil and Mexico, it borders on religion; but in the United States, it used to be a mark of true dedication to video games as a hobby if you knew KOF existed at all.
2016’s The King of Fighters XIV should rightly have been the game to put KOF on the map, but it lost a lot of ground to its old-fashioned netcode, relatively poor graphics, and a relative lack of esports coverage compared to something like Street Fighter V.
In theory, then, The King of Fighters XV should be what finally gets KOF the respect it deserves in America. It’s hitting in a friendly sales window, its graphics are dramatically improved over XIV‘s, and the series in general has been getting increasingly more visible over the years.
While it’s still not the prettiest game on the block, KOFXV has smooth, bright animation; a newbie-friendly combat system; a huge roster of characters with dramatically different styles; and in a franchise first, working rollback netcode. It’s the big breakout KOF has needed for a decade.
Never Stick Around for the Awards Ceremony
While it’s strayed from its roots to some extent, KOF was originally meant as a big crossover between several SNK franchises. It pits an assortment of characters from Fatal Fury, Art of Fighting, Ikari Warriors, Psycho Soldier, and more up against original characters in a 3-on-3, single-elimination fight, which is technically set in its own distinct timeline from any other SNK game.
In the world of The King of Fighters, the titular tournament is an annual event that draws in the most skilled and powerful martial artists, soldiers, and occasional mutant freaks from across the world for a shot at glory and fame.
At least, that’s the theory. In practice, KOF almost always seems to end in disaster due to shady tournament organizers, terrorist schemes, ancient curses, and/or interdimensional demons. It’s a rare KOF where the winners don’t end up fighting for their lives in another dimension or in high orbit or something, sometimes with the fate of the world on the line. Inexplicably, this does not stop people from showing up to compete.
The last tournament, KOF XIV, was no exception to the rule. The unofficial final round of the competition was a fight with a monster, Verse, which destroyed the stadium. Verse exploded upon its defeat, which has led to the rise of strange phenomena across Earth, including a few resurrections.
“Some time” later, a new KOF has been announced, and multiple fighters are entering the fray to figure out what’s going on, to settle scores with their rivals, or just to brawl with the best of the best. The champions will, of course, have to save the world or something, but that’s just how it goes on this mess of an Earth.
One of Those Things That’s Not Like the Others
Fighting games are tricky to review and always have been. You’re taking a snapshot of how the game plays right now, before the developers put out any balance patches and a horde of YouTube mutants have descended to solve it like a math equation. A character that seems a little too good now may be a rare sight in a month, i.e. MK11 Geras.
At launch, from where I’m sitting, in these rarified days before someone in Japan discovers that Mai wins at character select or something, KOFXV strikes me as one of the best entries in the series.
As always, it’s got a broad cast of characters, most of whom play wholly differently from one another. Some are straightforward “Shotoclones” with familiar moves and options; some fit neatly into other archetypes; and a handful are just flat-out weird, like Angel and her experts-only chain combos. There’s someone for everyone here.
If it’s your first fighting game, you could do a lot worse than KOFXV. It’s a four-button fighter where every character has a handful of special moves, but there’s still a lot of emphasis on the basics. The sheer size of the roster offers you a lot of options to explore, and you’re likely to find at least three characters that you can gel with. (When in doubt, nobody’s ever regretted learning Iori or Benimaru.)
The “Rush” system also makes its return from KOFXIV, where you can simply tap the light punch button three times in a row, then finish with another button, to land a canned combination that can inflict respectable damage for little effort.
To be fair, the Rush system is a little bit of a newbie trap, as it makes it easy to spend resources you might have been saving up (whoops, I mashed LK once too often and I just accidentally burned three bars on a useless super combo), but it’s a nice back-pocket option when you’re learning the game.
KOFXV is still a typical ’90s fighting game, however, with all that implies. If you feel like Street Fighter is relatively inaccessible, with its steep learning curve and arsenal of arcade-style hidden commands, then no KOF game is going to change your mind on that.
(In fact, it used to be worse. Ask your local FGC grognard about trying to play KOF95. Bring painkillers. He probably has arthritis.)
It’s also important to realize going in that KOFXV might be a 2D fighting game, but it has its own rhythm that you need to get used to. KOF characters have a lot of mobility that other games’ characters don’t, with invincible rolls, backsteps, runs, short hops, and hyper-jumps as standard tools, and it places an uncommon emphasis on pure offensive pressure that other games don’t even try to match.
There are also a lot of individual character quirks that you have figure out with sheer matchup knowledge, like which moves have armor. You have to learn a lot in KOF, and KOFXV has more exceptions to every rule than any entry before it.
KOFXV, like KOFXIII before it, is also very explosive. As a casual glance at YouTube can show you, a character in XV with 5 bars of super meter is basically holding a loaded shotgun to their opponent’s head. Almost everyone on the roster, with a little practice, can deliver a “touch of death,” 100% damage combination to an opponent, although it will take all their resources.
It’s also not trivial to execute. KOF in general has a reputation in the fighting-game community for tricky inputs, particularly in its single-player combo trials, and I can’t say it isn’t entirely deserved. I’m still getting the hang of it, so the big flashy “like, comment & subscribe” attacks are still well beyond me.
In the meantime, the fundamentals will still get you a long way in KOFXV. It’s easy to pick up, and takes a lot to master. It is, for the most part, as KOF has always been, just brighter and easier to play at home.
In 2022, a basic requirement for any successful fighting game is rollback netcode, in order to ensure a decent online play experience for anyone, even if your opponent’s on the other side of the planet. That makes it all the more surprising that it’s been rare until relatively recently.
KOFXV’s netcode, from my test matches on both Steam and the Xbox Series X, is solid. The Steam version occasionally has weird slowdown or freezing whenever something really crazy—i.e. a super special move—is about to happen, but it’s not a big enough deal to really influence the game.
The real issue, of course, is that this is KOF, which means there’s an entire army of players in Mexico and Korea who’ve been training since birth to destroy you. If any expectations are really going to be shattered here, it’s your hopes of getting any wins at all without some serious time in training mode and a few ego-destroying losses.
That isn’t really a criticism, of course, but keep it in mind before you hit that Ranked Match button. It’s also important to note that you have to set up your teams and favored characters in your profile from KOFXV‘s main menu ahead of time, rather than being taken to the select screen at the start of the match. It’s a weird approach.
Go Back to Comicon, You Dork
If there’s a single thing I’d point to about KOFXV as a downside, it’s the character design. There’s certain overdone messiness to fighters like Meitankun, Dolores, Isla, and especially Shun’ei. They all have very strong “American skateboard shop circa 1995” energy, particularly when they’re standing next to any returning characters.
(Except Ash. I don’t know why he has Mary Tyler Moore’s ’60s hairstyle, but he’s never looked good, and someone has to tell him that.)
A few KOF veterans have also gotten slight redesigns, but for the most part, they’ve gone back to basics from how they appeared in KOFXIV. The simplicity of a lot of the characters’ designs is what makes them cool, as opposed to Shun’ei, who looks like he got dressed that morning by being bodily thrown through a mid-size theater’s costume closet.
The graphics in general are unspectacular, with expressive models and smooth animation, with a certain cartoony appeal. It’s not fancy and you can see the occasional clipping issue, but they get the job done well enough.
The one big weak spot is whenever someone uses a fireball or other flashy special move, as, for whatever reason, KOFXV‘s particle effects are strangely awful. Whenever Kukri surfs around on a wave of sand or Dolores smacks a dude with an earth pillar, it looks like a throwback to early-2000s computer animation. It’s not something I initially noticed in my time with the game, but then someone pointed it out to me in passing and now I can’t see anything else.
That’s a nitpick at most, though. KOFXV is a solid entry in a solid series that will feel comfortably familiar to you if you’ve ever played a KOF before in your life. It doesn’t look as good as it arguably could, but it’ll keep you busy for hours of couch matches and online fights as long as you’re willing to figure out its quirks.