The King of Fighters XV review (in progress)

The king gets a royal update

While all the kids are going gaga for the brothers of smash these days, Nintendo’s crossover fighting game series might not even exist if it weren’t for The King of Fighters. It was SNK who pioneered the idea of characters from different games coming together to trade punches, and since the first tournament invites went out in The King of Fighters ‘94, the series has continued to expand, improve, and evolve.

The last chapter of that series, The King of Fighters XIV, was admittedly a little rough. SNK had tried to move to higher-resolution 2D sprites in KOF XII and XIII, but while they were utterly beautiful and a fantastic homage to the history of the series, that visual style took so much time, effort, and money that it threatened to ruin the company. So, SNK changed directions again with KOF XIV—a game that was pretty fun to play, but something of a mess in the quality of both its graphics and netcode.

Image credit: SNK

As much as I never wanted to see The King of Fighters—or any SNK series, really—go 3D, even I have to admit that KOF XIV did lay the groundwork for a bright future for the franchise. Yes, there was a lot about it that needed fixing, but its most important gameplay elements and concepts were incredibly solid, and its weaker areas could get better with time.

Well, that time is now, as we’re finally almost to the release of The King of Fighters XV.

Before we go any farther, however, I need to be clear that I am in no position to fully review the game just yet. I’ve only been playing it for just around a week now, and fighting games are notoriously hard to judge in the early going. As well, I’ve spent no time online with KOF XV, as I missed the beta test, and I’ve had little luck finding online competition amongst the small pool of people playing the game pre-release. Especially given how bad KOF XIV’s online could be, how SNK’s effort to bring rollback netcode to the series has gone is going to be a major factor in reviewing this game.

Still, there are opinions I can give at this point concerning what I’ve seen and played so far, so let’s talk about those things.

I think the most obvious place to start is the game’s visuals. The King of Fighters XIV was an ugly game at first, and while a later update made improvements to its graphical style, it still wasn’t great. While not perfect, KOF XV is a huge upgrade in every regard on a visual level, especially in its character models. After playing the game for a while, I’d kind of forgotten what KOF XIV looked like, and going back to compare the two was pretty shocking. Do I miss the old days of 2D SNK? Absolutely—but if we can’t have said days anymore, then I’m glad to see the company is working to find a style that does its games justice. There’s still a lot of room for SNK to come up with its own unique style when rendering its trademark characters in 3D just like Arc System Works has done, but to be fair, Arc is making everyone look bad in that regard.

Image credit: SNK

Beyond the characters and backgrounds, I think the overall look of the game and its user interface have seen some welcome improvements all across the board. Menus and UI are something we can take for granted, but I especially appreciate the more streamlined and modern style we get here after revisiting KOF XV’s predecessor. Sure, some might dislike the changes, because they fall in line with “simple and clean” principles that are, at times, accused of being boring. I don’t care—I like ‘em.

Of course, the most important factor is how The King of Fighters XV plays, not how it looks. The easiest—and perhaps most boring—way to answer that is by saying that it feels like a more polished version of its predecessor. No, this isn’t some big reinvention of the series or drastic shift from what we got last time, and really, it shouldn’t be. As I said earlier, KOF XIV was an incredibly solid first step toward updating the series for a new generation, and this is the logical next step. The difference in resolution, framerate, and amount of animation for each character continues to make both KOF XV and 2019’s Samurai Shodown feel slower to me compared to classic chapters, but I know a lot of that is all in my head. Above all else, this still feels like a King of Fighters game—quirks and all—and that makes me happy.

While I’m not going to get too deep into them for now, I think the changes made to the power-boosting MAX Mode in The King of Fighters XV are positive so far. What I like most is the switch to having EX specials—aka stronger versions of your special moves—usable at any time by spending half of your power meter. Previously, you could only unleash them after activating MAX Mode, and while you can also continue to do that here, I appreciate the flexibility. On the other hand, something I still don’t appreciate are Rush combos, the preset strings of moves characters break into when mashing the light punch button. I know, I shouldn’t care about them, and they do help more casual players better enjoy the game, which is a good thing. They just feel sacrilegious to me, and I can’t get over that.

Image credit: SNK

Going back to Smash Bros. for a moment, another thing SNK’s fighting franchise shares with Nintendo’s is how emotionally invested fans get in the character rosters. Right off the bat, without doing any direct comparisons, I found myself liking the initial cast choices in The King of Fighters XV far more than in KOF XIV. I think this is a genuinely solid selection of must-have favorites, returning faces, new characters, and some actual expectation-shattering surprises. I’m beyond happy to see the return of Team Orochi and my beloved Shermie, even if I believe, lore-wise, they should still be dead. By far the biggest shock, however, is the appearance of Krohnen, an update to one of the weirdest characters ever to grace the series, K9999. If you’re not familiar with him, he was a blatant rip-off of obvious elements from the legendary anime Akira, far beyond the usual level of homages and references that are rife in fighting games.

Doing actual comparisons between who we get here and who was initially included in KOF XIV, I think this is still the better King of Fighters cast—even if it may not be as daring. We get two new faces here, versus the twelve the previous game gave us. Sure, a number of those additions weren’t great, but others were, including a team created to finally acknowledge the franchise’s immense popularity in South America, and the legendary love-her-or-hate-her Sylvie Paula Paula. KOF XV’s cast is definitely the better choice for longtime fans or more serious players, but it’s missing some of the fun, while also being noticeably smaller (39 choices in KOF XV versus 48 in KOF XIV). Thankfully, this roster will be getting bigger and better via the already-announced first two DLC teams, which will bring SNK staples Rock Howard, B. Jenet, Gato, Billy Kane, Ryuji Yamazaki, and Geese Howard. I’m still not sold on the end bosses SNK is giving us in this new story arc, though—especially given I beat KOF XV’s final boss in one attempt. Even on standard (medium) difficulty, that’s sacrilege.

Lack of Control

While this will be totally obvious to some of you out there, there’s something I wanted to make sure to point out. No doubt due to the “only PlayStation 5 controllers for PlayStation 5 games” mandate that Sony has, legacy controllers aren’t usable if you’re playing the PS5 version of The King of Fighters XV. While many devs built support for PlayStation 3 controllers into their fighters that saw release on the PlayStation 4, it does not look like that trend of accessory backward compatibility will continue. My attempts to get my fighting game-focused legacy controllers like the Hori Fighting Commander 4 failed, and talking to a PR rep for the game, they confirmed that legacy controller support is indeed absent.

Thus, if you’re planning on playing The King of Fighters XV on PlayStation 5 but have older controllers you’d still like to use, you might consider going for the PS4 version of the game instead, or picking up the special bundle that includes both generations together. Meanwhile, players on Xbox Series X/S should have no problem using any controllers meant for the Xbox One.

Update: Feb. 11 2022, 12:40PM PST

After receiving some reports that certain legacy controllers did work during the KOF XV beta test, I wanted to try more of my controllers to see if I could get any of them to work. My two recent go-tos have been the Hori Fighting Commander 4, which supports PS3 and PS4, and the Hori Fighting Commander, which supports PS3, PS4, and PC. When trying to use either, a system notification pops up stating “PS5 games can’t be played using the current controller.” I can use the controller to exit to the PS5’s home screen and do other things from there, but not anything in the game itself.

However, if I try my Mad Catz TE2+ fight stick (which I, shamefully, still had in storage), that does work, and from what I’ve tried of it, seems fully functional. Which is very exciting for me.

So, that made me wonder two things: if it was something about joysticks versus more standard controllers, or maybe it was the fact that the TE2+ has a PS4 touchpad. Could having one do something to let the stick be usable where the touchpad-less controllers aren’t? I then happened to also have an Astro C40 TR, which is more of a standard PS4 controller with a built-in touchpad. When trying that, I received the same error that I saw with the Hori pads.

And, finally, I can also confirm that a standard DualShock 4 does not function in the game, giving the standard “can’t use the DualShock 4 wireless controller” error message.

At this point, I can now say that some legacy controllers do work—but I’m still not sure what the qualifications are for which will and which won’t. It could just be across-the-board support for joysticks versus standard controllers, but I also can’t say that with any real certainty without other types of sticks to try.

What I can again confirm is that there is indeed nothing in the Options menus that makes any mention or offers any settings for legacy controller support. There also may have been a misunderstanding when I asked for clarification on support for PS4 controllers, so my best recommendation as of now is not to expect any particular controllers or sticks you own to still work, but also not give up on them doing so.

And now, strap in as things go from zero to woke, because I’ve got to bring it up: SNK’s character designs, especially for its female fighters, just aren’t what they used to be. One of the reasons I came to love SNK as much as I do was that the company’s art staff always produced such amazing characters. For both sexes, SNK’s fighting game rosters had such rich design diversity, never seeming stuck in any particular ruts or stereotypes. It’s not that I hate sexy characters, because one of my favorites from SNK is Mai Shiranui. But for every Mai, you had a badass woman like King, or a cute idol like Athena, or a disciplined martial artist like Kasumi, or a goofy comedy character like Yuri—and they were all dressed appropriately to who they were supposed to be.

The two new female characters we get here, Isla and Dolores, are showing way more skin than makes sense for who they’re supposed to be. Shermie’s redesign is terrible, and reminds me of the misguided reworking SNK also gave to Samurai Shodown’s Charlotte. (Hey, you know that woman in a full suit of armor? Can’t she show some thigh or something?) It’s also frustrating because a few of the redesigns we get here are pretty great, most notably Elisabeth and the utterly fabulous Ash Crimson. If you want to criticize my criticisms on this topic, that’s totally fine—I mean, so long as you’ve been an SNK fan for at least as long as I have. Sorry, that’s the rule.

The true test for The King of Fighters XV is going to come in the days ahead, as the game gets into the hands of the general public and we see how everything fares both online and in far larger pools of player-vs.-player matches. For now, I’m excited for KOF XV. Its gameplay feels solid, its roster is satisfying, and its overall visual design once again does the series justice. I just hope all of those things hold up once the real fight begins.

Image Credit: SNK

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