The King of Fighters XV Battles with Its Past

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<i>The King of Fighters XV</i> Battles with Its Past

The King of Fighters XV (or KoF XV) lives up to the series’ standard by delivering blazing-fast fights, vibrant character designs and an electrifying soundtrack. In fact, its biggest battle is against the past.

Fighting games are a walled garden, even within the oft-unapproachable medium of videogames. Steep learning curves and second-rate online play frequently drive players looking for competitive games towards more popular genres like MOBAs or first-person shooters.

The ways fighting games subvert those roadblocks will define their longevity in the modern era of fighting games. They’re also the best indicators of a game’s quality. That’s not the case with KoF XV, for better and for worse.

That’s partially because SNK seemingly knows newcomers are all-but guaranteed not to give King of Fighters a shot. It just doesn’t have the recognition that Tekken, Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter and Dragon Ball Z all do. In fact, Terry Bogard’s appearance in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate’s first line of DLC and SNK’s prominence on the Switch’s eShop in its early days are probably the most press the franchise has seen in a long time.

That’s not to dismiss the series’ legacy of influence and quality, but in the last few years, a number of small and big-budget fighting games alike have released complete with detailed tutorials and tips for on-boarding new players. KoF XV feels downright archaic in comparison.

Booting up the game, players are encouraged to check out a quick tutorial that breaks down the basics of the franchise. Actions as basic as light and heavy attacks or blocking are presented the exact same way as more complicated actions like cancels and movement tech like short hops.

The game expects players to have every individual action, input and move down pat after just one try. It serves as a solid introduction to the barebones basics and the button layout, but funneling players from tutorial to tutorial at a breakneck speed instead of allowing them to take time to make sure they know the difference between a hop and a jump (a vital mechanic in KoF) is bad for a number of reasons.

From a competitive standpoint, this encourages players to develop bad, or at least one-dimensional, habits. In a series that’s as dependent on game-specific tech and strategies as King of Fighters, that can be debilitating for a player trying to break into a competitive scene.

Unfortunately, the game’s missions have the exact same problem. For the uninitiated, most fighting games have missions, trials or challenges tied to each character that helps teach players some dependable, simple combos to give them a better chance against AI or human-controlled opponents.

Other games, like Guilty Gear Strive or Injustice 2, make an effort to teach players the combo by not just plunking them in a training mode with a list of inputs. Instead, players can look at a diagram of the controller they’re holding with each button being pressed in real-time. They can also watch a brief demo of the combo or string performed by an AI. Some will even require players to perform the action multiple times over to ensure they don’t forget, instead of being rushed through each trial.

Beyond the mode’s lacking implementation, KoF XV’s offering of missions also feels barebones. Nearly all of them start with something very simple: usually one normal attack strung into a special of some kind. That’s not inherently a problem. In fact, it’s one of the few examples of the game easing players into something to make it more approachable. What does make this a problem, however, is the fact that each character only has five trials, meaning that simple two-attack combo suddenly occupies a big chunk of that character’s individual trial.

Fighting game old-heads and purists will no doubt defend this decision in the name of maintaining the genre’s legacy. To me, as someone who’d never jumped into a fighting game’s training mode or trials for more than an hour or so before, it seems like a great way to punish new players for no other reason than not knowing where to start.

Instead of welcoming new players with well-designed tutorials and trials, KoF XV takes other steps to make its gameplay more accessible. One of KoF’s long-standing trademarks was its intense inputs for its special moves, with each character requiring different inputs for specific super and normal special moves.

XV tackles this problem by simplifying the game’s inputs across the board. Every character’s super move requires the same inputs, and a majority of the super moves in the game rely on a few different motions. It also introduces simplified combos (auto-combos). Every character has a 4-hit combo that they can pull off by landing a single light punch that can also combo into a super move.

These will undoubtedly be the most controversial aspects of the game for fans of the genre and the franchise. It’s hard to see a good reason to maintain the complex inputs other than artificial difficulty, but easy-to-land combos land somewhere in a much grayer area. They don’t always deal a lot of damage, but they can combo into a super that does a lot of damage if a player has enough meter built up.

SNK’s most recent fighting game release, 2019’s Samurai Shodown, is known for one thing above all else: God-awful netcode. While it didn’t define or kick off wider discussions about better netcode for fighting games, it certainly became the poster child for the issue for a long time. To add insult to injury, it came out after games like Mortal Kombat 11, which had notably better netcode than most other fighting games at the time.

KoF XV’s netcode isn’t perfect; playing with people across America from Chicago was largely passable, but the moment more than one or two people from different regions joined a room, playing with friends became very laggy, with inputs sometimes failing to register and characters teleporting across the screen. At one point, when playing with another journalist in California, I was told my character was teleporting back and forth.

Considering both parties involved were playing on gigabit internet on hard-wired connections, this might sound unacceptable, but it’s actually a step up, believe it or not. One of KoF XV’s biggest boasts is its introduction of rollback-based netcode to the franchise, which is a far superior system for online play compared to the delay-based netcode that a number of other fighting games use, like Dragon Ball FighterZ and Street Fighter V

Instead of slowing down the match to a few frames per second, games with rollback will maintain the speed, making for a significantly smoother and less frustrating experience. No, XV’s implementation of rollback isn’t ideal, or even the best, but it’s notably better than past SNK games and even other fighting games that don’t use rollback. It seems strange to praise a game for doing the bare minimum, but during a pandemic, even the slightest improvements to online play could make or break its competitive and casual longevity.

Despite King of Fighters XV’s quality-of-life shortcomings, there’s no arguing that it’s still a good fighting game. It’s just as fast and entertaining as previous entries in the franchise and brings the series into a new era with vastly improved netcode, but it puts up so many barriers of entry that it’s hard to recommend to newcomers to the genre or franchise.

The King of Fighters XV was developed by SNK and published by Koch Media. Our review is based on both the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 versions. It’s also available for the PlayStation 4 and PC.

Charlie Wacholz is a freelance writer and college student. When he’s not playing the latest and greatest indie games, competing in Smash tournaments or working on a new cocktail recipe, you can find him on Twitter at @chas_mke.