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Starting off, I think it's important to note I have probably not touched a fighting game, before reviewing this one, in maybe two years. Even then, my preferred fighting game to jump into when I am bored and looking to get beat down has been Tekken, considering a large chunk of my fighting game fan friends play that over anything else. Now, I had played King of Fighters and enjoyed it, having jumped into the previous entry in the series, King of Fighters XIV, when it was first released back in 2016, playing it for a while before moving on to the next game that caught my interest. I happen to like fighting games, even investing in both Qanba and Hori brand fight sticks, getting sucked into practicing basic move sets, and playing rounds with friends whenever we get the time. Being somebody with ADHD however, I have never found it easy to continue with a fighting game to the point of learning it on anything more than a superficial level.
I specify this because even as I write this review I debate multiple facts about the game, as my brain attempts to reconcile my lack of skill, and the inability to get to any competent point before I write this, versus my overall feelings enclosed therein. On a personal level, King of Fighters is an enjoyable game that should easily appeal to fans of Street Fighter, Blazblue, or Skullgirls. The title strongly leans on its Japanese origins to not necessarily create new fans for the series but not alienate fans that have stuck with the series over the years. This is a case of not reinventing the wheel, but having a strong enough foundation where that doesn't matter. You go into the game knowing exactly what to expect, but you also get what you expected out of it.
King of Fighters has a long story that, like every fighting game that has managed to weather system after system, can often border on nonsensical. If you're new to the series, you don't need to know anything about the story before starting. Fans of the series will notice that much hasn't changed, with much of King of Fighters XV feeling like an extended version of King of Fighters XIV. For people who play the game and would like to see or understand the extended story that exists behind the fighting game, there are plenty of Manga and Anime that flesh it out, though if you just want to start fighting, there are only some basics at play.
King of Fighters revolves around the titular tournament that was first introduced as part of the SNK Fatal Fury series, before going on to lend several characters to the King of Fighters series, which is now the go-to SNK fighting franchise. Each game, and this one is no exception, sees a new KoF tournament bringing the many teams of the world together to see which team will claim the crown of being the king of fighters. Moving into this one, the only real narrative beat that appears is that the previous benefactor of the competition is no longer involved due to the usual craziness that you can expect in the final round of any fighting tournament featured in anime. Due to this, characters did not think another tournament would actually occur, but in the early moments of the game, we see them being sent out.
Based on early trailers of the game, and the opening cutscene, which is all CGI, I expected that we might finally see a more fully fleshed out narrative featured in the game's story. This is not the case, though depending on who you ask, this isn't necessarily a bad thing, given both Dead or Alive 6, and Tekken 7 attempted this transition to debatable success, but this intro feels a little like a tease that lures you in with little reward. From there, the game plays like most games that started in the Arcade usually do, battling 6-stages of rival teams, before fighting a final boss that the rest of the game did very little to prepare you for.
As stated, the core gimmick that has diversified King of Fighters from many of its peers, that you fight using a team of three characters instead of the usual one v one bouts, returns in full force. Going through the character select screen, you will see every character divided into groups of three, which helps you know their usual pairings. This matters because like traditional fighters, the story mode has multiple endings, depending on who you are playing. These endings mostly occur for the team with a few exceptions, meaning, to qualify for the anime bookend giving you a minor resolve to the journey, you need to play your story mode using the team roster and not by picking three individuals to bring together. Besides that, each story mode will consist of primarily the same opening, same middle, and same build-up to the final boss, with only the animated finale changing between each run.
This can amount to a tedious experience if you're somebody that likes to see every ending the game has to offer, as well as play every character through the story. Thankfully, the story, and even versus modes, have a solid selection of handicaps to help you if you are not the best fighter, which is the case with me. Losing in the story pulls up a list of handicaps that affect your overall score but make it easier to beat, which makes the game more accessible than most in that regard. Of course, most fighting fans, and especially the hardcore fanbase, will most likely play the story to learn the mechanics before switching to versus or online. The best thing that can be said about King of FightersXV is that it knows what it is and acts accordingly.
With a franchise that's been around since 1994, you can expect a storied history as well as a lot of changes over the years. What might help make King of Fighters XV the most definitive experience in the franchise is how it pays homage to its roots while still pushing the envelope ever forward, which can be a hard task to accomplish, yet, here it is. Again, it is important to note that the game itself plays like its predecessor, King of Fighters XIV, which brought several changes to the core of the gameplay. These changes should not serve as a turn-off to older players in the series but should help newer players feel more at home.
One of the core changes made between KoF XIII and KoF XIV was the art direction, which was similar to Street Fighter before it moved away from the sprite models, instead opting for fully rendered 3D polygon characters. That art direction has continued here, with each character having a polygon model that is then cel-shaded to get that signature anime look that pops. Similarly, the backgrounds are 3D as well, offing enjoyable cinematics as each fight starts, giving you a view of the local you otherwise don't get to enjoy during a match. While all the fights play out in 2 dimensions, unlike games like Guilty Gear that will occasionally throw in moves that cause the camera to shift, it is easy to see that everything has a commendable level of polish on it. Locations can range from a town square or a Chinese garden, and honestly, it can be a little hard to choose an arena, with every location looking like a great place to stage a fight. My biggest issue with backgrounds is the human animations which were janky, either as a stylistic choice or not.
Most often than not, the fighters make it through the jump with varying degrees of success. A few characters like Benimaru, Ash, and Joe, to name a few, have crazy hair that can feel bizarre when you look at them in a fight. And of course, one would be remiss to not mention the large roster of... large... female characters... and their jiggle physics. The biggest thing holding these models back is some facial animations following special moves in combat, sometimes on the victory screen. In combat, however, getting to watch the quick flurry of kicks and punches that define a fighting game, as well as a large number of magical moves such as Kula's ice attacks, Benimaru's lightning, or Terry's fire, the attention to detail in each moment, becomes something you can appreciate.
A welcomed edition this time around is that of the DJ Station, a new mode that can be accessed from the main menu. In here, players can listen to a very large selection of music from across the franchise's history. Most songs featured in the games lean toward hard rock, but there are several exceptions to this rule if the player wanders through the music selection. King of Fighters has always featured an enjoyable soundtrack, so it is great to go back through it. King of Fighters XV has its soundtrack in this menu as well, though many of the songs need to be unlocked as you play certain aspects of it, with criteria to unlock these songs displayed on them, which keeps you from getting lost searching for them.
The main menu also has an option to keep track of endings and cutscenes that you have seen as you continue to play, making for easy viewing should you wish to watch them again. These additions are simple in nature but help to add to the accomplishment felt as you continue to replay elements of the game, primarily the story. As stated before, while most of the endings are unlocked for using the teams as they are outlined, a few moments can be unlocked outside of these and those are also outlined in this menu to some degree. There is some replayability to the story mode as you attempt to gather all these, but again in between unlocking them is a consistent series of fights. In addition, all voice lines for each of the fighters can be collected as well.
The reason for collecting all the voice lines is pretty simple, because they are, for the most part, enjoyable to listen to. All the characters remain voiced in Japanese with no English dub work. If you are thinking about picking this game up then that will not likely be a dealbreaker for you, but since none of the lines during fights are subtitled, nor are the voice lines when you listen to them, some of what they are saying can easily be lost. That being said, characters' most important lines like what they say at the end of a battle or in a cutscene does get proper subbing, and since you are probably not paying attention to their voices in the middle of a fight anyway, you will be fine even if you can't speak Japanese. The only voice that is in English will be the announcer who does a serviceable job of hyping you up for each fight. He does an even more commendable job between rounds, offering witty statements on the match so far.
All of that should help set the stage, but at its core, King of Fighters XV is exactly that, a fighting game. To define that simply, players have health bars, a limited arena, and a character-specific move set consisting of simple and more complex moves that can be chained together. The goal at the end of this is to win the needed amount of rounds or drain your opponent of their health to claim victory. Again, much of the core mechanics for this are imported directly from King of Fighters XIV, so if you are familiar with the previous entry, you should be ahead of the curve. Those mechanics were very good though, so, understandably, the game would not want to stray too far from what it was already doing successfully.
These include two punches, both heavy and light, and similarly two kicks, both heavy and light, as well as combinations of these buttons that are mapped elsewhere on a controller or fight stick. Naturally, you can spam these abilities to get decent effects, and lord knows that did from time to time when I wanted to beat somebody, but there are decent combos to learn through hard work and repetition, though if this is the road you plan to go down, be ready to sink some serious hours into it like you would any other fighting game. King of Fighters XV has an easy point of entry for newcomers, who can easily perform well and pick up a skill or two, but, at the same time, linking long strands of combos is still a dedicated craft.
In the main menu, new players can find tutorials and mission options that can help them learn the ropes. The tutorial will allow players to go over the basics, which includes a set of options to learn movement in the game, and another that goes over combat. This only features a broad concept of the basics and is not character specific which is where the missions come into play. They might mislead players into thinking they will offer side narratives, but in actuality, they have character-specific training modes to go over individual fighters' special moves so you can start getting good with the fighter of your choice.
On top of that, the staple fighting game training mode also returns to the mix. Unfortunately, a complaint I have, partially from growing up on Dead or Alive, is that the training mode does not offer a way to pin abilities or run through a move set with the game confirming correct input. For players familiar with what they want to do, this will not limit them, for the rest of us, though, this means a lot of checking YouTube for players far more skilled than us to get a start point for what we should be practicing. It does feature button inputs, though, so while practicing moves, if you pull off a cool one, you can quickly look to see what you did.
Another addition that is designed to make the game more accessible for newcomers is the inclusion of the rush combo's, which return from the previous iteration of the game. These moves can be pulled off by getting in close and rapidly pushing the square button, then using any of the 4 primary attack buttons to finish off the four-hit combo. The inclusion of this, as is the inclusion of almost every auto combo set in a fighting game, was met with some contention by the fanbase, but it does have its pros and cons. On the one hand, it allows less skilled players to have a string of moves they can pull off and stand a fighting chance regardless of whether or not purists think they should. These moves are also not as powerful as a normal combo, and not as pronounced as the auto combos in say Persona 4 Arena. For players that do have a handle on the combat system, the rush combo can be distracting and also a disruption to a far better combo they are stringing along. I never saw a way to turn it off either, meaning that it could be a significant detractor to some skilled players.
The game has a multitude of modes that should keep it interesting for players deep into the game. As stated, the story mode has plenty of things to collect and occupy a dedicated player. The versus mode also features multiple modes including the ability to play against your friend or the CPU, play using the traditional team mechanic, or fight one v one. You can also bring this game online through casual or ranked matches, though during the duration of my review, these modes were not accessible, and therefore I could not try them personally. Having played the online in XIV, one can only hope they import that since it was well done. If you get really into the online mode, there are also leaderboards, so the competition never has to end.
King of Fighters XV is unapologetically a King of Fighters game, for better or worse. Many of the mistakes the previous title made, this one makes as well, but conversely, the triumphs of the previous title are on display as well. With a large roster of characters, a time-tested combat system, and plenty of modes to explore, there is a lot for new and existing players to enjoy about the nearly three-decade-old franchise. What we get is the classic fighting game dilemma, do we hold against it that remains the same game that it always has, or do we praise it for knowing what works and sticking with it. I fall into the latter camp, enjoying my time back in the King of Fighters tournament. Who knows, it might even be a game I might continue with, hopefully getting to a point where I am not just embarrassing myself.
In summation, as stated at the beginning, King of Fighters XV does little to reinvent the wheel. However, the wheel is pretty great and so is the game.