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It is time for another “The King of Fighters” tournament, and with that come certain expectations along with a hope for the new. What does that “new” have to be, exactly? Depending on the player, it can be several things: more depth, more balance, more unique characters… The common glue holding it together is “more,” an exciting time with series veterans wondering what could be. Of course, this implies that the player is already familiar with The King of Fighters franchise. So, for the uninitiated, we’ll quickly get you up to speed. For the fans already invested in the universe, give me just a moment and we’ll get into it!
If you are new to The King of Fighters franchise, there are a few simple things to know that differentiate these fighters from the rest of the pack, along with some comparisons that you may consider. The King of Fighters games are, not surprisingly, a series of fighting games. SNK, the developer, mashed characters from its own Art of Fighting and Fatal Fury games, and it added some original characters along with some from its own stable of established characters, such as Clark and Ralf who appeared in the Ikari Warriors and Metal Slug games. Although the Neo Geo was not exactly lacking fighting games at that time, The King of Fighters ’94, the first in the series, was unique due to its team-based combat.
Beyond choosing a team of three fighters, something very unique for the time, the game made no qualms in stylizing its combat after the Street Fighter series. Whether it succeeded at equaling or even topping the behemoth differed depending on the player asked, but it also had tight controls and delved in the way of the foot. Footsies and spacing are king (dare I say) in The King of Fighters, and those aspects hold true across all of its characters. This methodology gives them a certain “sameness” regardless of who you play. Understand, they are certainly unique in their abilities, meaning you still have the common food groups of fighting characters (rushdown, grappler, spacer, zoner, etc.), but they all feel very much beholden to the overarching fighting system. You won’t find the insane uniqueness found in the likes of BlazBlue or Guilty Gear characters where characters bring their own systems that go outside of or add something to the established “rules,” but the KoF characters still maintain a more than adequate amount of unique aspects from character to character.
The King of Fighters XV releases with a mighty roster, and it is highly unlikely that any given player will not fall in love with at least several of them. They each have plenty of ways to control the matches in their own ways, and they all have ways to escape corner and zone traps thanks to a simple, universal system of evasions, blow backs, and more, that produce a surprising amount of depth and options to every situation in a match. I feel there are a few too many penalties to playing in an especially defensive manner, but in practice those systems don’t show their faces quite as much as I feared. Besides, this game is all about making great reads to control space, and baiting for mix-ups.
Players need not fear having to always watch their character be the canvas for a 30-hit combo masterpiece while they sit back with a sandwich until the brutality finally ends. There are certainly combos, including longer, creative ones performed while using a canceling system that feels like a younger cousin to Guilty Gears’ own Roman Cancels. But even those rarely reach the greater numbers dished out in other games on a consistent basis. As such, learning to space and bait your opponent with mind games and tons of 50-50 match-up situations are the rules of the day. And this is only possible because of that aforementioned “sameness” and balance of characters.
One thing that the party system of choosing 3 characters does is to create even more balance. Because this is not a true “tag” fighter, you don’t utilize strategies with your other characters like you would in, say, BlazBlue: Cross Tag Battle and the Marvel vs. Capcom games. Instead, each character acts like a round. When one of your characters is defeated, you have lost that round, and the next character in your chosen order enters the fray. The first to defeat all three of their opponent’s fighters wins the match. There is also a 1v1 mode where each player chooses only one character to play a more traditional “best of 3 rounds” format, but the team-based gameplay is the core of The King of Fighters XV.
Ok, now that we’re up to speed, what is new to The King of Fighters XV for the veterans out there? There are three new characters from which to choose, and they each fit in with the rest like a glove while being a lot of fun to play! Along with them comes a new “Shatter Strike” ability which is not unlike Street Fighter IV’s Focus Attack. It works to keep aggressive players on their toes, adding another layer of mind games to the mix, and that single addition adds more balance to the mix than may be immediately realized. Mixing these new elements with a streamlined overhaul of all of the other game systems provides an experience that is easier to get into for newer players, and it is a wise choice that maintains the legacy depth while providing an overall product that feels more cohesive and fun to play than its fantastic predecessors.
Exciting gameplay needs modes in which to play them. Unfortunately for fans of single player modes, The King of Fighters has never been heavy on single player ways to play. In the latest iteration, there is a Tutorial and a Training mode to learn the ropes, along with a Mission mode to put each character’s combos and intricacies into practice. These all work to make you a combat-worthy player, but the only single player modes where you can put your skills into practice are a Versus mode, where you can set up matches to your liking and battle to your heart’s content, and a Story mode, which is basically a glorified arcade mode with story elements. There is also a DJ Station that is a neat addition which allows you to listen to music from the series’ history, along with a couple of other SNK nods such as Metal Slug and Samurai Shodown, and then you may use these tracks while playing the different stages in the game. For single players in The King of Fighters XV, though, the Story mode is the main attraction.
In Story mode you choose your team of fighters and fight your way through several rounds, and story elements are sprinkled in at specific intervals. It is your typical, nonsensical fighting game tale leading to a supernatural excuse to bring together a fighting tournament, but it serves its purpose and allows for a number of interesting endings based on the chosen teams. If you go with choosing a hodgepodge of random fighters, you’ll likely receive a standard and basic ending, but if you choose one of the myriad teams of three, you will get an ending based on that team and possibly more in-depth story elements throughout.
Even though it is basically an arcade mode, the Story mode serves not only to add a narrative to the fighting fun, but also to encourage repeated playthroughs in order to unlock everything in the DJ Station, Profile items, and the Gallery mode. Each unlock requires completion of the Story mode by a unique team. This includes the teams grouped together on the select screen, but other unlocks will require some creative groupings of characters to achieve their specific rewards. Figuring out the teams to unlock all of the rewards can be fun, but with no other single player modes, it can quickly feel barren compared to other fighting games which bring several other ways for single players to play.
The heart of The King of Fighters series has always been pitting your skills against the rest of the world. Fortunately, this year’s game is packed full of an assortment of ways to play, including the standard Casual and Ranked matches, along with a Room Match that allows for the creation of a room of up to eight players to challenge each other with a variety of options. GGPO rollback is also finally utilized with this installment, so matches are much smoother online than in past iterations. Though the servers were initially down, and then very barren during my initial review period, I have since been able to check out some online matches, and they have been quite smooth, with the occasional bout that was loaded with input delay. Still, the online matches are mostly very smooth, certainly more so than past iterations. In addition to sparring with the world’s warriors, you can also change your profile to include your default characters for 3v3 and 1v1 matches, along with several messages and flair that you can earn. You may watch your replays, as well as those from others around the world, and there is a leaderboard, so you can see where you stack in the grand scheme of fighting mastery.
The fights take place in over 15 stages, and there is a nice assortment here. While I would like to see more going on in the background in some of them, most are very detailed, and they are quite varied with some welcome nods, such as “The Sahara,” pulled straight from Metal Slug. There is also a Training Stage for those that want as few distractions as possible, keeping the focus squarely on the fighting.
Fighting is exactly where the focus of any good fighting game should be, so let’s delve a bit more into the balance and mechanics. Balance is extremely important, of course, lest you have a situation where everyone is picking only the same few characters. As stated earlier, the 3v3 premise actually helps to maintain a balance because you cannot rely on one overpowered character, unless that one character is good enough to take out the opponent’s entire team. With equally skilled players, I cannot see that happening very often in KoF XV. I do suspect there will be some character imbalance that will come to the forefront when the game is in the wild for a bit (I’m looking at you, Kula, Kyo, Meitenkun, and a few others), but nothing that will have every single player picking the same three characters. It can be very difficult to judge such things so early on with a new fighter, but my initial impression leads me to believe that, while some characters are somewhat more capable than others (I suspect poor Kukri won’t be highlighting many tournaments), the streamlining of escapes, along with the new Shatter Strike, help to maintain a decent balance.
Time will tell, of course, and that is the way of all fighting games. What we have with The King of Fighters XV is actually something more special than I initially realized. The more I played, the more I saw the intricacies in individual matchups, and it’s more than I noticed from the past entries in the series. I thought about why this was, and the obvious answer hit me: the streamlining that worked to ease the game’s barrier to entry actually helped bring many of the characters more in line with the overall balance. There are matchups that work now because of the universal tools given to each of the characters. That “sameness” experienced due to so much of the overall game system being universal across all of the characters allows players to have a certain understanding and respect in several matchup situations. Knowing your opponent can easily turn the tides against you if you guess or anticipate your foe incorrectly is exhilarating, understanding that so much can go so right, or so wrong, by a single read or misread.
For new players and veterans of The King of Fighters series, this is the finest entry yet. Each game has taken steps to move the series forward, but not all have been successful. KoF XV absolutely succeeds. It is not only a step in the right direction, but a true step into the ring of modern competent fighters. The previous game, KoF XIV, put a lot of foundational work in place to take that step, but it wasn’t quite ready just yet. The King of Fighters XV is now ready for all challengers, and while its single player modes may be somewhat lacking, the overall package brings a fight that will have you pining for one more match, and then another.