The King of Fighters XV Review: The King Has Returned

Although it used to be one of the most prominently featured arcade fighting game franchises out there, it's been quite a while since we have last seen The King of Fighters franchise in action. The last time we had seen the SNK fighter, it had unfortunately released to a divisive reaction nearly six years ago. The King of Fighters XIV was the first time the main games in the franchise had been rendered completely in 3D (eschewing the traditional 2D models seen in the series to that point), and this unfortunately led to a few notable bumps and bruises through the transition. 

The right bones were there, and the spirit of the franchise was still intact, but it was clear that XIV was the test for an even greater project to come. Thankfully, this was confirmed to be the case years later as The King of Fighters XV is the fully realized vision of the older titles that has been updated in all the right ways for a whole new generation. The hard hitting fun of SNK's long running franchise is here in plentiful amounts, but it's all been evolved into a new package that's got something for everyone to really dig their teeth into. 

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(Photo: SNK Corporation)

What you will notice first and foremost is that The King of Fighters XV looks fantastic. Characters returning from XIV and prior entries have been tweaked so that their models might share some similarities, but have been adjusted to better fit the 2.5D aesthetic. The brand new additions look great too as they all seem to bounce right off of the backgrounds. Adding to this impact is all of the impact effects themselves as each hit looks flashy, feels solid, and there are a lot of fun looking super moves that also include a new kind of visual fidelity with the more cinematic supers.

The impressive look of it overall wouldn't have mattered without the substance to back it up. It's a great fit for both players experienced with the prior games and potential new players as it featured a four button play style that mixes up light and heavy attacks. There's also a simplified combo that only takes a few sequential presses (known as the Rush Combo) that will help players get a feel for how it works while also offering a great looking move in the process. Veteran players will the be able to dive into all of the returning systems, short hops, fancier jumps, cancels and more. 

This is where the harder edge of King of Fighters XV rears its head, however, as there are a lot of ways to use your meter with EX Moves, cancelling out of those moves, MAX Mode, and more. The timing in between button presses for combos remains as tight as it ever was (which has always been SNK's bread and butter, for better or worse), so it makes for quite the steep learning curve. For reference, I have been using the standard PlayStation 5 DualSense controller so it could be easier for those using a fightstick or other custom controller (which would also raise other issues in terms of potential compatibility). There are tutorial and trial modes to explore, but for the most part you'll be on your own in terms of not only learning how to use one character, but three that you'll need to put in the time with to really be successful. 

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(Photo: SNK Corporation)

The learning curve might be steep, but there is an impressive variety in which routes to take. The King of Fighters XV's core is built on 3 vs. 3 matches, and the roster is stacked with 39 characters all organized into their series canon teams (which can result in different interactions and cutscenes in the story mode). You can mix your teams according to whatever characters' playstyles appeal to you the most, and it's a wide variety of both visually and mechanically appealing characters. Some are better fit for more experienced players given their inherent difficulty to pick up (like Angel's rhythmic command scheme, for example), and are there for those who really want to dig in. But if you're just interested in having a few rounds with friends, the roster will definitely keep you experimenting. 

It's also just plain fun to take online. I've only had a couple of hours worth of rounds by the time of this review, but its online experience feels just a speedy, hard-hitting, and solid as even some local couch matches have been. It's all held together by a rollback netcode which is a pretty big deal for fighting game aficionados as the quick adjustments remove much of the input lag. There is a bit of trouble with the weaker connections here and there, but that's also par for the course when playing on a connected that isn't directly hardwired into your router. 

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(Photo: SNK Corporation)

Like its competitors, The King of Fighters XV is primarily built around the multiplayer experience. There are a few experiences such as Story Mode (which amounts to a variation of the traditional Arcade mode with just a few cutscenes leading to a boss battle) and other options to toy around with, but the real mileage is finding the characters you like the most and putting in the time to figure out all of their nuances and tricks in the heat of battle. There's an easing into this type of play too with all sorts of small appreciated options such as setting slots for more than ten different teams before heading online, fun lobby setups (that even account for breaks), and further smaller quality of life adjustments have been made that should make it a great choice for pro tournaments. 

The King of Fighters XV is the return of a long running franchise, yet feels like it was just invented yesterday. A perfect blend of older and newer elements that make it the most pleasing overall package that fans haven't gotten from this franchise since the 2D pixel art days. The king has returned, and it's going to rule for a while. 

Rating: 4 out of 5

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The King of Fighters XV releases on February 17th (February 14th for early access) on PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X|S, and Microsoft Windows PC. A PlayStation 5 code was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review.