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King of Fighters 15 review - sticking to its roots

Can SNK’s latest instalment in the KoF series challenge all comers and steal the fighting game crown?

I wasn’t too sure how I’d feel about King of Fighters 15 before I’d gotten my hands on it. As a teenager I dabbled in King of Fighters 2002 and King of Fighters 13, and as a snobby adult I love looking back at some of the original entries from the 90s and 2000s. But in recent years, my attention has largely been driven away from SNK’s headline series in favour of the likes of Guilty Gear or Tekken. I’m happy – more than happy, ecstatic – to write that this dry spell has come to a definitive end with King of Fighters 15.

First things first, let's break down what you get with the launch package of KoF 15. Overall, it’s a fairly standard selection for a fighting game at release, with a few sweet standouts that help bolster up the total offering. You’ve got your local versus and training modes that you’d expect from any fighting game, alongside the game’s dedicated story mode – an arcade mode with some unexpected flourishes that plastered a big grin across my face.

Yes, the story is a cheesy paranormal affair with a clown car full of different characters (some of whom possess mystical martial arts powers) fighting in yet another worldwide fighting tournament. The game rushes through the lead-up to the events of the narrative with the kind of hurry you’d see from someone rushing to catch the train to work; every fighter receives a letter saying – and I’m paraphrasing here – “look bud, you know the deal by now. Come to the King of Fighters tournament and throw down.” By the fifteenth entry, I suppose it’s fair to assume that people know the context by now.

That’s not to say the story mode is a barren, soulless experience. Far from it. There are plenty of fun and heartfelt moments, even if it’s not the content that typically draws me into fighting games. Every now and again, characters on opposing teams will engage in a short conversation, typically some pre-fight trash talk or a few quips harkening back to events and relationships established in prior games. These, at the end of the day, are little more than cute decorations – but if you’ve been hanging around the series for a while, there’s some joy from seeing decades old arguments resurface as characters bicker and chide each other.

On top of all that single-player content, you’ve got a tasty platter of online options: a ranked and casual mode, online training modes, and even a dedicated replay viewer! A highlight for me are the room matches. Yes, we’ve seen this featured in games for years, but I’m a huge fan of the customization options available to hosts here. You’ve got your choices between team battles, singles, and party battles, but you can also pick draft battles which start the battle from character selection as each player picks their team composition, one by one. This is absolutely an addition targeted towards the dedicated players who get waist-deep into individual character matchup knowledge. It’s a genuinely cool inclusion, I just hope people keep playing it in the future, rather than defaulting to ranked and casual matches – this feels like one of the game’s key gimmicks.

For tertiary modes, you’ve got a nice-enough tutorial that goes a long way at explaining the basics of the game, as well as missions that present a series of combo challenges for each character. These start off simple – and act as a reliable source for entry level combos – but in classic King of Fighters fashion, soon devolve into hair-pulling tests of finger dexterity and patience. I was slightly disappointed that the uber-difficult (dare I say borderline impossible) trials you’d find in previous entries into the series weren’t present, but since there was little chance of me completing them that feeling soon drifted off.

But with all that in mind, the choices of modes are all …expected. There’s nothing wrong with the tried-and-true approach, of course, and it certainly includes everything I’d want from a fighting game. If you’ve come to KoF 15 looking for some drastic evolution on what the franchise provides, though, you won’t find it here.

What comes in as an invigorating injection of excitement for those uninspired by the selection of modes is Rollback Netcode! A bit of context: for years, fighting games have mostly had subpar online infrastructure. It's made playing over the internet a frustrating venture for those looking to get some games in from the comfort of their own homes. KoF has had this problem in the past, it’s true, but that gnarly wound in an otherwise enjoyable series has been patched up in KoF 15. I’m glad to report that you can indeed play people online – further than a few miles away from your house – and while there are still some hazy matches now and again, the experience is a vast improvement from what we had before.

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If you’re content with the modes offered and give King of Fighters 15 a proper look, you’ll see the game is far and away a more visually appealing game than its predecessor. With KoF 15, the team has, finally, found its footing in 3D. Both the characters and the stages look great, as vibrant and gorgeous as the series deserves, narrowly avoiding the banana hair pit games like Street Fighter V slipped and plummeted into.

There’s room for improvement of course – some special moves and projectiles do still look a tad odd. Characters like Kukri, with their sand and earth elemental attacks, fall victim to this, but these moves remain defined and clearly visible enough to not pose any issues when it comes to competitive matches. Here’s hoping that with KoF 16, the team can adjust things slightly to remedy the issue as it’s my only real complaint with the title from a graphics standpoint.

Anyway, let's get into the dark meat that keeps bringing folk back to KoF game after game: the gameplay proper. KoF 15 feels a lot like a classic fighter, which I dare say may be a purposeful choice, and one I adore. There’s strict timing for combos, vast move lists filled with the star cast of quarter-circle motions, charge motions, and all manner of multi-stage inputs that’ll have your thumbs darting all over the place.

Two of the three new characters, Isla and Dolores, fit into the roster perfectly while adding their own exciting new mechanical quirks to an already gameplay-diverse cast. Kronen, who enters the roster with a kit similar to former characters Nameless and K9999 also fits in snuggly among the cast with a move set I can, honestly, say I’ve missed. Does his red scarf look a bit dumb? Absolutely. But I’m glad they were able to rework a great move se,t and I’m sure someone out there likes the 2019 – a la Akira – biker look.

That’s not to say KoF 15 doesn’t bring some new spice to the regular dish, though. Shatter Strike is a new addition that acts as a universal counter, allowing you to stop an incoming attack and return fire with a single powerful blow that leaves opponents crumpled if it hits. If you’ve played Street Fighter 4, you know how a move like this can really flip the typical fighting game format on its head – and Shatter Strikes absolutely do that here. They really mix up the typical hyper-offensive, hopping-happy gameplay KoF is used to in a way I loved from the moment I got my hands on it.

If all this sounds rather difficult to master, you’re not wrong. The inherent challenge present here is something I personally love about these games, but it will without a doubt cause others to bounce away. This isn’t Mortal Kombat, after all. This game demands a lot from you, and it doesn’t shy away from that reality either. Learning a character's many nuances, their key attacks, a selection of combos, and chiseling their special move inputs into muscle memory takes some dedication on the player’s part – and you need to do it three times over to hone a full team.

While there are some olive branches for the novice button masher out there (such as Rush Combos which allow you to repeatedly press a single button for a full combo to come out, Super ender and all) these are limited in number. Either way you cut it, you’ll have to confront the grind that is learning a fighting game. Some people have a kind of lustful, painful relationship with this grind. I’m one of them. I’ve been in a drunken, groggy love affair with this nightmarish genre for years, and while it does provide a level of satisfaction you just can’t find elsewhere, that barrier can be hard to persevere over.

Playing KoF 15, I recall one of my favorite memories – one where I spent multiple hours playing fighting games at an arcade during a trip to Japan. By staying true to that identity as an arcade fighter and focusing on what it is are good at, rather than making sweeping changes in the hope of appealing to crowds other than the communities that have risen around these games for decades, SNK has created a game that reminded me of the quality that can be found in a simple, honest fighting game without too many bells and whistles.

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