The King of Fighters XV Review

Introduction

First, welcome! This is the first review I will be writing at SuperCombo, covering a major fighting game release. As such as I’d like to go over my review format. This review will break the game up into 3 components:

  • Gameplay, which is self explanatory. Here we’ll talk about the battle system, consider the roster, enumerate the modes of play and discuss what’s new or different. Not every game will be familiar to me or have some legacy behind it, so this may vary from first impressions to noting the key changes from a prior entry.
  • Presentation, which will cover how it looks and sounds in motion. Graphics, sound, performance and accessibility factors will be considered here. These factors will be considered for the overall user interface from start to finish.
  • Experience is the sum of the prior two parts in practical use. This component will cover online functionality, quality of life features, and any other components that are strengths or weaknesses of playing the game at length.

Any written review is an expression of reaction to the media being reviewed, based on what the writer likes or dislikes. I can attempt to be objective but the matter of enjoying something is entirely down to personal likes, wants and tolerances to what I do not like or want. I expect to be writing many reviews over time, and hope that this one gives you insight into what impacts my enjoyment of a fighting game. I also intend to make it my mission to speak to the topics that fighting game enthusiasts want to know about when considering a purchase – things like netcode, quality of life features, PC version and console comparisons will be covered here. I look forward to receiving feedback on how well I accomplish this mission, but for now I humbly submit to you my review of The King of Fighters XV.

Gameplay

The King of Fighters XV sticks close to what the series is known for: 3 on 3 team battles where each fighter is brought out one at a time until a player runs out of fighters to use. Resource management is key during these battles, where each player has a power meter that can fill up to 5 stocks during the match to be spent on super moves or activating the series staple MAX mode mechanic. The sticking point in discussing gameplay is that KOFXV is not just the latest entry in the franchise, it is the direct follow up to 2016’s The King of Fighters XIV in many ways. It becomes difficult to talk about what KOFXV is all about because so much of the system is a direct response to its predecessor and if you did not play that game you will be missing the context.

Rather than muse at length about the changes made to the systems that carried over I will summarize the most noticeable differences: EX moves can now be performed outside of MAX for half of a meter stock, Quick MAX – a way to activate MAX mode by canceling out of normals into a combo-enabling run towards your opponent – now has its own unique visuals to present it as its own mechanic, and throws are now reversals inputted through holding a direction and C or D. The outright new addition to the formula is Shatter Strike, which costs 1 meter stock to perform an armored version of the classic CD or blowback attack which will put the opponent in a crumple state in front of you if it connects as well as refund half of the meter cost.

The King of Fighters has always carried a myriad of universal mechanics, shaking them up between entries but never leaving behind its identity of free form movement and resource management. The shake up this time around accomplishes two things as a direct response to KOF 14: It gives you more viable options to perform outside of MAX mode (a big criticism of XIV was the importance of hit confirming into Quick MAX combos to even play the game at an intermediate level) and breaks up the MAX mechanic into distinctly presented halves for the sake of visual clarity. I find the change to throws to be an odd one out because it does change the way you engage with knockdown situations since a wake up throw can stop you in your tracks on offense, but I can’t comment on how much of a response this is to 14’s gameplay over just that the designers chose a different approach. Clarity is a key part of the approach SNK took to designing this game in my opinion, which we will circle back to when discussing the visuals.

We’ve covered the systems and now must discuss the roster, which has done away with most of the newcomers from 14 and has taken advantage of the current KOF saga’s frankly nonsensical plot to stage a modern day “dream match” of returning characters. Current protagonist Shun’ei brings his buddy Meitenkun along for one more ride and swaps master Tung Fu Rue for Benimaru, while series stars like Ash Crimson and Team CYS (that’s Chris, Yashiro & Shermie) make their debut in glorious Unreal Engine 4 character rendering. I’ve seen a few criticisms of this roster choice as “safe” which is certainly true in comparison to how many newcomers were in KOFXIV, but I’ll say this upfront – most of XIV’s newcomer roster falls completely flat for me (I will say I think Antonov’s return is glorious with the wrestling promoter look). Our returning cast is also a nice mix of archetypes while Isla and Dolores star as all-new characters with their own fresh gameplay kits.

From this position I assert that SNK putting their biggest stars forward was the right call given how well positioned this game is to impress on people outside of the SNK fanbase. This translates successfully to the gameplay. Many characters have either been expanded from their XIV iterations or faithfully translated from their 2D incarnations to the current system. I can speak only from my position as a long time Terry player that he has only received more tools over his XIV iteration, and everyone else I’ve spent time with feels at least not lacking in any meaningful way.

I will make one final note on auto combos, because they return from XIV and I feel that the image this mechanic has is twisted into a sour note owing to some very different implementations in other games. I find auto combos in KOF to be pretty reasonable because of a pair of conditions they impose: You must be practically point blank for the chain to actually begin, and you cannot whiff auto combo normals in neutral by simply mashing A/LP. It doesn’t dominate neutral and allows people to have fun at their pace, especially since cashing out power meter is handled by the auto combo and doing so otherwise requires knowledge of the combo route and super cancel inputs. If you disliked them in XIV I doubt the changes here will sway you but I think this is the right way to do this system.

Wrapping up, KOFXV’s gameplay is satisfying in all the ways a KOF game usually is – all the well timed hops and MAX mode sauce or big super chains that the series is known for. The changes to metered mechanics encourages more varied gameplay and characters are well represented here as SNK has clearly gotten a better hold of Unreal Engine’s capabilities. The roster changes will most certainly leave most veterans of 14 with a slot or two to replace, but I think the base roster represents some of KOF’s finest – and we can only keep the faith that the DLC teams will shatter our expectations. There is a great version of KOF here, and it’s a great fighting game period.

Presentation

The graphics and sound are still essential parts of the package no matter how you choose to engage with it, and here I will talk about the focus on clarity that I touched on while discussing gameplay. After reaching the artistic heights of Samurai Shodown, SNK has chosen to stick to a stylized art style focusing on clean outlines and bright colors. But SamSho this is not, as the challenge of placing a speedy Mexican wrestler in athletic attire next to a hulking mechanical man requires a certain broad stroke to the art style. Nonetheless the characters are expressive in facial and attack animations, often bringing with them faithful recreations of animation tricks used for their 2D iterations. Chris’ speed lines, Ash’s green flames, Elisabeth’s balls of light and more are delivered to your screen with saturated color grading that feels like the Neo Geo never left us.

The aforementioned tricks are also just about as complicated as you will get from KOFXV: There is very little in the way of modern rendering techniques here, motion blur has been nixed and depth of field is reserved for Climax move cinematics. Lighting is flat and stages don’t interfere with the character visuals. Overall the game is doing very little to get between you and the character action on the screen, and you know what? I would not have it any other way. I loath the dynamic character lighting in Guilty Gear Strive, I find the motion blur in Street Fighter V gets in the way of the gameplay, and most strictly competitive games in other genres also take a reserved approach to visuals so to see SNK go no-frills here while still delivering an image that is leagues ahead of its predecessor gets top marks from me.

One area where I find the game strictly lacking is stage selection. The stages here are varied and present themselves well, but the list is rather short and I think that’s a shame since I thought its predecessor delivered on this front. These stages are tied in to the story with a pair of unlockable stages which you will discover in the final act of the story mode. While stages have not been advertised as part of the upcoming DLCs I sincerely hope they will take the time to produce more as free updates.

I’ll take a moment to address the story and character interplay here – it’s completely vapid. SNK were among the very first to start implementing pre-match interactions, “destiny battle” special songs, and unique victory dialogues. So while all of that is here and is appropriately charming in the way an arcade fighting game should be, the story mode plot is an uninteresting thing that is vaguely about Heidern hunting down the remnant manifestations of KOFXIV’s defeated boss Verse. This serves as a segue into reintroducing many returning characters and a pair of new characters tied to the strange events taking place in the tournament. I’m going to be honest, it pretty much amounts to a pair of cutscenes and a post credit scene that changes based on your team which may or may not have anything to do with the events that unfold. I’m not the kind of player that places much weight on the story in a fighting game, but I also recognize that KOF has a long legacy of positively reviewed comics and stories that could’ve resulted in something more here.

You will find the sound design to be appropriately straightforward. The hit effects are appropriately punchy and the character dialogue retains pretty much all the iconic voices we’re used to. The music itself is an interesting situation, since SNK decided to inflate the game’s install size by packaging in every mainline KOF soundtrack with a few extras into the new “DJ Station” mode. I will only touch on the game’s dedicated score, which is a mix of KOF14 returning tracks and new arrangements which sound great while not having any stand outs (but does have a few misses, particularly for Team Rival).

The overall aesthetic of KOFXV is not a radical reinvention of the franchise – after all the high science fiction and anime bullshit elements were introduced somewhere in the mid 2000s – but it feels faithful above all else and authentic in a way that its predecessor never was. I wholly expect this game to make to a Japanese arcade platform, and as fighting game developers everywhere tackle with the reality of selling to a console and PC audience I get that same vibe from KOFXV as I do inserting a credit into one of the many Neo Geo entries. Can you tell I play The King of Fighters 98 yet?

Experience

For the KOF diehard simply the notion of a new game will put the butt in the chair to go a few rounds but for everyone else, The King of Fighters has historically not pushed the envelope as a $60 video game product (save for the infamy of the Ash saga’s pixelated high art). Here we must address a fundamental dividing line in playing KOFXV: If you are here for competition online or offline, you will be served a hearty plate with all the fighting game essentials to chew on. For your $60 USD or regional equivalent you will get day 1 rollback netcode that’s up to par, no-nonsense online lobbies, convenient training mode and replay functions built around a visual and aural experience that prioritizes clarity.

If that’s not what you’re looking for any reason, either because you’re not a competitive player or enjoy a smattering of story on your fighting game plate, or just don’t enjoy online play – this game will not offer you very much at all. Indeed SNK has chosen its path in developing a fighting game with robust online play and features catered to that self-serving competitive player and whether or not you will take much away from that is goes down to your individual preference.

Since this is my review, I’ll talk about my preference: This game feels almost fine tuned to what I am looking for in a fighting game. I approach a fighting game in the same way I approach a first person shooter or strategy game: I’m looking for the ability to sit down and play against other humans online with minimal friction. I grow tired of the pixel lobbies and the RPG modes that put roadblocks in front of fighting a real opponent – The less of it I have to engage with is almost always the better for me. I recognize most of the people I engage with in the FGC will take a similar stance but it’s inevitable that the barren and boring single player offerings here will be a turn off for some.

Before I rave about the online play I should clarify what the offline offering is here: Aside from the usual local versus bouts this game’s single player component consists of an arcade mode, a story mode which is functionally identical save for brief cutscenes catching us up on the cast’s whereabouts, a trial mode with far fewer missions than prior entries, and a pseudo-progression system that rewards you with various SNK and KOF game soundtracks by clearing the story mode with preset teams. That system sucks by the way, because fights are nothing more than standard CPU battles and the story mode boss is hardly more than an annoyance in difficulty (the easiest SNK boss ever?). I only cleared it twice for the sake of getting the soundtracks I wanted. Doing it for over a dozen soundtracks sounds miserable. The developers may have felt they needed to add something as a recognition that this is a pretty barebones offline package I don’t feel this friction was the right choice.

To this end I must also recognize that making a game in a long and complex endeavor that requires a clear set of priorities. If KOFXV is supposed to be a game enjoyed competitively with robust online, I respect that! Any course you take in developing a massive fighting game like KOFXV is going to cost a lot of money and I cannot pretend that SNK was going to do it all in one fell swoop. So we have our course but do we stick the landing?

I’m pleased to report that I’ve had a great time with KOFXV’s online systems. It’s simple, snappy and barring a few bugs I encountered with matchmaking lockups it works well. The rollback netcode implemented here punches with the best of them and lobbies are functional above all else even if returning players may feel that Party Mode has been severely downgraded from its previous iteration in KOFXIV. While KOF’s reputation includes a healthy Latin American representation, my region’s online experience is marred with high pings that only truly great netcode can deliver in. One caveat with the rollback netcode here that enthusiasts will notice is that the input delay cannot be set to a custom value and also appears to increase the delay on very distant connections (around 200ms). Certainly not ideal, and I’m not actually sure what the amount of input delay is when playing online but it is certainly responsive on connections hovering from 100 to 180ms. On PS4 and PC I’ve had a great time as a long-time rollback netcode appreciator, and I think you will too.

One of the benefits of writing a review during the launch days of the game is that I can put the game’s matchmaking, lobby and netcode under the strain of what will probably be the largest concurrent player count in the game’s lifespan. I flagged that matchmaking was pretty broken in the PlayStation open beta tests, frequently throwing errors or taking very long to find me a match. Unfortunately that is still happening a couple of days after launch and it really will turn off people who don’t have the tolerance to just keep mashing to try again.

The sweet serenity of a basic and functional lobby system.

PC version hands-on & input latency comparisons

If you’re looking for the best version of KOFXV to buy, early reports are suggesting that the PlayStation versions have the most latency. I started reviewing the game on PS4 Pro and checked out the PC version as soon as it went live, and it felt like a world of difference. Latency testing guru Noodalls has reported that the PS5 version has a gnarly 5 frames of input delay, PS4 models go down to 4, and all Xbox Series versions are the most responsive at about 3 frames. The Xbox Series X and S both enjoy 120 FPS support which improves animation fluidity but does not impact latency in a meaningful way. Considering SNK took steps to reduce input latency in Samurai Shodown, I hope and expect that there will be follow up patches to this.

The PC version is a jewel for all of you who sound the horn call to move away from unresponsive consoles to glorious PC – early numbers from Noodalls report just under 2 frames of latency! Any PC version carries the caveat that pretty much every set up will behave differently, but even my casual testing revealed a dramatic difference in link timing and hit confirm responsiveness. In terms of graphical presentation we’re not losing anything here, and SNK has promoted that the next-generation consoles and PC offer ray tracing support. Let’s talk about that.

Ray tracing in KOFXV is only used for reflections, and those reflections are only found in 2 stages in my testing: the Training Stage floor & a puddle in the center of Provence Main Street -Night-. The former reflects the characters silhouettes (but not any particles or VFX), and the latter only reflects some glowing elements in the stage background onto the puddle. I will attach screenshots of these effects but they are very minor effects that are usually accomplished to the same effect through screen space techniques. Just save yourself the frames and turn it off on PC.

The difference the Ray Tracing makes in KOFXV amounts to these two scenes. First image is RT off, second is on.

Speaking of saving frames on PC, this game suffers from shader compilation stutter. Don’t freak if your PC drops a few frames the first time you see a special or super move, as the game engine is compiling the relevant graphics shader and caching it for later use. Since the game offers no compilation step this will affect all but the most powerful rigs but will at least become a non-issue after playing for a while. I do hope if SNK is reading our review they can address this with a manual compilation step in the game options. (This video from the RPCS3 developers explains the problem in the context of an emulator but is illustrative nonetheless). On the flip side, community members have discovered that forcing the game into a DirectX 11 renderer in launch options resolved this stutter.

Moving on to display settings some members of the community noted that the game uses vertical sync that could add input lag, but when I fired it up I was seeing plenty of torn frames which signaled the opposite to me. Such is the nature of PC games, but I’ll include some instructions on forcing vsync off in the engine settings at the end of the review. I applied driver-level vsync and Nvidia’s low latency toggle, which is sublime to look at and play with all put together. In summary the PC version has rough edges and the online functions aren’t as stable as I’d like, which will test the tolerances of people buying in with the expectations set by much more polished PC fighting games.

Conclusion

Reading a review about a piece of media is to put trust in the word of the person writing it. I cannot think of a better title to begin writing reviews for than The King of Fighters XV then, because the right boxes have been checked here to ensure that what’s been left out or half baked don’t stop me from having a great time. KOFXV comes to us in a time where the FGC is expecting more from Asian developers and their prior fighting game release sparked a fierce conversation about online play’s effects on a game’s lifespan in the era of pandemic shutdowns. I fondly recall spending time trying out Samurai Shodown over Parsec with members of the DMV FGC, and remember that this experience came at a technical and monetary cost beyond simply buying the game and popping in the disc. While the dreams of a netcode update to that title are still just that, SNK’s latest release feels like an answer to the criticisms they’ve received from both KOF fans and the larger community.

To play an SNK fighting game online used to mean to resort to emulation or struggle through unacceptably bad netcode. The King of Fighters XV is built to be played against global online competition, first and foremost. Executing on that requires functional lobbies, straightforward matchmaking, and solid netcode. It’s not perfect, and a lot of the cuts made to the overall product were covered with unnecessary friction as the designer’s must’ve felt some need for stopgaps. Even if the story mode is bland, even if the DJ Station mode is an unnecessary grind, even if the trial missions are simplistic, even if there are bugs that carried over from the open betas — the execution of the core gameplay and competitive experience is sublime in a way that very few fighting games are. The FGC is without a doubt getting bigger, each scene getting more newcomers than the last, and I suspect many of my readers will be first timers enticed by the netcode’s positive reviews and usual fervor for a new fighting game to plunder for the cheap stuff. Only one thing is certain for everyone: K.O.F. is here again.

I strongly recommend The King of Fighters XV.

The King of Fighters XV is available on PC via Epic Games Store or Steam, Xbox Series X & S, and PlayStation 4 & 5. SuperCombo was not provided with a review code.

Appendix

PC graphics & display settings

PC version optimizations

  • Force the DirectX 11 renderer: add “-dx11” to your launch options. Consult the PCGamingWiki for your platform’s method.
  • Disable Unreal Engine vsync:
    1. Browse to “C:\Users\<youruser>\AppData\Local\KOFXV\Saved\Config\WindowsNoEditor” and open up Engine.ini
    2. Add the following to the bottom of the file and save:

[SystemSettings]

r.VSync=0

Review hardware

This review was conducted on:

  • PlayStation 4 Pro, internal HDD.
  • Windows 10 PC: AMD Ryzen 3 2200G CPU, Nvidia RTX 2060 GPU, ADATA SU650NS38 SSD, 16 GB of DDR4 RAM.
  • All network functions were tested on a wired connection.
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