Athena might not be Marie Rose, but it’s close. It is so, so close. In King of Fighters XV, one of the alternative colour options for Athena gives her slightly darker skin and white hair and… I just about lost it when I saw that. Gorgeous. Stunning. What a game. I’m deeply disappointed that King of Fighters XV doesn’t give us the bikini costume that we got in the SNK Heroines fan service thing from a few years ago, but I guess SNK wanted people to take this game seriously or something.
I joke about my deep interest in Athena (or do I?), but the reality is that any fighting game lives and dies on the quality of its characters. Players absolutely must have their favourites, or they’ll move on over to an alternative where they do. Indeed, the entire premise and appeal of Smash Bros – arguably the biggest and most popular fighting game of all – is entirely because people love the roster. The good news is that King of Fighters has been around for long enough that its characters are popular and loved. Terry Bogart is the series superstar, but there’s also Athena, Kula and Mai. There are fewer characters that are in there purely as a joke, but there are still some, and they are great (King of Dinosaurs, anyone?). What’s more is that this is a roster that continues to expand, with XV offering a massive 39 out of the box, and another dozen or so are planned as DLC down the track. I am genuinely miffed that there aren’t alternative costumes at this stage (I mean, come on, it’s 2022!), but the visual variety and dynamics between the cast are as good as we’ve ever seen in fighting games.
King of Fighters XV is also gorgeous, and that’s a much-needed bounce back to form from a series that dropped the ball badly in its last iteration. As far as 2D fighters go, I do prefer the more detailed 2D backgrounds of the likes of BlazBlue, but the 3D environments in KoF XV pop with colour and style, and all have fun little features to spot along the way. The characters are all modelled gorgeously, too, striking a nice balance between a kind of naturalism and the exotic elements of anime. Having just seen the ridiculous proportions of the characters with the Street Fighter 6 reveal, I can appreciate the relative subtlety of the KoF designs all the more. But that’s also not to say the developers didn’t have fun. Land a special attack on an opponent, and watch the fireworks go.
Another feature in King of Fighters’ favour is its accessibility. This series has been notorious for its complexities in years past. Its intricate combo and counters systems were enough to intimidate anyone else experienced with the genre. With this particular title, the developers have worked hard to rebalance things to the benefit of all, and it shows. There is still plenty there for the experienced fighting game fanatic to train to finely-honed precision, but at the same time, my wife – who enjoys fighting games but has never played a KoF before – was able to jump on and land some spectacular special attacks on me in our first play session. She had a great time with it, right out of the box. I was worried that she would find is unwiedly at first, as she does generally prefer the more accessible fighters like Dead or Alive and Soulcalibur but, as it turns out, we’ve got our weekend multiplayer sessions sorted for the next few weeks at least.
In short, King of Fighters XV is almost the perfect fighting game. It’s both accessible and nuanced, it’s gorgeous, the action is fluid and exciting, and only thing the character roster is missing is swimwear. Unfortunately, though, there is a big “but”.
There is almost nothing to this game, especially if you’re not big on online play. For the single player, there’s only the Arcade mode, and it’s a relic of the past. All Arcade mode involves is a sequence of battles, with a two or three-minute cut scene before a couple of them conspiring to tell a “story.” Because it’s so disjointed and unrelated to the team of three you choose, though, it makes very little sense beyond “a couple of characters team up to fight in a tournament and, oh no! a big bad happens and that’s your final boss.” It’s the kind of “story” mode that you would expect from an arcade fighting game from a decade ago. Most other fighting games – even the likes of Dead or Alive and Mortal Kombat – have pushed hard to make their story modes a better delivery mechanism for the characters (if not actually tell a good story). There are some others – like BlazBlue and Guilty Gear – that go all out to be visual novels or anime that just happen to have a fighting game attached. King of Fighters XV here is a relic of the past, and that would almost be charming in a kitschy way, if there was anything to do afterwards, but there just isn’t.
I’m not exaggerating here. There’s no survival mode, time attack mode, or any of the other “high score” challenges that can make a single player fighting game replayable. There aren’t and rewards or unlocks to give you a sense of progression or reward for playing. There’s a tutorial and “mission” mode (where you’re given a number of inputs to successfully pull off), and while that does learn you up on the deep combo system in King of Fighters, it’s neither entertaining nor anything beyond what other fighting games offer. If you don’t have other people to play against in the versus mode (also no frills, but it is versus mode and so inherently replayable), then you’re really out of luck with King of Fighters XV as an offline experience.
Online things fare slightly better with a variety of ranked and unranked modes, and some pristine netcode. There isn’t a genre that tests the netcode harder than fighting games, where a single frame can be the difference between victory and King of Fighters XV performs exceptionally well here with its rollback netcode (explained here so I don’t have to) delivering a truly equisite and consistent experience. Now, in fairness given everything I’ve written above, the online multiplayer compoent of fighting games is what they live or die by, and it makes sense that the developers of King of Fighters would put more energy into this than anything else. Unfortunately, you need to be both a brave and dedicated soul to wade into King of Fighter’s online community, and the developers really should have put more effort into giving other players something to latch on to. I love fighting games, but the communities are not for me, so it’s unfortunate but where Dead or Alive, Soulcalibur or BlazBlue have everything I need to enjoy those games on my own terms for dozens and dozens of hours, King of Fighters XV does not.
I do admire the developer’s desire to maintain the arcade fighter tone and aesthetic in King of Fighters, and I’ll forever be a fan of this series as long as they keep dropping Athena into it. The team at SNK are no doubt working on more limited budgets than the big guns, and with the absolute focus on esports in the fighting game space it’s no surprise that they’ve made that a near-perfect experience, even as they’ve stripped almost everything else out of the game to make that happen. However, there’s no way to paper over this; people who do like fighting games in single player or local multiplayer are going to be left feeling very cold, though. Colder than Kula, even. And that’s disappointing.