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Is King of Fighters 15 worth the money?

SNK's latest installment of their flagship fighting game franchise is here, but is this launch robust enough to justify paying full price for?

Posted by Nicholas 'MajinTenshinhan' Taylor • February 17, 2022 at 9:11 a.m. PST • Comments: 48

With 6 years having passed since the release of King of Fighters 14, we're finally getting our hands on the first brand new game in this very beloved SNK fighting game franchise in more than half a decade — King of Fighters 15. The ever-looming question, of course, is how does it hold up?

After having spent a few intense days perusing the various modes and intricacies of the game, I've gotten a pretty good handle on what merits and drawbacks the game has and hopefully will be able to guide you on whether you'd feel it's worth a purchase or not.

Online play

One of the most touted improvements to King of Fighters 15 is of course the much-requested addition of rollback netcode to the game. While delay-based netcode isn't always an awful experience, SNK in particular have a very bad record in this area with their outings in the age of online play from King of Fighters 13 all the way up to the most recently released Samurai Shodown have left a lot to be desired.

Obviously, rollback doesn't automatically make the online experience good — it has to be implemented well to give players a good experience, but I'm happy to report that at least in my own experiences, it definitely holds up against other games that are out on the market right now in this area.

I played a good amount of matches with varying connection quality, and while the matches against fellow players in my country of residence Sweden were pristine as they are in basically any game, I also had a fine experience against other European countries of various distances between me, with smooth gameplay and very few rollback frames.

What surprised me was that I even had a decent experience against my colleague Dakota "DarkHorse" Hills who lives in the U.S.A, Iowa to be more specific, which in case anyone isn't well-versed in North American geography is pretty much right in the middle of the country, neither east coast nor west coast. Obviously that's no short distance to Sweden (4,400 miles or 7,080 kilometers, to be exact), but our connection held up well enough to be perfectly enjoyable, with only a few instances of rollback frames rearing their ugly heads during our first-to-5 set.

Compared to other games I've tried out against Dakota, this was a lot smoother than Tekken 7 which we considered to be "playable" but not much more between the two of us, but not quite as slick as the recently released Guilty Gear Strive which is definitely still the king as far as online play goes.

That said, King of Fighters 15 is definitely in a good place with its online play from the matches I put in and friends I've spoken to seem to agree with this assessment as well. Given SNK's history in this area, it's a massive step up and if you were worried about the netcode being a reason not to buy the game, you shouldn't be.

One thing I will mention though is that Dakota and I played one match where he was accidentally on Wi-fi instead of a wired connection, and the experience reminded me of some of the more frustrating matches I've had in Street Fighter 5 in the past, which is definitely not a good grade. But you shouldn't be playing on Wi-fi anyway, so I won't hold that one against SNK.

Game mechanics

As the followup to King of Fighters 14 — a game which I personally felt did a lot of things right, but was held back by somewhat dull and monotonous gameplay — the game mechanics of this new game were definitely a point of interest to me. How much did it change of what didn't manage to keep my attention in King of Fighters 14?

Obviously this is just my subjective opinion, but I feel like this is a heavily improved version of the foundation that was laid with King of Fighters 14. Something that's been remarked on a lot during this game's pre-release cycle is that it reminds them of 14, both in good and bad ways, and that definitely holds true with the game itself as well, though I'd say it's in a good way.

The re-addition of EX moves outside of activation gives a much larger variety to what characters are able to do and also lessens the impact of having to activate MAX Mode, although it's obviously still a huge boon to do so.

There are also a bunch of new moves added to characters who are either mainstays or we haven't seen in a while, which makes it feel quite fresh so that despite building on King of Fighters 14's foundation it's definitely not just a rehash — this is very much its own game, and it has a lot of expression to what you can do with your characters.

Optimal combos may still revolve around getting into max mode and busting out various finishers into each other, but the meter management feels much more intricate now and makes it more interesting when you're on your earlier characters where your gauge may be somewhat more scarce. Should you burn it to a super or do extensions with an EX move or two? It varies greatly based on character and situation, and it feels good to have this dynamic feeling in matches.

There's also the new mechanic of Shatter Strike, which I'm honestly not sure what to think of yet. This is an armored move that puts the opponent in a sort of crumple state to allow for brief followups after, or you can use a meter to do a beefier version which gives a wall bounce.

Shatter Strike is what I was most worried about going in, and while I haven't explored it too intricately yet, my early impression is that it's less of an issue than I thought it would be. I may have to eat my words on this one eventually, but it feels like a pretty natural fit in the game and doesn't really ruin anything like I was afraid it might.

One thing I'm not overly fond of is how high damage you can get from the game's autocombo system. Just mashing light punch will lead to surprising amounts of pain towards your opponent, and you can even adjust it with a different final button to do a higher level super, doling out even more punishment.

While I understand the necessity to give players something easy to perform, especially newer ones, it does feel like the reward is a bit high for the execution required given how intricately designed the combos outside of this can be, which sometimes makes it feel like you put time and effort in for nothing after seeing someone shave off half your life by just pressing a button over and over, though I'm sure this feeling will diminish the longer the game is out and harder (but also more rewarding) combos become more second nature in my hands.

Outside of this, you have your standard things you'd expect from King of Fighters — rolls that can be used to advance or retreat, and you can also burn meter on defense to either do an escape roll or knock your opponent back with a counter. The stun system and guard break system are still present as well, so you'll have to be careful when opponents are going in hard on you on either hit or block, but this is all standard fare for King of Fighters.

Overall, the system feels very fluid and a lot more sharp than its predecessor. While I'd say that I liked King of Fighters 14 as a game even early on, I definitely love King of Fighters 15 so far and the gameplay mechanics are a big part of that.

Single player content

The single player content for King of Fighters 15 has been pretty heavily advertised by SNK and while it's servicable, it's really not much to write home about. Story mode, the main single player draw, is really just an arcade mode with a new name.

There are some really pretty cutscenes in the story mode, but they're all the same regardless of what team you pick, and there really aren't many of them either, basically just showcasing the main players of the central story and what happens to them. All in all, the cutscenes together probably amount to less than 5 minutes.

While story modes aren't exactly central to the fighting game experience, there have been notable efforts by most fighting game companies to put heavier emphasis on it, perhaps most notably NetherRealm Studios, though Capcom, Bandai Namco and Arc System Works have definitely all thrown their hat in the rings to make bigger cinematic stories as well, with varied results between them.

King of Fighters 15 kind of sidesteps this entirely, opting instead to have more traditional arcade mode-style endings for each team, which admittedly have a lot of content to them, but it's really just images and text without even any voiceover present for them, similar to what we saw in King of Fighters 14 as well.

If this is a big deal for you, then obviously this is a pretty big drawback for the game. Outside of the story mode, probably the most single player-oriented area is the Mission Mode which features 5 combo trials per character with varying difficulty, some of them being really easy and some packing more of a challenging punch, though none come even close to the meme-ability of King of Fighters 13's lengthy and arduous trials, there really was no reason to expect them to be at that level either.

The game's training mode comes equipped with most of what you would expect to see in a modern fighting game, though there's sadly no in-game frame data, which is something we've started to see more and more of in modern releases, meaning it's a step behind what you'd find in Street Fighter 5: Champion Edition or Tekken 7's paid frame data DLC.

If online or offline versus matches aren't the main appeal for you when it comes to fighting games, then King of Fighters 15 might not be the title for you. The single player content offering is fairly weak, but if traditional arcade modes and combo trials are enough to satiate your needs, then it should cover everything you need.

The whole package

King of Fighters 15 is a robust game with a lot of content even if it isn't very single player-oriented. With a launch roster of a whopping 39 characters and some very expressive gameplay mechanics to let you enjoy these characters to their fullest, there's more than enough to keep you busy for quite some time.

Visually, the game is a very clear upgrade over its predecessor which received a lot of criticism for being behind the times as far as graphical fidelity went. It doesn't break any barriers like Arc System Games tend to be able to, but it's definitely serviceable and no characters stick out as particularly bad, though there are some character-specific effects which leave something to be desired — newcomer Dolores' mud textures come to mind as notably inconsistent.

Since one of the big talking points for King of Fighters 14 was that it didn't look too pretty, it's nice to see that SNK paid mind to this feedback and upped their game for King of Fighters 15, but it's also obvious that the visuals aren't the main focus for the game. They're good enough, but won't turn any heads.

On top of that, we're already getting Team Garou next month and Team South Town in May as paid downloadable content, so SNK have clearly signaled that continuous support will very much be a thing with this game, as should be expected after everything they did for Samurai Shodown after its initial release. While this additional content obviously costs more beyond the asking price for the base game, it's a clear indication that the game and its developer support will be trucking on for a long time to come.

If what you value for a fighting game is solid online play, intricate combat mechanics that haven't really been toned down too much from past entries, execution skill being rewarded with more combo options and higher damage dealing or just a large varied cast out of the box, then King of Fighters 15 is definitely worth spending some of your earnings on.

However, if what you're hoping for is a robust single player experience, a training mode on par with some of the best on the market or a more simple fighting game experience without overly difficult inputs or combos, then King of Fighters 15 should probably be skipped.

In the end, King of Fighters 15 lives up to its legacy by very much embodying the spirit of SNK's flagship fighter and giving its established fan base what they expect and want.

Personally, I wouldn't have it any other way.

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