When King of Fighters XV comes to PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X/S, and PC on February 14, it’ll do so with a bevy of characters, including all four heroes from past sagas of the decades-long storyline, long-dead fighters revived by the events of the previous game, and a pair of very cool-looking newcomers.
Kotaku recently spoke with King of Fighters XIV creative director Eisuke Ogura about one of these fresh faces, the spray paint-wielding Isla, ahead of her official reveal at Tokyo Game Show tonight.
Ogura is a 25-year SNK veteran who’s worked on several installments of the King of Fighters franchise, as well as other fighting games like Samurai Shodown and Garou: Mark of the Wolves. While he generally contributes to projects as a character designer—I’m told he played a key role in creating King of Fighters XIV newcomers Meitenkun and Kukri, both of whom appear in this new game—his responsibilities have increased on King of Fighters XV, on which he’s overseeing more aspects of development.
With the King of Fighters series spanning over three decades at this point, I was curious how SNK’s designers continually manage to produce cool, new characters that don’t feel like retreads of previous fighters. Isla, for instance, is quite unlike any of her predecessors despite the series featuring (by my rough estimate) almost 200 playable characters since its debut in 1994. What does the creation process even look like with that much history at your back?
Surprisingly, Ogura explained that it doesn’t start with a fighter’s looks, despite this being the aspect that, I assume, most players tend to latch onto at first glance.
“When we start [designing a character], we consider the storyline first,” Ogura told Kotaku by way of an SNK interpreter. “We consider what kind of character should be in the story, their personality, and also what kind of skills he or she may need to have. We’ll combine everything and then consider what he or she looks like.”
With that in mind, Ogura said that Isla came about because SNK wanted to introduce a rival for Shun’ei, the storyline’s current protagonist who debuted in the previous game. In a video released over the summer, we first saw the then-unnamed Isla referring to Shun’ei as a “headphoned poser” and a “freak,” and that animosity will be a defining aspect of her character in King of Fighters XIV. Adding to the drama is the fact that both use disembodied hands to fight, which apparently irks Isla to no end.
“Isla’s not very much into actual fighting like, you know, how you would beat somebody or kick somebody,” Ogura added. “Mostly, she relies on those two hands that you can see in the trailer. Her fighting style is more like dancing. It’s more special and unusual. You could describe it as very abnormal.”
I also asked Ogura about the similarities between Isla’s floating hands and the fighting style used by King of Fighters XIV boss Verse, but he wasn’t quite ready to spill the beans on that connection. In fact, Ogura was reluctant to provide many story-related details at all, for obvious reasons. I was able to squeeze out of him, however, that Isla is from South America and that she’ll be part of a traditional three-person team rather than standing apart as a boss character.
In any case, it’s clear that SNK is finally coming into its own with regard to 3D graphics and animations. Despite previously setting the standard for 2D sprite-work in the arcade era, the company switched gears with King of Fighters XIV, rendering its classic characters with 3D models for the first time in the mainline series. Many criticized these models—a common complaint is that they looked like they were made for PlayStation 2 rather than modern hardware—even after an update greatly improved the game’s visuals.
King of Fighters XV, on the other hand, came out of the gate looking much better than its predecessor. It utilizes more stylized aesthetics rather than hewing toward bland, realistic models (owing perhaps to Ogura’s artistic sensibilities as an established illustrator), and overall the look seems to be a hit with longtime series fans.
“King of Fighters XIV was our first 3D game, so we didn’t have much experience with it,” Ogura said. “There was lots of stuff that we wanted and planned to do but [weren’t able to accomplish]. But in King of Fighters XV, we have more experience and we’ve improved our development skills.”
These improvements are incredibly apparent with Isla. As demonstrated in the reveal video, she’s a very outlandish character, both in terms of her outfit and fighting style, but it all comes together in one super stylized yet somehow believable package thanks to King of Fighters XV’s overall aesthetic. The splashes of color provided by her graffiti skills also add a welcome, extra layer of pop to help set her apart in a series already defined by its iconic characters.
King of Fighters XV is well on its way to becoming a great entry in the long-running franchise, thanks in part to the addition of newcomers like Isla and the mysterious, yet-to-be-named braided woman seen in previous trailers. Not only that, but this installment is also the first time the series will utilize rollback netcode, ensuring that serious competitors will be able to play online matches that feel much closer to playing in person.
Ogura’s responsibilities may have increased tremendously, but it’s clear his influence is doing wonders for the game’s aesthetic direction.