Killer Instinct Review

By Adam Ma on December 20, 2013

Retro revivals for fighting games aren't really a thing, but if they were, Killer Instinct would be pretty high up on the list of influential games for the genre. Beyond the contribution of C-C-C-COMBO BREAKER the franchise was pretty exploratory in the way it approached health bars, attack strings, ultra attacks and finishing moves; with many abilities tied into specific percentiles or automated combos. and the great news for fans of the original is that Double Helix and Rare have done a fantastic job in breathing life back to the series. Even without diving into the heavy details you can rest assured that Killer Instinct still feels like a fighter independent from the rest.

Killer Instinct follows the arcade fighting build assigning light, medium and heavy attacks to punches and kicks respectively, and depending on which button you push, attacks can be more easily strung together or combos cancelled out entirely. Each character also has special attacks that require specific inputs and a unique bar that (when filled) enables the use of Instinct Mode, a mode which enables additional abilities for characters and takes the place of traditional 'ultra attacks' that titles like Street Fighter may employ.

The real crux of Killer Instinct fighting is combos, and to that effect every other mechanic in the game is built around chaining, breaking, or disrupting them as often as possible. Attacks can all be strung together, with some attacks naturally leading more fluidly into one another, and every character has the ability to pull off a string of moves capable of tearing away close to half a life bar if left undisturbed. To prevent this from happening, players can use a combo breaker by matching enemy attacks with the appropriate button, instantly breaking their combo string. For example, if you know your opponents combo string will use a light attack next, pushing light kick with light punch will cause combo breaker. Guessing the wrong button will instead put you into a lockout and allow the opponent to continue freely attacking.

Counter breakers exist for a similar purpose, countering specific attacks while locking out an opponent's ability to combo breaker; and every character maintains a deep enough move list that stringing together attacks and mixing up combos isn't very difficult to do even if you're just a normal old button masher. Every special attack is also capable of being upgraded into a 'shadow' special, which eats up one bar of meter in exchange for granting an attack bonus damage and additional properties like armor, projectile avoidance or additional priority.

There's a lot of combos and breaking going on here but there's a good reason for it. Killer Instinct is a game of timing that rewards players for their precise and well practiced aggression. Characters aren't really built defensively, nor does anyone have an extensive ranged game because doing so means ignoring half the core mechanics in the game. It's not built to work like that, and even Glacius (who probably has the most versatility of the current roster) still adheres to a fairly tight distance for his attacks.

One slight complaint is the absence of any traditional 'ultra' attack in the sense of having a single super move to deal large damage to an opponent, but in all fairness it doesn't really have a place within KI's current state. Players start with two health bars, and a single round ends when one players bar completely depletes. This means it's entirely possible for one player to be on his first bar while their opponent is on a second, and to keep players from saving their meter to spam out some powerful attacks KI keeps flashy ultra's limited to more of an execution, usable only to end the last sliver of life a player may have in a flashy and over-the-top manner.

Although KI doesn't do the best job in offering room for creative interpretation of characters, it does the best job of explaining not only how the mechanics of this particular game, but the core mechanics of every fighting game in general. If you own an Xbox One and have ever wanted to learn how to play (or even follow) the basics behind any fighting game, Killer Instinct is a must have title. Which is fortunate, because the entire tutorial and a single character are available for free.

Attack strings, setup, damage reduction, frame rate, hit box, attack priority, counters, and just about everything else under the sun are all covered by the fairly long tutorial; and although newcomers will need a bit of finger dexterity to cover it all it's an experience well worth reviewing.

It's worth mentioning that Killer Instinct isn't like most fighting games in its release, as it's a free download with a single character available for play. Every other fighter must be purchased with actual cash for 4.99 a piece. Options exist to buy all characters in bulk for 19.99USD, or every character, accessory pack and costume plus the original game for 39.99. It's not a bad deal to grab as a bundle, and the price does a good job of reflecting the slim roster, but be warned that DLC for additional characters and story modes are planned down the line and may share a similar cost.

If you're not interesting in forking out cash for characters and their customizable bits, you also earn currency for each match played, which can be used to unlock little things like costumes or soundtrack clips. It's a great means of rewarding players for sticking with characters, and customization is always appreciated in a game with such a tiny roster.

The next-gen overhaul to each character does homage to the original style, and for what its worth, each artistic element of the game is a delight. Characters look sharp, the levels are full of detail and the soundtrack is fun without being repetitive. Details on special attacks and shadow effects are pretty cool too, although there can be times when the entire package comes together and it's almost a sensory overload.

Final Thoughts

In the end there are a lot of great things to say about Killer Instinct, from its tutorial to its free-to-play options, but it is a game that's held back by a few of its own unique elements. The combo system is rigid and absolute in the way it demands its players to interact in very limited ways, but if you're willing to go along with it the entire experience is a lot of flashy, yet brutal fun. As a long term investment its unlockable character roster raises some questions, but for now, Killer Instinct should provide a nice trip down a slightly updated memory lane.

Very solid next-gen transition from the original
Controls are easy to learn, but complex in practice
Tutorial is a phenomenal help for those new to the genre
Very linear in its playstyles
Attacks should be scaled back a little visually
Small roster is a little disappointing
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