Killer Instinct Review

Killer InstinctKiller Instinct (Available exclusively on Xbox One)
ESRB Rating: T
Number of Players: 1 to 2
Genre: Fighting
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Developer: Double Helix Games
Release Date: November 22nd, 2013

Parent Talk: Killer Instinct is rated T for teen because of violence, blood, mild suggestive themes, and mild language.  This 2D/3D brawler offers fast frantic fighting, without being too graphic like Mortal Kombat.  The mild suggestive themes are mainly Orchid’s clothing and stances, and the language isn’t too bad, featuring no f-bombs or anything like that.  The original Killer Instinct was actually far more mature than this version, and believe it or not, but that one was directly aimed at children.

Plays Like: If you’ve played Street Fighter IV on the PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360 you know pretty much what to expect here.  Characters are made up- of 3D polygons, but gameplay is strictly 2D.  Special moves all require a combination of movements with the analog stick/d-pad and the face buttons.  This is a combo-centric fighter, meaning players look for openings to attack their opponents and then link together a wide array of attacks to form some truly spectacular looking combos.  While it might seem extremely overwhelming at first, after a short period of time even novices will be able to string together incredible looking displays of martial arts.

Review Basis: I purchased the Ultra Edition for $40 and played through the first 16 Dojo trials, and then headed online and battled through several ranked matches, as well as played many different solo fights against the gaming CPUs. I plan to return to unlock the remaining 16 advanced trials, and continue to make my way through the online ranks.

Killer Instinct was a truly flashy fighter when it hit the arcade scene back in 1994.  It combined elements from Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat and was an overnight hit.  While the series as a whole only had two entries, it lived on through various home ports, and the cult status it achieved.  Fans begged for a sequel to Killer Instinct 2, but that was never to be.  In the time between 1996’s Killer Instinct 2 and this year’s franchise reboot, Rare, the company who created the series, disappeared altogether.  No one expected the series to ever be brought back, and yet here we are in 2013 and Double Helix Games has stepped in for Rare, and has utterly stunned fighting fans by creating a perfectly balanced, and all around excellent fighter for the Xbox One.

Killer Instinct1The Great:

Killer Instinct has always lived and died by its combo system, and the same can be said here.  Combos are extremely simple to start, but become quite complex as you dig deeper into the balanced fighting system.  Here’s how the progression works.  You begin by using an opener, which is one of several special moves, you then use a single attack to perform an auto-double, and from there you input another special move which acts as a linker.  After that you can perform yet another basic attack to form another auto, and then close the entire thing out with an ender, which is yet another special move.  If that all seems overly complex, fear not as it really isn’t too bad once you get the hang of things.  Throw in ultra-finishers which allow you to execute awesome looking finishing moves, shadow moves and linkers, which are more powerful special moves, and the Instinct mode which grants you a buff for a short period of time, and you have yourself a very deep combat system.  Oh and did I mention the combo breakers?  At any point in the combo string you can break the opponent’s attack by pressing two like-powered punch and kick buttons together.  If your opponent is attacking you with a heavy combo string, and you press both heavy kick and punch buttons together at the correct time, you can break the combo and begin a new string yourself.  Watch out though as if you guess incorrectly you’re penalized and are unable to attempt another breaker for a few seconds.  There’s also a counter-breaker, which allows the attacker to fake out a combo breaker from the defender.  This adds an entirely new dimension of strategy to each fight.

The system is the perfect balance of give and take.  At no point are you ever just watching your opponent beat the living snot out of you.  Combos also utilize an interesting tactic called potential damage.  As you begin your combo string a meter is displayed onscreen informing you of how many hits you’ve successfully landed and a gauge appears.  Once it hits 100% the combo is broken and whatever potential damage you could have scored is completely lost.  It’s entirely possible to go from a 45% health bar depletion to only 5% because you failed to properly end your combo.  That’s how the system works, once the combo meter is filled, you need to ensure you use an ender on the next attack or lose all the potential damage you gained.  There are a few additional tweaks to this system though.  If you happen to have Instinct saved up, it’s the yellow meter under your character’s name, you can actually reset the combo meter, therefore granting you further combo opportunities.  The danger with this is that the longer a combo string is, the chances your opponent will successfully break your combo increase.  This juggling act is what makes the game so damn fun to play.

Killer Instinct3The Good:

  • The Dojo is a single player mode which shows players how to successfully use Jago through 32 trials.  It goes way beyond that though and actually teaches players the fundamentals of any fighting game.  Beyond just jumping, moving, and blocking, it explains how basic combo structure works, what frame data is all about, and then jumps into the specifics of this game talking about how to use all the different combo moves and systems.  If you practice enough in this mode you will become a better fighter, there’s no question about it.  Remember though, like with any fighting game, the more you practice, the better you get.  About the downside to the Dojo mode is that it doesn’t allow you to switch to other characters, nor is there a video demonstration for each and every trial, although there is for many of the highly complex ones.
  • Lots of unlockables to keep you busy.  Regardless of which gameplay modes you play you earn points which can then be used to unlock a wide assortment of goodies from the KI Store.  These items include new weapons for the fighters, or new costume customizations like new masks, or pieces of armor.

  • Everything you do whether it be online or off is recorded.  This means you can always go back, turn on frame-data, and see exactly where you went wrong with a combo string.  It’s a brilliantly easy to use setup that veterans will surely love.

  • The audio is surprisingly much better than I thought it would be.  It features a dynamic soundtrack that increases in pitch and tone as players fight.  If one player begins a long combo the music will slowly change, and when a combo breaker is scored it changes yet again.  It’s very impressive.

Killer Instinct 2The So-So:

+/- Pricing is both a blessing and a curse.  On the plus side everyone who purchases an Xbox One can download the game for free.  Included is Jago as the only playable character, as well as all the various gameplay modes.  The $20 Combo Breaker Pack includes all six launch characters (Jago, Orchid, Glacius, Sabrewolf, Thunder, and Sadira), plus two post-launch characters (Fulgore, and Spinal).  Finally there’s the Ultra Edition which costs $40, and includes all the characters from the Combo Breaker Pack, but also includes a digital copy of the original arcade version of Killer Instinct and an accessory and costume pack for the new version.  What this boils down to is that this game is actually a platform in and of itself.  At any point players who download the game can purchase individual characters for $5 a pop, or purchase additional costumes or accessories for additional real-world money.  The downside to this strategy is that there sure are a heck of a lot of Jagos running around all over the place.

+/- Online modes are extremely basic.  There are the leaderboards, ranked and exhibition matches, and that’s it.  While these all run smoothly, there’s no spectator mode, which is extremely useful for trying to improve your game.  It’s a glaring omission considering how excellent the Dojo is.  This would have been a perfect way to continue your lessons outside the Dojo, by downloading other players’ replays or ghost data.  Hopefully Double Helix Games updates the game to allow this functionality in a future patch.

+/- Having six unique and balanced characters is great, but in this day and age having only six to choose from, with another two coming early 2014, still feels a tad chintzy.

+/- Graphically Killer Instinct can be a mixed bag at time.  While I don’t really mind the new character designs too much, I do find them far less inspired than the originals.  On the other end of the spectrum are the glorious particle effects, the fantastic looking backgrounds and that rock-solid 60 frames-per-second frame rate.

The Bad:

  • While I love the fact the game is free, the lack of single-player gameplay modes dampens the experience.  All that’s available is the Dojo, a practice mode, and a very basic player-versus-CPU mode.  There’s no actual story mode of any kind.  This game was designed with tournament and versus play in mind.  The main objective is to use the Dojo to learn the basis, then practice to see which combo strings work together, and finally head online and put everything you’ve learned to the ultimate test.

The Ugly:

Jago everywhere.  The biggest downside to having a free version of the game is that virtually everyone you play against online will be playing as Jago, because they haven’t purchased any other version of the game.  That makes fights far less interesting than they should be.  I played ten ranked matches in a row, and only one of them featured a non-Jago combatant.

Killer Instinct4The Lowdown:    

Killer Instinct really surprised me.  From the fantastic Dojo to the excellent combat system, this is a game that was created with nothing but respect for the source material.  While I’m sure there will be some fans upset about the pricing structure, the fact remains that even for free you have full access to everything the game has to offer.  The biggest downside is that by only having one character available by default, you can expect to see said character all over the place, and that’s a bit of a shame because all of the characters deserve some time to shine.  If you own an Xbox One, give this one a download as it might just surprise you how much fun it is.

Final Score: 8/10


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