Killer Instinct is a legendary franchise, originally created by Ken Lobb and Rareware for Arcade, then ported a year later to the Super Nintendo. The sequel was exclusive to Arcades, but eventually made its way to Nintendo 64 in the form of Killer Instinct Gold. It was huge back in the 90’s and gained a cult following that would continue to play and talk about the game over a decade later. When Microsoft acquired Rare in 2002, the fate of Killer Instinct came into question with fans around the world. Under the helm of Microsoft, two console generations passed (Xbox & Xbox 360) without mention or talk of a new entry to carry on the Killer Instinct legacy.
Fast forward to September of 2012 and rumors of a new Killer Instinct started to make waves around the internet when Microsoft renewed the franchise trademark. Then, at the 2013 Electronic Entertainment Expo, Microsoft announced a new Killer Instinct would be coming exclusively to Xbox One. Gameplay shown on stage at E3 was very impressive, but fans were a little worried when they noticed that Double Helix Games would be developing the new entry instead of Rare. These worries were smoothed over slightly when longtime fans learned that “The Godfather of Killer Instinct”, Ken Lobb, would be overseeing development of the game. In the end, the worries of fans were slowly put to rest over the next six months through a number of gameplay demonstrations and character reveals.
Now, a new generation of gaming is upon us and along with it has come a brand new Killer Instinct. The big questions everyone wants to know are: Can a new Killer Instinct live up to the original? Is it possible for a Killer Instinct not made by Rare to be any good at all? Will Killer Instinct even still hold the appeal that it did over a decade ago? You will be happy to know that Ken Lobb and Double Helix Games have done the franchise an incredible justice. The new Killer Instinct is both a wonderful trip down nostalgia lane and a competent, fast paced fighter that stays true to its origins, while also feeling amazingly fresh and new. It keeps the core of what made Killer Instinct special in the first place and expands upon it, resulting in one of the fastest, finest fighting games ever crafted. It’s also a ton of fun!
Rather than shipping on a retail disc to your local game dealer, Killer Instinct is a digital download that can be obtained for free over Xbox Live. While players essentially get the game itself for free, only Jago is available in this version. Other characters can be purchased individually for five dollars each, or as a complete set for twenty dollars. There is also an “Ultra” edition of the game available for forty dollars, which features extra costumes and a digital copy of Killer Instinct Classic in addition to the complete character roster.
At launch there are six combatants available in the roster, with two more being added soon to round out the first season. Fan favorites Sabrewulf, Chief Thunder, Orchid, Glacius, and Jago have returned. Each character also sports a brand new look. Glacius looks flat out evil, with more sharp edges and less rounded than his former self. Orchid actually looks like a secret agent who is ready to kick ass this time around, rather than the simple sex toy of Killer Instinct’s past. Chief Thunder actually does Native Americans justice now, rather than being a cliché stereotype. Sabrewulf is especially fearsome, and looks like he will probably give rabies to anyone he sinks his teeth into. Simply put, the new character models look awesome. A far cry from the generic character models of Killer Instinct Classic (which you can see for yourself if you opt for the Ultra Edition). The sixth combatant is new to Killer Instinct, a female fighter named Sadira. She is the leader of an assassin clan, who prefers aerial combat and spider webs (more on that later). Finally, Spinal and Fulgore will be rounding out the first season when they are added in the coming months.
As a fighter, Killer Instinct is fairly easy to pick up and play for those who aren’t super savvy with fighting mechanics, but also rewards dedication and quick reflexes. The first thing you will want to master are the infamous Combo Breakers. If you played Killer Instinct back in the 90’s, you should already be very familiar with these. Once an opponent has started a combo, a corresponding Combo Breaker must be performed to turn the tide of battle. To do this, players will need to master quick reflexes and learn to watch for the animations of each character. When your opponent is in the middle of a heavy combo, then a heavy Combo Breaker will need to be input. Failure to perform a correct Combo Breaker will resort in a lockout, which lasts for a detrimental three seconds. This may not sound like much, but in the world of Killer Instinct, three seconds can mean half of your life depleted or a straight up loss.
Counter Breakers are new to Killer Instinct and these are where the real mind games come into play. A smart or experienced player who is on the offensive can smell a Combo Breaker coming from a mile away. Which is why defenders must be even more mindful of their opponent and the flow of combat when choosing to perform a Combo Breaker. Unlike other fighters, you are not locked into a combo once it has started. A combo can be canceled mid-punch and transformed into a different combo. This is why reflexes are key in Killer Instinct, as things can change in a split second. You might notice a certain combo in motion and go for the Combo Breaker, only to be lured into a Counter Breaker, resulting in an entirely new combo string. An opponent could also be in the middle of a combo, knowing you are about to pull a Combo Breaker and cancel out into a new combo at the last second. This would result in you getting a lock out, and that could mean game over.
Players will also want to be mindful of the difference between Potential Damage and Instant Damage, which is a section of the life bar that blinks white and regular damage that disappears. The latter is damage that drops from your opponent’s life bar immediately, while the former is damage that can only be dealt if your current combo results in an Ender. Combos have an almost infinite number of possibilities, but they always begin with an Opener and you want to make sure they always finish with an Ender to deal maximum damage.
Combos may sound complex on paper, but with a little practice you will be pulling off Godlike combos in no time. Performing an Opener can be something as simple as a jump kick. After an Opener, you will want to move into an Auto-Double, which is any attack button pressed after an Opener or a Linker. When the Auto-Double is complete, you will want to move into a Linker. Specific Linkers for each character can be found under the Command List in the Pause Menu, along with all other possible moves for your current fighter. After a Linker you can move straight into an Ender, or pull off another Auto-Double and keep the combo going. However, players will want to be aware of the hit counter that racks up on the left side of the screen during a combo. Under the hit counter is a meter that if filled, will send your opponent onto their back and finish your combo prematurely without an Ender. This is no good, because any Potential Damage that would have been dealt is essentially thrown out the window.
Lastly, players will want to keep an eye on their Shadow and Instinct meters. Shadow meters are blue and split into two sections, allowing players to perform a maximum of two Shadow attacks in a row if the meter is full. These are basically stronger versions of your characters special moves and can be performed at any time during a match, as a combo Linker or single attack. The meter will fill whenever you inflict damage on an opponent and even when your attacks are blocked. You can perform a Shadow attack at any time by pressing two punch or kick buttons rather than one. Next is the Instinct meter, which is opposite of the Shadow meter as it fills up when you receive damage or perform combo breakers. Instinct mode can be activated by pressing the heavy punch and kick buttons at the same time. Once it has been activated, your Instinct meter will slowly deplete until it runs out completely. Also, each characters Instinct mode is different. For example; Jago can recover health, while Sabrewulf dishes out extra damage, Orchid throws fire cats, and Chief Thunder turns into a flock of ravens for quick mobility.
As for the different modes available in Killer Instinct at launch, the much sought after Arcade mode is missing (it will be coming soon), but the game still offers a good number of modes. The Dojo mode is surprisingly in-depth and will teach newcomers how to stand a chance with Basic Lessons, while still providing a challenge for seasoned fans with its frustratingly awesome Advanced Lessons. It breaks down every move and combo, showing you how to do them step by step. In some lessons, the computer will demonstrate the moves for you, which you can slow down frame by frame. It’s a really awesome mode that can teach anyone the fundamentals of Killer Instinct. I wish more fighting games featured something similar.
Aside from the Dojo, Killer Instinct’s big draw in local play is Survival Mode, which is the closest thing to an Arcade experience in the game at this time. The mode is exactly what it claims to be. Players fight an endless amount of increasingly difficult battles, until they are finally defeated. Survival is also a great way to rack up Killer Points (KP), which can be used to purchase new combat arenas, character skins, clothing accessories, player taunts, audio files, concept art, and profile backgrounds or icons. It’s a really nice system and gives you something to constantly be working toward, while also encouraging you to spend time with characters outside of your comfort zone. I’ve never been a fan of slower fighters like Chief Thunder or Glacius, but for some reason I still felt compelled to play with them so I could unlock all of their character skins and accessories.
Traditional versus modes are also available, both on and offline. Locally you can play against a friend or against the computer, while online you can set up exhibition matches with friends or fight in ranked matches against random opponents. Online isn’t very robust right now, as it doesn’t feature the tournament lobbies or tag matches that other fighters currently offer. What is currently featured gets the job done and there’s nothing like a good grudge match between friends, but I would definitely like to see the online options expanded upon in the future.
The last mode worth noting is the Practice mode. At first glance, this is simply a place to practice your favorite combos against a computer player that merely stands still. Open the Pause menu however, and there are a wide range of options available for your dummy opponent. You can have them stand still for combo practice, remain crouched, or jump constantly to work on anti-air moves. You can also turn your dummy into a full-fledged computer player at a difficulty level of your choosing and have them auto block everything, or pick between high and low blocking. Combo Breakers, throw escapes, quick stands, and counter hits can also be toggled on or off. For overall practice options, you can choose what level you want health to start at (which is great for practicing Ultra Combos when set low), or if you want health to regenerate. You can also play around with the Instinct and Shadow meters, as well as have the game display attack data, combo states, inputs, and hit boxes. It’s a robust set of tools that no other fighter can currently match and Practice modes in all fighting games should feature these options going forward.
At launch the roster may be small, but it is well rounded and incredibly balanced. Jago is the most well rounded character. He’s not too fast and not too slow, with a set of combos and counters that leave him equipped for any situation. His energy sword and bone crushing kicks make him ideal for up close battles, but his wind kick and Endokuken energy balls make him a formidable opponent at a distance too. His combos are hard hitting and he especially excels in anti-air for opponents that might prefer to jump in at him during combat.
Orchid is a super-fast character and by far my personal favorite of the six fighters currently available. Like her brother Jago, she is excellent for anti-air, but is considerably faster. Her Blockade Runner slide kick is excellent for opponents that are constantly trying to back away from a fight. You can also transition from her slide kick straight into Flick Flack, which is a fast and brutal handstand kick with multiple hits. She can also transform into a Firecat and charge forward or upward, inflicting a good amount of damage. The best part? When Orchid is in Firecat form, she counts as a projectile and is invulnerable to incoming damage.
Chief Thunder not only looks new, but is now a grappler and features an awesome new set of moves. However, he is slow and takes some extra time to master. While Thunder moves slow, his special moves are fairly quick. The Triplax move sends him lunging forward with his tomahawks extended, dealing significant damage. His Ankle Slicer move is similar and sends him lunging forward, but targets the opponent’s legs instead of torso. He also features a powerful grapple that slams opponents into the ground with Call of the Earth, and Sammamish is a useful anti-air move that sends him upward in a flying head-butt. When in Instinct mode, he is significantly faster, which makes a big difference in how he plays.
Next to Orchid, Sabrewulf is the fastest fighter on the roster. Unfortunately, his attack range is shorter than anyone else to help balance his incredible speed. Players will need to be cautious when getting in close with Sabrewulf, but when he is able to get toe to toe, the payoff is tremendous. He is the only character that features a move specifically for running, and also the Ragged Edge, which is a move that sends him charging forward while dealing two swipes of damage with his claws. An upward-arcing slash move called Eclipse is effective for getting out of tight situations. Out of all six fighters available, Sabrewulf is the easiest to control and thus more noob friendly than any other character on the roster.
Glacius is the only character on the roster that can’t dash, making him the slowest moving fighter available. He is excellent for controlling opponents from a distance, and that’s where you will want to keep him. If you can keep space between Glacius and his enemy, you will control the battle with ease. He can summon balls of hail that will freeze opponents in place for a second, while also dealing some damage as you use the opportunity to back up and keep the distance that Glacius needs. The Cold Shoulder is really the only move with any speed that Glacius commands. It sends him charging forward and hits opponents with his shoulder, but you will want to use this move with caution. Once you have moved in close with Glacius, it can be hard to back away and regain the distance he needs to dominate. If you get caught close, an effective move is the Puddle Punch. This is when he melts into the ground and rises up from underneath his opponent with a devastating uppercut. He is also invulnerable for the first half of the attack. From a distance though, Shatter is the best bet. You can hit opponents clear across the screen by summoning unblockable bursts of ice. Out of all the characters available, Glacius is the hardest to master.
Last is Killer Instinct’s newcomer, Sadira. She specializes in aerial combat and is probably the only character capable of pulling off significant combos in the air. She can rain daggers down upon her opponents from the air, or use webs to pull herself down toward them. Sadira is very fast and features a spin move called Blade Demon, which sends her spinning toward the opponent and deals multiple hits of damage with the spikes on her hands. She can also use her Web Cling move to bounce off walls toward her foe. As the leader of an assassin clan, she is excellent at striking quickly. Players who enjoy jumping into combat will love Sadira’s arsenal of moves, but be weary of characters with good anti-air tactics like Jago and Orchid.
The Final Verdict
Killer Instinct is an incredible fighter, only hampered by the small selection of characters available at launch and the lack of a true Arcade mode. However, Spinal & Fulgore are on the way to round out season one’s roster at eight characters and Arcade mode will be coming through an update in the near future. Anyone can pick up and play Killer Instinct, but the fighting mechanics and combo system are very deep for those who take the time to master them. This is one of the most well balanced fighters in years (possibly due to the small roster), and each character features an arsenal of moves and combos all their own. Fighting in ranked matches online is both entertaining and challenging, but the real fun will come from the grudge matches you will play against friends. The game is both fast and flashy, running at a smooth 60 frames per second. Just watching someone play Killer Instinct is a sight to behold. Ken Lobb and Double Helix have done a superb job of staying true to the roots of what made Killer Instinct special in the first place, while still delivering a competent fighter that feels fresh and new. It’s not quite worth buying a new console for a single game, but if you own an Xbox One – Killer Instinct should be the first thing you download.