Review – Killer Instinct

Killer_Instinct_Xbox_One_Logo (610x160)

U-U-U-U-Ultra Combooooo!

That’s something you’ll hear a lot while playing Killer Instinct, particularly if you play online. Microsoft’s launch title has taken the all-but-forgotten series – which originally debuted in arcades before appearing on Nintendo’s classic SNES console – and brought it bang up to date as a launch title for the Xbox One.

There are a few things to get out of the way, however: firstly, that business model. Since Microsoft announced the game would be free-to-play, with one character available free of charge and other fighters available for a fee, the company came under heavy criticism. Many gamers have been quick to pile on the hate, accusing the platform holder of milking wallets and being stingy with content. While it’s certainly true that Killer Instinct is light on content with only six fighters available from launch (two more are coming over the coming months), no story mode and a lack of other modes, what is here is a huge amount of fun. We’ll go into more detail about the pricing later on, but if you’re a fan of the genre and a regular online player, the lack of single-player content probably won’t be your primary concern anyway.

The second point that is worth mentioning is the developer. It’s fair to say that Double Helix hasn’t exactly had the best reputation in the past when It comes to quality output. Silent Hill: Homecoming was a mediocre effort that all but hammered the nail in the coffin of the once-mighty franchise and Front Mission: Evolved wasn’t much better. In between those games and this latest effort they developed a few licensed turkeys, such as Green Lantern: Rise of the Manhunters – a game memorable for being just as bad as the turgid comic-to-film adaptation it was based on.

So many weren’t expecting much when they were announced as the developers of this new installment of the popular series and the announcement came as a disappointment to many who were hoping that Microsoft had taken the reins off of Rare and allowed them to work on something that wasn’t a bit of casual fluff to prop up Kinect.

Thankfully though, Double Helix have performed a fine job with Killer Instinct. While there are many superficial similarities with Capcom’s juggernaut Street Fighter series, the developer has retained and expanded on the mechanics that made the original Killer Instinct titles so well-loved. Ultra Combos return, of course; having always been the unique selling point that set the series apart from its peers. Also featured are combo breakers: if you’re being battered by an opponent and can guess their next move and pressure level in their combo, you can break it off and launch into a fearsome counter-attack, turning the tables and transforming their gloating into pure misery as you pummel them into oblivion.

New to the series though are Counter Breakers, and this is where the new game gets interesting, introducing a chess-like element of mind games to the proceedings. If an opponent thinks you’re about to launch a combo breaker, they can match your move and counter your counter.

With us so far? Good.

The drawback to the counter system Is that if you get the timing or the pressure wrong, you’re locked out for a window of 4 seconds where you can’t do anything more, allowing your opponent to continue their assault or get their revenge on you. It’s a finely balanced system, resulting in matches which regularly switch between who has the advantage. It can make for some excellent playbacks courtesy of the Xbox One’s ability to record and upload video to the cloud and social networking sites – there’s already a host of videos worth watching, if only to appreciate the visual spectacle and drama that tends to accompany every match.

When you first start to play, you’d easily be forgiven for thinking that you’re playing a Capcom game. Like Street Fighter, attacks are divided between punches and kicks with light, medium and heavy variants of each. Special attacks also follow the familiar Capcom method of quarter circles and there’s even a variant of Street Fighter IV’s focus moves, complete with the ability to cancel, here called Instinct Mode. Instinct is built up over time on a meter as you take or block hits from your opponent; when the meter is full, you can trigger Instinct Mode by simultaneously pressing Heavy Punch + Heavy Kick. Every character can do this, and activating the mode can give you access to more special moves and abilities that vary depending on the fighter – Jago gradually recovers health but activating it while play it as Orchid and a giant flaming jaguar will come running across the screen.

While we’re on the subject those characters, the roster might be slim but it’s most certainly varied. Each fighter has a distinct fighting style that sets them apart from the others. Jago is your typical Ryu clone – well balanced, with a quarter-circle+punch fireball, a spinning kick that launches him across the screen and even a rising uppercut. Just like Ryu, he announces his moves with a dramatic voice-over. He was the logical choice to include as the free character given away to players; newcomers and veterans alike will be instantly comfortable. It’s just a shame that Double Helix haven’t done more to differentiate him from his inspiration as it will inevitably – as is the case here – lead to comparisons.

Move to the rest of the cast though, and things get more interesting. Glacius is your classic zoner – incredibly slow moving, but with a huge array of far-reaching ranged attacks that can devastate an opponent whilst leaving them so far away that they’re unable to close in. Orchid can close distance quickly, comes with an array of anti-air moves and is also the only character with an air throw, making her useful against Sadira – a newcomer to the series – who specializes in air attacks and can quickly confuse an opponent as she leaps around the screen. Then there’s Thunder – a slightly unfortunate racial stereotype – whose move set is heavy on punishing grapple moves that deal devastating amounts of damage.

Last but not least is Sabrewulf, a werewolf whose attacks do little damage individually but is punishingly fast and can mix up his combos to devastating effect, making it hard to predict his next move for players on the receiving end hoping to break his combo.

So the cast is small, but the sheer variety on offer ensures that match-ups are always interesting and it sidesteps the problem that often plagues Street Fighter  (Ryu and Ken famously started out as exact copies of each other) and other fighting games like Tekken, where characters such as Nina and Anna, Roger and Alex or Angel and Devil are frequently either exact clones of each other with a new character model or simply slightly rebalanced clones with the same move sets. Two more characters – Spinal and Fulgore – will be added early next year, with Fulgore coming alongside the much-needed single-player story mode.

As previously mentioned, single-player content is slight. You’re limited to a practice mode, survival or the Dojo. The Dojo is where most of your time as a solo player will be spent, as it teaches you a variety of lessons about tactics and play style. There are a substantial number of stages to pass, but unfortunately the character choice is prescribed. It would have been far better if each character had their own unique chain of lessons, due to how differently they handle and perform.

As you play, you’ll accrue XP, which aside from increasing your ranking can be spent to unlock additional extras – costumes, accessories, backgrounds, announcer voices, concept art and even music and voice samples from the original arcade games. It’s a fairly neat addition, and there’s a wealth of things to unlock. You’ll earn points for performing your first Ultra with each character, completing a certain number of online matches, etc. There’s a feeling of constant progress that keeps you playing; the next unlock is always only a match-or-two away, so it’s easy to find yourself playing far longer than you originally intended – a task made easier by some great netcode which only rarely leads to stutters in the connection. Sadly the multiplayer options don’t include lobbies and are fairly limited, but there’s plenty of scope to improve on this area and we certainly hope that it’s an area which sees attention in future. But it doesn’t detract from the fact that the core gameplay is so solid and enjoyable.

Graphically and aurally, Killer Instinct is a joy. It may not run in 1080p – a fact which led to some using it as a stick to beat the Xbox One with – but it looks gorgeous in motion, running at a solid 60fps and with more particle effects than you can shake a stick at. Every fireball or special attack sparks and sizzles, throwing particles all over the screen in huge showers and often obscuring your lifebar. Performing an Ultra combo often results in a visual tour-de-force as the screen shakes and stages tear themselves apart. And on the audio side, while the music is the usual selection of cheesy metal, during a fight the music is dynamic – scaling up or down in both tempo and volume depending on the rhythm of the on-screen action. If players are constantly blocking each other and the pace of combat is slow, then the music will quieten and become slower. If a battle involves a constant, fast-paced to-and-fro of blows, the volume will go up and the speed will increase. And if you pull off an Ultra at the end of a match – triggered by a special move and all three pressure levels of the relevant attack button – the rhythm changes to match each blow, every hit you land accompanied by a booming hit of percussion before the match ends with an overjoyed announcer bellowing out your accomplishment.

One final thing – the business model will put people off. As previously mentioned, the game is a free download and all players can give it a try with Jago. Microsoft insists that the free version is far more than a demo, but to be fair, many fighting game demos include a couple of different characters to play as, with more than one mode to try. Additional characters can be purchased individually, or all characters can be unlocked as a bundle for better value. Special mention needs to be given to the absurd price of the so-called Ultimate Edition, which contains few extras aside from an arcade-perfect version of the original Killer Instinct and is certainly not worth the expense.

If you try the game – and you should – and decide you enjoy it, then we would recommend you opt for the middle-tier option and simply unlock all characters. Spinal and Fulgore will come as free downloads on this plan, but there’s no word yet on whether the Story mode will be chargeable or similarly free (we obviously hope for the latter).

All in all, Killer Instinct is a great game. While it suffers from a lack of single-player options, gameplay is fast and fluid, it strikes a good balance between easy to learn while still being difficult to master, and each fighter is unique, requiring vastly different strategies. It’s attractive, pleasing to the ear with a level of polish far above what many would have expected from the developer’s previous output and something we would highly recommend. It’s just a shame that a lack of content and some questionable pricing models hold it back from being an essential purchase.



Version Tested: Xbox One (Exclusive)

Out: Now


2 responses to “Review – Killer Instinct

  1. Pingback: Massive Killer Instinct patch swaps Jago for Saberwulf and more | Continue Play·

  2. Pingback: Massive Killer Instinct patch swaps Jago for Saberwulf and more·

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