Killer Instinct is Double Helix's free-to-play fighter, which was resurrected from the popular RARE franchise of the mid-'90s. Since the Xbox One launch lineup is devoid of a true console-seller, it's nice to see that you can try out one of the better games for free. You simply download Killer Instinct from the Xbox Live store and install it. Immediately, you have access to every game mode, in-game unlockables, and one character: Jago. If you aren't into fighting games, don't reminisce about mid-'90s franchises, or never liked KI, it's easy to get a hold of without the downfall of buyer's remorse.
If you like the game, there are several "flavors" available for purchase to unlock all characters and alternate costumes, and there are various other cosmetic additions. If you choose to purchase a version of the game, you unlock the other five characters (Chief Thunder, Glacius, Orchid, Sabrewulf and Sadira). You'll also get a free download of the next two characters for season one (Fulgore and Spinal). There is also a version that unlocks the original Killer Instinct arcade game.
One difference in the new Killer Instinct is the noticeable lack of a story mode. It may be disappointing to miss out on the incredibly intricatestory arcs of fighting games, but it's not a deal-breaker. The single-player mode is called Survival, where you're pitted against the six starting characters until you lose. For each match you win, you regain some health for the next contender. There is no other solo mode that isn't a practice or training mode.
That is not to say that the Dojo or Practice modes are lacking. Dojo can be likened to the trials sections of most fighting games. You begin by learning the basics, from walking forward to initiating a new feature, Instinct mode. After completing the basic trials, you're introduced to the combo system and how the combo meter works to judge combo length. Eventually, you are also led through some of Jago's lengthy, intricate combos. Even after purchasing the rest of the characters, you are only able to run through the Dojo mode with Jago. That's fine, since the combo system works about the same for all characters.
The biggest and most important feature of any fighting game is the online mode. KI has Exhibition and Ranked modes, which are expected for the genre. Exhibition is a lobby that allows you to invite a friend or get matched up with someone, whereas Ranked mode is a single battle that allows you to progress to a higher rank — or regress to a lower one. The net-code's stability tends to make or break online fighting titles, so I was glad to see that most of the matches played over Xbox Live suffered little to no delay and ran so smoothly that they felt like offline matches.
By playing any of the on- or offline match modes, you unlock KI points, which can be used to purchase character customizations, music and stages. If anyone remembers the Killer Kuts disc that came with the original KI on SNES, you'll be delighted to see most of those tracks are available for purchase with KI points. The character customizations are minor but add some interesting visual touches. Each character has three sets of customizable gear that includes headgear, leg gear, and another character-specific item. You can mix and match any combination of parts, leaving you with a semi-customized version of your combatant of choice.
What sets apart Killer Instinct from other similar titles is the much-loved (or -hated) combo system. At first glance, the core mechanics of KI appear to be about learning how to execute lengthy, flashy combos. When you move through the training section of the game, much of it initially is centered on just that. The game is very easy to jump into, and combos are easy enough to do that you can string together a rather long combo without much effort or knowledge. In this way, the first next-gen fighter is able to appeal to a very casual crowd.
Don't let this deter you if you're a more competitive player, though. The execution of a combo builds your possible damage, but you need to understand how to use combo enders to "cash-in" on the damage that you have potentially earned. Mashing random buttons and specials easily net you a 20- to 30-hit combo, but without the ender input, you'll get about 20% of the total possible damage. Executing a combo is not the core of the game. Executing the same combo from muscle memory gives any intelligent opponent the opportunity to read and combo-break repetitive attacks. This is where the game becomes cerebral.
To be successful at anything beyond entry level, you need to learn variation in your combos and multiple setups leading to big damage. There are new moves called shadow moves that allow you to further extend a combo (Ex moves from other games), and the famous ultra combos make a return, allowing you to finish an opponent in an extravagant fashion.
If you've played a previous iteration of the franchise, you're already familiar with the Opener > AutoDouble > Linker > Ender format and the C-C-C-Combo Breaker. They're back. A combo breaker is used after correctly reading or guessing what the other person is doing, effectively ending the combo. If a player makes the other guess a combo breaker incorrectly, they are locked out for three to four seconds, allowing you to pull off the big damage. If you can sniff out combo breakers, you can respond with a counter-breaker to lock out your opponent.
As a result, the gameplay can be fun for just about any level of play. It can be very frustrating for a first-timer to get into an online match with an experienced player. Getting every combo attempt broken and getting eaten alive is quickly disheartening. As with any fighting game, this all boils down to how hungry are you to learn and improve.
With every launch of a new console generation, graphical prowess is the most critiqued aspect of launch titles, and this go-round is no different. When I first fired up KI, I was impressed with the detail in the first few characters. Jago has a bunch of moving parts and flowing hair in addition to some neat glowing tattoos, and Glacius is clearly a "look what the Xbox One can do" character. Meanwhile, it feels like Orchid and Sabrewulf got a little less attention, as both characters don't have much of that next-gen sheen. At times, Saberwulf looks like his hair is made out of papier mâché.
The polish comes from the stages and the visual effects that occur over the course of a fight. A great example of this is Chief Thunder's mountain-top walkway backdrop. When the match begins, there is a bit of rain and a small storm in the background. As the match progresses, the storm and music intensify as the combat begins to pick up. If the fight is a block-fest with little action, the ambiance of the stage reflects that. If you have a particularly intense match, the beginnings of a tornado appear while the rain beats down on the two players to create puddles that splash upon interaction. The puddles and projectiles have true particle physics that roll off of the characters in real time. It's something that easily gets lost in the intensity of combat, but it's definitely a nice touch.
If you're a fighting game fan, it's hard to pass up Killer Instinct's opening price tag of $0. It's a reasonable $19.99 to unlock all the characters from the first season. Either way you look at it, there shouldn't be an Xbox One out there that doesn't have the game installed. By no means is it going to topple some of the more prominent fighting titles, but it is definitely an interesting and pretty game that can be enjoyed by casual and hardcore players alike.
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