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The Killer Instinct games stand out because they’re combo-focused. Many fighting games let you perform combos but it’s the core of Killer Instinct and that makes it a bit different. If up against a skilled player, focusing on landing standard or special moves will result in defeat. After Killer Instinct 2 and its updated version for the 64, we wouldn’t see another game for seventeen years. The series was rebooted in 2013 with the release of Killer Instinct for Xbox One. I refer to as Killer Instinct 2013. It’s a free-to-play game with content that was spread across three seasons. Double Helix Games, Iron Galaxy, and Rare were all part of the development and a Definitive Edition which includes all of the content was released in 2016 and on Steam in 2017. This is the game that introduced me to the series and I played it back during its first season. For this review, I played the Definitive Edition on Steam and Xbox One. I started with the Steam version and after unsuccessfully trying to access the Shadow modes, I moved over to the Xbox One version.
I don’t play many free-to-play games because I feel like they’re always aiming for my wallet and, in my experience, that usually is the case and the gameplay is negatively affected because of it. Killer Instinct is one of the few to have what I consider a fair business model. On Xbox One, you can download and play the game for free with one playable fighter that is rotated out every week. You can buy more fighters and before the Definitive Edition, season packages or bundles which came with all of the content released for the seasons. This includes all fighters and some cosmetic stuff. The Definitive Edition comes with all fighters and gameplay content. Yes, there are microtransactions but you can also earn and spend in-game currency. I haven’t played the free version in a while, but despite only one fighter being available, I remember it letting you experience a good chunk of content which is great for helping you decide if you like the game enough to want to pay for a season package or the full version.
There is a story mode where you fight a series of opponents and each character has multiple different endings. To unlock the different endings, you have to meet certain requirements. Only characters from the first two seasons are playable and the season two characters come with narrated cut scenes. Season 3 not only came with new characters but also a new gameplay mode called Shadow Lords. The objective is to stop Gargos from consuming the Earth. You create a team of three characters and fight opponents around the world, working your way to Gargos and earning loot in the process. Loot can be items that will grant your characters bonus properties, lore, and crafting material. A simple way to describe this mode would be a story/arcade mode with gameplay modifiers. Each fight is a mission and they come in different difficulties. Before each one, you have the option to choose a consumable and guardian to give you an edge during the fight. Opponents will often have their own bonuses so there is a strategic element. Characters will interact, your characters can die, you can recruit new ones, and the game even tells you that you might have to restart before you’re able to reach and/or defeat Gargos but you will retain your loot from each playthrough. It’s actually a pretty cool mode with a lot of replay value. It’s got story, arcade, and rogue-like elements.
All of the fighters from the previous games are present, including Eyedol and Gargos, and season 3 added in three guest characters; Arbiter from the Halo series, Rash from the Battletoads series, and General RAAM from the Gears of War series. As you play the game, you’ll earn experience and level up and each character will earn their own experience when you play as them. Leveling up rewards you with cosmetic stuff like profile card content and character skins and colors. Unlocking everything for every character will be a grind but you can visit the Store and spend money to unlock some stuff immediately. There’s all kinds of skins, colors, and accessories that can be unlocked for each character.
There’s a good amount of content on offer in Killer Instinct but the gameplay is where it shines. Each character can perform the same basic functions like walk, dash, crouch, jump, and block. You can perform low, medium, and high attacks, and throw opponents. A standard match plays out just like it did in the previous games. Each character has multiple energy or health bars. When a character’s energy bars are depleted, they lose. Each character can perform unique special attacks and you need to understand the combo system if you want to be good or competent at the game. Combos follow a basic structure: opener, auto, linker, auto, ender. Killer Instinct comes with a phenomenal Dojo or training mode and I would advise newcomers to check that out before jumping into anything else. It covers all of the mechanics from the basics to advanced techniques. You’ll have to understand not only the combo system, but combo extensions, combo limits, combo breakers, counter breakers, and shadow attacks, among some other things. If you’re just a casual player, you can easily overlook the advanced stuff and still enjoy the game and you can even toggle on combo assist and customize it to assist you with different aspects of performing combos. The amount of training and help the game offers is impressive.
If you’ve played the previous games, you should know that to break out of a combo, you’ll want to perform a combo breaker. In Killer Instinct (2013) this is done by pressing the punch and kick buttons that match the strength of the combo. However, if you try to break at the wrong strength, you’ll be locked out until the timer ends. Furthermore, combo breakers can be broken with Counter Breakers. Combos do have limits and if you exceed the limit with a non-ender attack, you’ll cause a blowout, dropping the combo. As you strike opponents and take damage, your shadow meter fills. When it reaches certain points, you can perform shadow attacks which are more powerful versions of special attacks. You can also perform shadow breakers and counters. Another significant mechanic is the Instinct Mode. As you take damage and perform combo breakers, you’ll fill up your instinct meter. Once full, you can activate Instinct Mode which grants characters unique bonuses for a limited time. There’s a lot to know and the training mode does cover it all. There is a practice mode which allows you to adjust different aspects of the AI and you can always pause the game during matches to consult your character’s move list. The gameplay is fast-paced, addictive, and rewarding. You will have to practice and memorize a character’s moves and once you have it down, it becomes addictive trying for long combos. There’s nothing more rewarding than landing an Ultra Combo or Ultimate and listening to the announcer shout at top of his lungs.
Killer Instinct is easily the most accessible game in the series thanks to its in-depth training and multiple difficulty modes. Plus, there are plenty of game modes for both single player and multiplayer. You can test your skills online against others, tackle the story mode, set up a fight against the AI, or see how far you can get in the Survival modes. In Shadow Lords, you can fight others online with the consumables and guardians. I think the Shadow stuff is one of the more interesting aspects of the game. You can create Shadow characters which are like AI fighters that learn from you. You choose a character and fight with it and against it and it learns based on your performance. After it’s created, you can then take it into battle and it will continue to learn. Once it’s out in the wild, other players can fight your shadow and you can analyze its performance. There’s a variation of the Survival mode where you fight Shadow Characters and it’s one way to earn Shadow Points which is a form of in-game currency that can be spent on cosmetic items for your Shadow Characters. For some reason, I couldn’t access any of the Shadow modes in the Steam version. My game would get stuck trying to sync with the servers. I don’t know if this is a problem for anyone else but I moved to the Xbox One version and didn’t encounter any issues.
Killer Instinct was a launch title for the Xbox One and I think the presentation holds up pretty well. It’s colorful with detailed characters and environments and I really like some of the character redesigns. Gargos and Cinder are two of my favorites. Strikes result in satisfying visual effects and blood will land on the ground and a blast will result in sparks flying through the air. There’s a good variety of stages and each one is unique. Some have cool weather effects and you can actually see rain drops bouncing off of characters and you’ll see all kinds of things moving around in the backgrounds. For example, Banshees flying around and Elites engaged in battle in the Arena of Judgment stage. The gameplay is accompanied by a fantastic soundtrack. Mick Gordon was the composer for the first two seasons and his version of the song “The Instinct” is absolutely incredible. There’s a lot of memorable tunes here that perfectly compliment the crazy and badass style of the game. Characters will grunt and groan during matches and the constant shouting from the announcer only makes the fighting feel more intense and exciting. On the technical side, I didn’t encounter any performance issues in either version. As mentioned earlier, I was unable to access the Shadow Modes in the Steam version.
I really enjoy Killer Instinct. It’s one of my favorite fighting games from the eighth generation. The fighting is fast-paced, addictive, rewarding, and fun. Killer Instinct introduces several new mechanics which add depth to the fighting. But you don’t need to know everything to enjoy it. It’s a great fighting game for those that want to play competitively or casually. Practice is required to be good but the game includes an excellent training mode that actually shows you how to play properly and explains the mechanics. Landing long combos is extremely satisfying and you can even let the game assist you in performing them. It’s very welcoming to newcomers. It has multiple difficulties and numerous game modes to test your skills. You can even create and train Shadow/AI Characters. Needless to say, Killer Instinct offers a good amount of content. It’s got the traditional arcade/story mode and Shadow Lords is an excellent single player mode that should keep you coming back for a while. Furthermore, there’s a lot of stuff to unlock and you’re rewarded just by playing, although trying to unlock everything might feel like a grind. The series has always maintained a unique personality thanks to its varied roster of characters, interesting stages, and kickass music. Killer Instinct (2013) is no exception and the game introduces some cool new characters like an assault cyborg with chaingun arms and an assassin that can summon spiderwebs. Ultimately, it’s a badass game.
I would absolutely recommend Killer Instinct to fans of the series and the fighting genre. I think it’s one of the most enjoyable fighting games of its generation and I think it’s the best game in the series. In fact, if you’re looking to get into the series, I would recommend you play this before its predecessors. It’s welcoming to new players and the fighting is fast, fluid, and fun. Almost everything about Killer Instinct is awesome. The gameplay, the fighters, the music – it’s a fighting game with attitude. If you’re looking for some competitive fun or just want to kick some ass, definitely check out Killer Instinct.