Admittedly, the original 1994 Killer Instinct wasn’t a great game. It wasn’t terrible, but that may just be because I refuse to properly analyze my formative years for fear of degrading their substance. Either way, basically no one was asking for a reboot of the franchise, and yet here we are with a free-to-play Killer Instinct for the Xbox One’s launch. And it was a good move.
Yes, it’s free to play, hence this not being a review. All you have to do is find it in the Xbox One’s Games store front (not terribly hard considering your choices can be counted on one hand) and download it. Right now, the free character is Jago, the surrogate Ryu or Liu Kang of the game, though others will get rotated into the fold later. If you want more characters now, though, you have to pay five dollars each for them, which would lead you to believe online matches would be nothing but Jago-on-Jago mirror matches, but it turns out a lot of people have been sinking money into this thing.
And time, as it would seem. People have gotten quite good at the game’s core conceit: combos. How you inflict the most damage in a single go is by getting your opponent into a combo, which always begins with an opener and then is mixed with linkers and autos (and shadow moves and manuals) before being capped off with an ender.
This is not a terribly demanding game in terms of technical proficiency; after all, autos are multi-hit additions to your combo that are trigger by a single button press. It’s all about understanding the systems. The overall goal is to get from an opener to a closer to cause damage and then prevent it from recovering, which will happen if you don’t perform an ender. Most of it is tied up in basic moves like dragon punches and fireballs, but the simplicity opens it up to neat twists.
Combo Breakers, as you are familiar with by simply being on the Internet, are vital to being a good fighter and finding pleasure in the game. If you can guess the strength of attack used for normal auto or manual attacks, then you break out of being combo’d and get back to trying to start your own. It’s a great mind game of trying to mix up your own play and trying to second guess your opponent. It’s like high level rock-paper-scissors but with more blood.
It really changes up the usual upfront framework of fighting games where you simply block and then execute. It starts to feel like trying to run multiple mental models of several different games at once and can become quite the brainy workout. This is especially true when you start to game your meters. If you fill the combo meter, it’s basically a wash, but if you trigger special moves, you can reset the meter and keep the combo going. There are several fantastic layers to the fighting here.
The problem arises when you are the one being combo’d. If you’re not good at reading attack animations or simply unlucky, you’ll find yourself stuck being a ragdoll for four to five seconds at a time. That’s four to five seconds where you are helpless and at the mercy of either an AI or a person. This is when the game really fails to keep me interested, as in just those few seconds, my desire to play something else grows ever stronger.
But at least you’ll generally always know what you’re doing. In most other fighting games, I always felt like I was simply trying to understand how it worked let alone figuring out high-level tactics, but Killer Instinct has an amazing dojo mode that covers truly everything. You can start out learning how to walk and then advance to learning how to cap off combos. It’s thorough enough that you feel competent going into your first online match but hands-off enough to let you learn on your own.
And the game’s general presentation is rather good. The graphics are exceptionally sharp (those fireballs!) and the music is predictably catchy, but the coolest stuff happens at the end of fights, where rain will really start to come down if you pull of an Ultra Combo, or the music will sync up with your brutal hits and create a violent, staccato rhythm of mayhem and particle effects. It is unbelievably satisfying ruining someone in such a delicious, over-the-top fashion.
As a free game amongst mediocre sequels and half-assed ports, grabbing the free Killer instinct is an obvious choice. As a quality fighting game with an absolutely intriguing and fun foundation, Killer Instinct is something you should definitely check out. Just don’t kill your childhood by playing the original Killer Instinct included in the download.