Killer Instinct (Xbox One) review

Killer Instinct returns as a Xbox One exclusive after a long hiatus. The game feels skimpy in some areas, but it's one of the most thrilling and enjoyable games at the start of this new console generation.
Photo of Killer Instinct (Xbox One)

I really shouldn’t have been excited for Killer Instinct. The gaming landscape is littered with failed attempts to revitalize long-dormant franchises, and developer Double Helix’s track record—which includes putting forth the likes of Silent Hill: Homecoming and G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra—isn’t particularly impressive. Still, this year’s Killer Instinct E3 reveal gave me hope that the crazy combos and insane announcer that I loved in the ’90s would return in a decent game.

Double Helix’s Killer Instinct is more than decent. It’s quite good—very  good, in fact, despite feeling incomplete in some areas.

Note: This is a review of the offline experience. We’ll update the review with our impressions of the online multiplayer mode after Xbox One’s  launch and significant playtime with the general public.

It’s Been a Long Time
The original Killer Instinct hit arcades and the Super Nintendo back in 1994. Although clearly inspired by other classic fighting games of the era like Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat, it brought its own ideas into the genre as well. Auto-combos, double life bars, and the series’ trademark Combo Breakers all helped set Killer Instinct apart from the stiff competition at the time.

The new Killer Instinct keeps most of the franchise’s core gameplay elements, but adds several new mechanics to the hard-hitting combat that feel so, so good when you land blows.

The result is a fighting game that’s accessible to newcomers, but packs enough flexibility and technique to satisfy core players. Strikes are weighty, which gives combos an added layer of viciousness. The fighting engine feels fresh, yet familiar—what you’d want when reviving an old series. In fact, some of my PCMag colleagues were able to muscle memory their way to combos that they busted out in the ’90s. Each character has a unique fighting style that almost makes the small roster a small offensive. Almost. More on that in a bit.

Meters and Announcer
Instinct Mode taps the orange meter beneath a character’s health bar to increase his or her strength or regenerate health (depending on the character) and chain together Ultras for huge combos. Glacius, for example, dons protective icy armor that increases his defense. Once Instinct Mode is activated, the orange meter slowly depletes (it even does so during round transfers!), so players only have a limited time to inflict big hurt.

Shadow Moves are enhanced versions of special moves that do extra damage and contain unique properties. Jago’s Shadow Move fireball, for example, hits multiple times (instead of once) for increased damage and passes through other fireballs (normally, two fireballs would collide in a shower of spark-filled pyrotechnics that recalls a ’80s hair metal video). This, too, uses the meter.

It would be highly irresponsible of me to ignore Killer Instinct’s over-the-top announcer who punctuates the action with bombastic outbursts. Combo Break an opponent, and he shouts “C-c-c-combo Breaker!,” which makes the already impressive action that much cooler. Likewise, the announcer shouts a hilarious “Ultraaaaaaaaaaaaaa!” at the top of his lungs when you finish the match with an Ultra combo. The announcer is as valuable a Killer Instinct character as any fighter.

Counter Breakers, easily one of my favorite new tools in the Killer Instinct arsenal, lets gamers who get rocked by flow-breaking Combo Breakers quickly turn the tide by smashing the opponent with counters of their own.

Dojo Mode and Gripes
If those terms are utter gibberish to you, step into The Dojo where you’ll learn everything from basic attacking and blocking to combo theory. I learned, for example, that an “X” appearing over my character’s head while it was taking a beating meant that I blew a Combo Breaker and was locked out of attempting another for three seconds (if the “X” is orange, it means that I mis-timed the Combo Breaker; if it’s red, I used the wrong strength). It’s one of the more thorough tutorials ever included in a fighting game. In fact, you can even study character frame data.

Unfortunately, there are just six base characters (Jago, Orchid, Glacius, Sabrewulf, Thunder, and Sadira). Double Helix has stated that two more characters will be released in “season one” to bring the total up to eight. That’s a ridiculously small roster, and no amount of unlockable bonus character skins can hide that. And on the topic of unlockables, Killer Instinct requires you to unearth extra character color schemes and stages using Killer Points, the in-game currency. I wouldn’t mind unlocking items so much if, say, there were more than one stage available at the start.

Unique Pricing Structure and Accessories
Gamers can purchase Killer Instinct in a variety of ways. First, the free demo comes with a single playable character that changes over time, and players can buy the rest at $4.99 a pop. The wallet-friendly $19.99 Combo Breaker Pack grants six characters along with early access to two more characters coming after release. The $39.99 Ultra Edition includes all eight characters, a host of costumes and other extras, and an emulated version of the original Killer Instinct. Finally, the $59.99 Pin Edition includes Jago and Killer Instinct logo pins and a tri-fold case. Rare and Double Helix are also planning a second season of eight more downloadable fighters for release sometime in 2014. I like the purchasing flexibility here as it lets gamers enter Killer Instinct’s world as they see fit.

Each character has three sets of accessories that let gamers customize their fighters’ appearances. Two accessory sets are unlocked using KP, but the other is exclusive to the Ultra Edition. The accessories give the characters extra flair. You can give Sabrewulf a steampunk look or Jago a gladiator-like appearance, for example.

Welcome Back, Killer
Killer Instinct is the rare fighting game that successfully caters to both casual and hardcore audiences. Low-skill players can bust out impressive moves, while fighting game masters can work the meters, linkers, enders, and other techniques to dominate opponents. There’s a deep combat system on display that will keep gamers busy despite the small roster. If you’re an old school Killer Instinct fan, the new edition satisfies. If you haven’t dipped your toe into the combo-heavy waters, you can download the game for free and sample the madness.

Welcome back, old friend.

Genre Action Games

Killer Instinct returns as a Xbox One exclusive after a long hiatus. The game feels skimpy in some areas, but it's one of the most thrilling and enjoyable games at the start of this new console generation.
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