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EGM Review:
Killer Instinct

Posted on November 18, 2013 AT 04:50pm

He’s a Killer (Combo) King

I’ve never liked Killer Instinct. I’m getting that right out of the way here at the beginning so that any die-hard fans of the franchise who might be reading this won’t need to wait long to know if they should discount my opinions or not.

Back in its heyday, the game seemed to be an attempt by Nintendo (via Rare) to show how “hip” and “cool” they could be. It was a fighting game that didn’t really understand why games such as Street Fighter II or Samurai Shodown II were as popular as they were, focusing on flash and graphics and crazy-length combos instead of real virtues like gameplay, proper depth, or reward for true skill.

It’s been a long, long time since those days, and I’m always willing to give games another chance—including the opportunity to prove me wrong.

Before I get to this new rebirth for Killer Instinct, the plans for its release, or the work that Double Helix put into it, let me address that question: the game’s concept.

I still don’t like it.

For those who have never played any version of Killer Instinct, the game’s main hook—the thing that makes it stand out from others in the fighting-game crowd—are combos. Each character has certain special moves that will open up their opponent, where a combo can automatically be initiated by the press of one attack button. Once that automatic sequence runs its course, you can then do another special move as a linker, which can itself provide the opportunity for yet another auto-combo sequence. So long as you haven’t gone over the limit of how far you can take the combo, you can simply rinse and repeat. Before you do hit that limit, performing a special move that acts as an ender will register all of the damage you’ve caused to your opponent; miss that ender, and you’ve dropped your combo, negating that damage.

Thus went matches in Killer Instinct. One player starting a train of punches and kicks on their opponent, and said opponent trying to pull off a Combo Breaker to interrupt the attack and give them the opportunity to retaliate. This was my problem with the series: In my eyes, the games have always been about the gimmick, not the gameplay. They’re about getting your character into that perfect opportunity to do a combo, not anything that happens between those moments.

Of course, I know one of the arguments that’ll come up. “Watch EVO, and you’ll see people going for crazy combo strings in everything from Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 to The King of Fighters XIII!” That’s true—but those moments are testaments to the skill and smarts of the player involved. None of that comes for free, unlike Killer Instinct. Sure, you can’t just flail the controller and become a combo expert here—but the ease to which the game automates 20-plus-hit combos means that gameplay is more about looking good than actually being good.

On the other side of that is the Combo Breaker. Because of how ingrained those combo sequences are, you’re going to have to be an expert at them if you’re going to want to hang with anybody with any skill level. The problem is, being able to read which Combo Breaker to throw out when will be really tough for some, since you’ve got to know the exacts of speed or style of attack for every character in the game. Fighting games always have some level of imbalance between OK, good, and great players, but I feel that’s especially the case here. Killer Instinct’s systems reward expert players, to a point that those with lesser ability can be left behind. It reminds me a lot of Street Fighter III and its parry system. Parries were loved by those who sunk hours and hours into the game and had the needed talent to fully use them; for those who weren’t so good, it could be impossible to even attempt to hang with players outside of their skill level.

No matter how hard I try, I can’t take Killer Instinct seriously as a fighting game in the same way that I do offerings from other developers. The thing is, the more I played, the more I was OK with that idea.

Back in the golden years of 2D fighting games, there were countless options available for those who wanted something more than the latest Capcom or SNK release. I remember a long list of offerings just on the Saturn alone, titles such as Rabbit, Groove on Fight, Asuke 120% Burning Fest, and Waku Waku 7. If you played enough fighting games, you learned that there were specific categories each of them fit into. Some games were broken but fun, some were great ideas but not always the greatest execution, and some were over-the-top nonsense and perfect for busting out with your buddies when you didn’t want the competition level to be too high.

That last category is where I see Killer Instinct. I’d never want to play this game seriously like I do Street Fighter IV, nor could I begin to imagine that it’d ever be enjoyable to watch on the competitive scene. As a novelty, something to play with friends during a night of hanging out and drinking, or something to jump into online when I’ve got a little time to kill? That’s where I see Killer Instinct having value.

And—unlike the ugly messes that were the CG-rendered Rare releases back in the day—Double Helix has made something that I can actually stand to play (or look at) for more than a few minutes. When I first tried it months ago at Xbox One pre-release events, I found the highly detailed models to blend in too much with their surroundings, and the bizarre overindulgence in sparks and other hit effects to be, well, bizarre. Now, I find them to be part of the charm. More importantly, Killer Instinct feels great on a gameplay level, coming out smooth both in terms of framerate and control. That’s also true online, where—while I was only able to try a handful of matches due to playing the game pre-release—netcode felt extremely stable and solid.

Putting the argument of core gameplay concepts aside for a moment, Double Helix has done a bang-up job in attempting to make Killer Instinct relevant again. This also goes for the cast of fighters, who—Jago aside—look nicely modern, updated, and interesting. Saberwulf, Chief Thunder, and Glacius show the attempt by the dev team to make each character feel unique and different, Orchid’s penchant for baring her breasts is thankfully gone, and the game’s new face—Sadira—seems strangely directed at me and my unexplainable fetish for spiderwomen.

There are, unfortunately, some ways in which the team’s effort feels undercooked. To be clear, I’m not talking about the overall idea of having Killer Instinct exist as both as a full release and as a download that can be considered free-to-play, nor the even bigger idea to release the full experience in pieces. I don’t mind that. Having no story mode at this point means nothing to me, because the only times I’ve cared about the single-player portions of fighting games were when they had exceptionally deep storytelling (I’m looking at you, Arc System Works) or when I was forced to, against my will, in order to unlock elements for multiplayer. Who buys fighting game for their single-player portions? Un-American terrorists, that’s who.

No, I’m talking about a number of strange omissions concerning what’s included at this point. The main tutorial section, the Dojo, is uneven in its teaching of the game’s various elements. Sometimes you can have the Dojo show you exactly what you need to do to accomplish a certain goal, complete with the ability to slow down the action to better understand what’s being done when. This is a great option, one of many that show off the robustness of both the Dojo and the standard practice mode. However, the feature is only available on select Dojo challenges, and there were at least a few lessons where I really wished I could see the timing needed for a particular string of moves. Then there’s the ability to customize the cast with accessories or new clothing items. It’s a nice option, but the selection of unlockables is pretty small—and they’re missing obvious details such as color choice. As an example of this, there’s a pair of long green pants that can be unlocked for Orchid; they go great with her default green outfit color, but pick any alternate color, and the pants don’t change to match.

Those complaints are valid, but they’re also forgivable. Far more questionable is the lack of options for playing online. Eschewing the single-player for now in favor of focusing on the competitive side of the game makes sense, but there’s no real lobby system for online play—beyond the ability to bring an Xbox One party into an exhibition match—and local play is limited to very basic one-versus-one matches.

Then we get to my biggest complaint, and it’s something I find near inexcusable. As I said, I’m totally fine with the free-to-play idea; Killer Instinct isn’t the first to try it among fighting games, but it’s an intriguing way to hopefully bring more people to the genre and gives games such as this more opportunities to exist. I mean, I never enjoy when players gravitate too much to one specific type of character—the constant stream of Ryus, Kens, and Akumas I face online are a great example of that—but Microsoft and Double Helix have promised that they’ll be rotating out the character that’s unlocked for free players at any given time.

Except, that doesn’t help for people who want to play the game now and who might consider purchasing new characters. There is, currently, no way for players coming in through the free-to-play version of Killer Instinct to try out any character but Jago. Why aren’t they all unlocked in the practice mode? How am I supposed to know if I’ll enjoy how a character plays before I buy them if I’m in that position? This isn’t just a problem for those new to the franchise—even longtime fans won’t know the exacts of how each fighter plays in their revivals.

There was one other thing that I couldn’t shake from my mind as I spent time with Killer Instinct, and while I’m not sure I should knock the game for this, it’s something I at least wanted to bring up. Given how long it’s been since the last game in the series was released, and given how much work already went into making this latest chapter a new beginning of sorts for the franchise, I can’t help but think that Double Helix should have tailored Killer Instinct more for a home audience. This is a major Microsoft release that was revived specifically for, and released exclusively on, the company’s new home console. And yet, the game relies on the traditional six-button setup—something that’s far more the territory of arcade fighters. I have to assume that a majority of players will be experiencing Killer Instinct with the standard Xbox One controller, so why not make the game properly suited to it? With two main attacks outside of the controller’s face buttons, and a wide variety of tactics needing multiple button presses, you’ll simply never get the full experience of playing unless you spring for an arcade stick.

That’s the biggest impression that I was left with after playing Killer Instinct: that this is a product that doesn’t always know what it should or wants to be. Part of that comes from what it is on a gameplay level—a point where it and I will simply never see eye-to-eye—but some of that is also in terms of how it was handled. It’s a home-console fighting game that wants to be an arcade game, but that also wants to be a free-to-play title. It wants to reach that goal being an episodic project, while at the same time not always making up for what it lacks by being strong enough in what it features.

Somehow, despite all of that, I had fun with Killer Instinct. Fans of the series—and, really, who are you people?—are probably just glad that Microsoft finally did something with the games again, and hopefully, you’ll be happy with the results. Will you? That’s not a question I can answer. I can only speak for those outside of the Cult of Combo Breakers, and for us, this is the revival of an aberration of a gaming era gone by. While we never asked for it, it’s here—and now that it is, you know, it can at times be charming, in its own awkward, obnoxious way, so long as you take it in small, occasional doses.

I guess what I’m saying is, Killer Instinct is the Crispin Glover of the fighting-game genre.

Developer: Double Helix • Publisher: Microsoft • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 11.22.2013

While I’m still not a fan of Killer Instinct’s dial-a-combo mentality nor its eclectic cast of characters, Double Helix’s efforts to bring the series back from the dead are commendable—and while some mistakes were made along the way, this is probably the most interesting and enjoyable the franchise has ever been.

The Good Gameplay, control, and framerate are all smooth both online and off.
The Bad The entire combo aspect of Killer Instinct desperately straddles the gimmick line between interesting and unappealing.
The Ugly Old-school Killer Instinct and its grotesque CG models.
Killer Instinct is available exclusively on Xbox One.
Eric L. Patterson, Executive Editor
Eric L. Patterson got started via self-publishing game-related fanzines in junior high, and now has one goal in life: making sure EGM has as much coverage of niche Japanese games as can realistically be crammed in. Eric’s also active in the gaming community on a personal level, being an outspoken voice on topics such as equality in gaming and consumer rights. Stalk Eric on Twitter: @Eric_EGM. Meet the rest of the crew.

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