Initially developed by Double Helix, Killer Instinct launched on November 22, 2013 for the Xbox One, exclusively. The revival of the long dormant property was met with acclaim, but the title’s review scores were universally hurt by the initial lack of content on offer, leading to its criminally mediocre Metacritic score. Killer Instinct Season 2, headed by Iron Galaxy, launched on October 15th, 2014. Being known mostly for their previous title Dive Kick, many fans were concerned about the new studio’s involvement with the now triumphant return of the series. So now that season 2 is largely concluded, has Iron Galaxy lived up to the fans’ expectations? Did Iron Galaxy manage to land the double ultra?
[This review was created under an older site format and has lost its score and description as a result of the transition. Everything else has been maintained as it was.]
Before beginning, it’s important to disclose a few things. I never played fighting games extensively before picking up Killer Instinct, so it would be very difficult for me to directly compare it to other titles of the same genre. This also means that I don’t know very much about the series’ history firsthand, so I won’t attempt to draw comparisons between the titles. All of that aside, I’ve been playing this game since it launched, and even streamed it a fair amount. Please keep all of this in mind while reading the review, so that you can be better informed on my potential biases and shortcomings.
At first glance, Killer Instinct appears to be a very standard fighting game, two players fighting on a two-dimensional plane with one character each; but upon closer inspection, this game is anything but standard. In fact, Killer Instinct may be one of the best fighting games to have ever been released. The qualifier to that statement comes from this title’s focus on maintaining two-way interaction between combatants at all times. Essentially, in most fighting games, when your opponent begins wailing on you with a long combo string, there’s nothing you can do until they finish. Not so in Killer Instinct, as every player can perform a combo breaker at no cost to any meter. In order to break their opponent’s combo, however, the player must match the strength of their breaker with the strength of the opponent’s move. This encourages fighters to use a variety of moves, unlike in other games where the best players often end up repeating the same combo chains relentlessly. If the other player happens to be quite good at using combo breakers, the offensive player can attempt to counter break their opponent. A counter breaker will crush combo breakers and allow the combo to continue if the attacker can guess when the defensive player will go for a combo breaker. If either player fails their combo or counter breaker, then they can expect to be punished accordingly.
This interplay between the offensive and defensive player keeps the game exciting at all times, and it allows newer players to have a chance against more seasoned opponents without making the game feel cheap. More importantly though, this combat design causes players to engage in mind games with their opposition at much earlier levels of play then would otherwise be possible. Frequently, matches in KI are won by the smartest player, not necessarily the player with the best execution (although that obviously still plays a significant role). This is true for nearly all levels of play, and that’s what separates this game from the pack. The chess-like play, counter play, baiting, and punishing that occurs so regularly in competitive matches also occurs in casual games, and it is the most satisfying set of mechanics to have ever graced a fighting game, bar none.
Learning these mechanics is satisfying too, with the dojo mode providing an effective tool for becoming an avid fighting game player, as well as an avid Killer Instinct player. Unfortunately, while the dojo mode is an absolutely fantastic tutorial by fighting game standards, it still falls prey to some of the symptoms that these modes usually exhibit. It front loads much of the learning, fails to educate the player on some basic concepts, and has wording that can occasionally be confusing. The most painful choice of wording in the dojo’s 32 modules happens when the player is being taught how to execute special moves. The text tells trainees to perform a stick motion while simultaneously pressing the appropriate button in order to execute a special, when in reality, the game actually wants players to press the button immediately after completing said stick motion. That choice of words hindered my learning, along with many of my friends who I was attempting to indoctrinate into the game. Otherwise, the practice mode operates as expected, and there’s a very useful combo breaker training mode which helps when learning to break specific characters.
It’s good that this mode exists too, because those characters are as diverse as they are fun to play; which is to say that they are very diverse and exceptionally fun to play. As of the time of this writing, there are seventeen unique characters with one more on the way, and none of them feel at all similar to each other. Even characters who seem to occupy the same general role behave vastly different from each other, and they’re all balanced near-flawlessly (a few characters are slightly less viable than the rest of the cast at the highest levels of competition). A few members of the cast are even unique enough as to have no real equivalent in other fighting titles. One good example of this is Aganos, a Babylonian war golem who can create new stage walls and subsequently smash his opponents through them for massive damage. As if that wasn’t enough, each contender in the roster is immaculately detailed, while still managing to retain very distinctive visual identities. Jago, for example, is adorned with the drapes, ropes, and ornaments of the Tiger Temple. I can both imagine the process of the warrior monk carefully clothing himself with these decorations as well as how said decorations were originally placed around the temple.
The strong visual design is easy to appreciate with the increased native resolution of 900p (from 720p in season 1) and the still consistent refresh rate of sixty frames per second. Although the game fails to hit the full 1080p benchmark that everyone is so enamored with, Killer Instinct is still visually stunning, making use of fully dynamic lighting, real time physics, and an absurd amount of particles. Vibrant displays of color splash across the screen with an intensity rivaling a fireworks show, copious amounts of hit stun (eight frames for many hit confirms) really sell the power behind blows, and the animation quality is impressive considering how quickly fights usually move. As for texture quality, it looks great, although certain surfaces probably shouldn’t be hit with the likes of Hisako’s close up. There also seems to be minor clipping issues with various characters’ outfits.
While the visuals may leave a few people underwhelmed, it would be difficult to find any faults with the exceptional sound design. Listening to Killer Instinct with a pair of headphones is a delight, as every piece of audio seems carefully considered. Everything about the characters sounds exactly how it should, the ambient sounds get quieter as the camera pans out, and the music even dynamically adjusts to the pace of the match. Speaking of the music, Mick Gordon should be considered among the likes of Marty O’Donnell and Nobuo Uematsu. His work on Killer Instinct is utterly fantastic, and even those who don’t enjoy fighting games should, at least, give the sound track a listen. The only fault I could possibly lob at the game’s audio is that the sound effects occasionally get muted during matches.
Of course, the most amazing, the most wonderful, the absolute best reason to look into this game is because of its online play. Here’s a breakdown: some games have good netcode, some games even feel local if the players are near each other, but Killer Instinct blows them all out of the water. If I wrote that I can play people in Germany (I’m from Michigan, U.S.A.) and it feels local, would you believe me? You may be skeptical, but I have multiple friends from across the pond that I can play with no perceived lag… in a fighting game. Call me a loner, but I have no local friends who play fighting games, let alone any who might have the will to teach me. I also can’t stand lag in fighting games, because they require too much precision. The only reason I was able to learn how great of a game this is, was because the netcode is basically perfect.
Then again, good netcode doesn’t mean jack squat if you prefer to play fighting games alone. This is where Killer Instinct falls a little flat. To be fair, most fighting games have lackluster single player modes, but even by their standards, KI has difficulty standing tall. The game has three basic modes for fighting computer opponents: versus, survival, and story. Versus is just a one-off fight with an A.I. of any difficulty, survival is an endless score attack where players maintain their shadow meter throughout, and story is a set series of fights with a loose narrative to string players along. Story has been improved for season 2 by… actually having a story, providing a bit of context for every fight. However, the problem of fighting game A.I. persists. Even on Kyle difficulty, the A.I. behaves too much like a machine. The fact that these computer opponents don’t react to you and adapt to you like a real person would destroys everything that’s good about Killer Instinct, and it’s not fun.
That being said, there is some hope for solitary fighting game players. Asynchronous multiplayer is a feature that Microsoft has been pushing for their Forza series since Forza Motorsport 5, and now the feature has squeezed its way into their fighting game via the Shadows mode. This mode lets the player create a custom A.I. for a given character by having the game record how they play against their opponents and replicate their behavior. While there are some other titles with similar features, it seems that none of them are particularly good. The Shadows in Killer Instinct, on the other hand, not only replicate player behavior near-flawlessly (assuming they’ve been trained enough), but they can adapt to their opponents during the match and are even able to accurately reflect a player’s counter breaking habits (something that initially sounds simple but is likely one of the most difficult parts of the algorithm to get right). This is made possible with cloud computing, as the A.I. is meticulously specific with how it goes about learning. It combines the match data from character specific match-ups with your general playstyle (heavily favoring data from the match-ups), it will never cheat or perform moves that it hasn’t seen the player perform before, and they even take input time into account. This does mean that being connected to the internet is necessary, but having a spotty connection won’t hurt the player’s experience. Shadows are (mostly?) downloaded to the console before the fight begins, but losing your connection altogether during the match will get you booted from the fight.
It’s possible to go on for days about the potential effects that shadows will have for fighting games in the near-future, but as many have claimed and I personally believe, they are the future of fighting game A.I. Interestingly enough though, they do more than just provide a computer version of yourself to fight against, they also help players who play versus online. I’ll give my own story as an example of what I’m talking about. I’m normally a player who doesn’t really try to improve very much on purpose. I learn through an aggregate experience of getting my face slammed into the ground over and over again until I’m conditioned to stop responding to stimuli inappropriately and start doing whatever gets my rat brain rewarded. Once I started training my Sabrewulf shadow, however, that all changed; suddenly I was concerned over how well my shadow was going to perform against real opponents. I started looking for opportunities to improve my playstyle, opportunities to plan smarter, react faster, punish harder. Suddenly I was applying the min/maxing style of play my brain normally reserves for RPG’s and strategy games on every match I entered. During the few days I trained my Sabrewulf, I gained more skill than I normally would in two weeks of ranked play. Shadows incentivize players to get better at an alarmingly fast rate. I felt like Rocky rising from obscurity, training to beat Apollo… minus the montage.
Fighting games are an amazing and unique breed of titles which hold onto their fanbase with a grip so tight that those already engrossed in the genre often vehemently defend it without hesitation. The fighting game community (fgc) is so dedicated to the genre that they reliably take many of the hurdles that they had to cross to become fans of the genre as its staples. The incredibly steep learning curve, the near-necessity to play with real people, and the difficult special inputs are taken for granted. In fact, these “features” are so ingrained into the identity of the genre that, even to this day, you can easily find people who don’t consider the Super Smash Brothers series true fighting games. It’s refreshing to see titles such as Killer Instinct and the recently revealed Rising Thunder make serious efforts to be more accessible to larger audiences by focusing so heavily on reducing their learning curves and having great online play. For being more of a budget title, Killer Instinct has ushered me into a genre that used to be mostly impenetrable to me. Sure I had some time with Smash and a lot of mashing buttons on the Dead or Alive 4 demo, but I never had friends to play with locally. I never had the desire to get better, and even if I did, I wouldn’t have had a good way to test myself. Killer Instinct, with a pricing model borrowed from League of Legends and net play so smooth that pros can practice anywhere, brought me into this wonderful class of games and broke down the walls which kept me from enjoying myself in other titles. While I still haven’t spoken about everything awesome that this game brings to the table (hilariously enough, considering the length of this piece), I do need to shut up at some point. Killer Instinct certainly still has room to improve, but because of the reasons above, this game will forever remain among my favorite titles of all time. My final words can only be thank you. Thank you to Rare, to Double Helix, to Microsoft, and to Iron Galaxy for making such a killer game. May all of you continue to shine on!