Killer Instinct review: Combo Broken

For fighting fans, the launch of Xbox One doesn't offer much beyond Killer Instinct, a revival of the classic Super Nintendo-era franchise. Many hallmarks of the series are here, including bombastic combos and back-and-forth battles. And while the gameplay proves capable, the lack of game modes and fighters make the initial release feel like an incomplete product.

Killer Instinct is built on a bedrock of rock-paper-scissors combat. While the game's exterior boasts flashy multi-hit combos and keen special moves, the foundation centers around counters, making it more a game of cat-and-mouse, rather than a race to brutalize the opponent. It's a formula that may entice veterans, but might also chase off newcomers.


Killer Instinct's combos are simple enough to button-mash your way into. Entry blows ask players to link heavy attacks to light attacks, light attacks to medium attacks, and so on. You can toss in special moves to make combos look better and toss in Shadow Moves, which operate similarly to Street Fighter 4's EX moves.

Many of Killer Instinct's special moves rely on classic controller inputs, like quarter-circles. Unfortunately, Xbox One's revised D-pad still doesn't respond to these kinds of inputs very well; I spent the bulk of this review using the analog stick. While the analog stick proved sufficient, devoted fighters are going to want to shell out for an arcade stick.

Skill is certainly something one can fake easily in Killer Instinct, especially given how easily one can button mash their way into a random combo. However, there's one classic mechanic that will separate the pros from the phonies: the Combo Breaker. Once players learn a specific fighter's Combo Breaker, Killer Instinct switches to a game about reading opponents and exercising timing. Just about any combo can be broken, which could leave you hearing "C-C-C-C-Combo Breaker!" an awful lot. There's also the appropriately-named Counter-Breaker, which allows players to continue their combos uninterrupted. There's a high learning curve involved here, especially since these moves vary by character. Veteran fighters may want the high reward at the end of that rainbow, but casual fighters will likely find themselves in the dust once they bump into opponents that can easily brush off any of their combos.

While Killer Instinct is fun, it's ultimately undone by its lack of game modes. Single-player fighters looking to sharpen their wits won't find much to play with here. Aside from taking on CPU opponents through the normal Versus menu, Killer Instinct offers a Survival mode that keeps throwing out opponents in a never-ending gauntlet. There's no goal in this mode, other than bragging rights and Killer Points, which unlock cosmetic items, stages, and profile decals.

In some ways, the lack of a single-player mode is appreciated. After all, most players pick up fighting games to test their skills against human opponents. Unfortunately, the multiplayer offerings aren't much better, only offering no-frills Exhibition and Ranked one-on-one matches. The lack of spectator modes or tournament lobbies for friends makes this package pale in comparison to its contemporaries.

At launch, Killer Instinct serves as a solid foundation for what could eventually become a good fighting game. More characters and stages are coming down the line, but at launch, the game's limited single and multiplayer modes are glaring and will grow stale quickly. [7]

This review is based on early downloadable Xbox One code provided by the publisher. Killer Instinct will be available on Xbox One on November 22 as a free-to-play downloadable title on Xbox Live. The game is rated M.