Killer Instinct review: Combo Broken

Microsoft and Double Helix make a valiant effort to revive the Killer Instinct franchise, but this Xbox One launch title sadly suffers from a lack of variety and game modes.

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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.

Senior Editor

Ozzie has been playing video games since picking up his first NES controller at age 5. He has been into games ever since, only briefly stepping away during his college years. But he was pulled back in after spending years in QA circles for both THQ and Activision, mostly spending time helping to push forward the Guitar Hero series at its peak. Ozzie has become a big fan of platformers, puzzle games, shooters, and RPGs, just to name a few genres, but he’s also a huge sucker for anything with a good, compelling narrative behind it. Because what are video games if you can't enjoy a good story with a fresh Cherry Coke?

From The Chatty
  • reply
    November 18, 2013 6:00 AM

    Ozzie Mejia posted a new article, Killer Instinct review: Combo Broken.

    Microsoft and Double Helix make a valiant effort to revive the Killer Instinct franchise, but this Xbox One launch title sadly suffers from a lack of variety and game modes.

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      November 18, 2013 6:35 AM

      Hey Ozzie, is there a training mode? Didn't see that mentioned in the review. I thought there was supposed to be training mode with frame data and hitboxes and stuff.

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        November 18, 2013 6:41 AM

        The training mode is very extensive and unique for each fighter (at least that's what I heard).

        Also seems a bit harsh to moan about the modes when it's only $20.00.

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          November 18, 2013 6:45 AM

          I also thought the comment about "the only fighter on Xbox One is KI" when isn't there only one fighter on PS4?

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        November 18, 2013 1:55 PM

        Frame data and hitboxes are options you can enable, which is really helpful. I think devoted fighters will enjoy this, in spite of the limited game modes.

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      November 18, 2013 6:41 AM

      This turned out just about exactly as I figured. The revived a mediocre fighting game from the 90's that had a cult following, and now its a mediocre fighting game 20 years later. I think any excitement for this game was probably laden with nostalgia.

      MS is really going through the "launch genres playbook" on Xbox One aren't they? They have sports games, a racing game, and a fighting game. All the boxes are checked. Haha.

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      November 18, 2013 7:26 AM

      The game is going to evolve over time more characters and modes will be added down the line. So I kinda have to take that complaint with a semi truck full of salt.

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      November 18, 2013 7:52 AM

      Personally, I think unless you are going the route of MK9 / Injustice with a grand spectacle single player campaign, it probably makes a whole lot of sense to sell fighting games as a semi-budget title ($20 USD) with nothing but multiplayer modes.

      Let's be honest, anything outside the multiplayer and training modes (including those of MK9) are just fluff.

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        November 18, 2013 9:56 AM

        And I do, in fact, point out that not a lot of people are into single-player modes, so that can be overlooked. But fighting fans have been spoiled by games that offer lots of different ways to play multiplayer, whether it's a tournament mode, a spectator mode, or a creative mode that tries to push the formula in a new way. To only feature a versus mode feels so by-the-numbers that I can't help but be disappointed.

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          November 18, 2013 11:34 AM

          I agree with you. However I wonder if you factored in pricing on this matter. This is budged as a much cheaper game than most fighters (which are usually priced at a full $50). This has been set at as low as $20. I do wonder if what you get is worth how much you pay.

          On the other hand, a game like Skull Girls can easily refute my argument as that game has a very robust set of training features and is cheaper. (probably mechanically more solid too)

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            November 18, 2013 11:40 AM

            budgeted (stupid auto correct)

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            November 19, 2013 11:19 AM

            I agree with the sentiment in this discussion.

            When KI is put up against standard $60 fighting games it most definitely comes up short on features and characters, but taken in context with it being a free downloadable platform/game with a free character, in which you can spend $5 for one additional character of your choice in, or $20 for all 6 characters, I think it begins to show it's value a bit more.

            Sure you don't have all the single player content that an NRS game might have, nor can you get into lobbies and the like on online (at least not yet), but it would seem the X1's feature set would do much to supplement that as you can watch/spectate other matches via a "snapped" Twitch or Youtube app, or something else to that degree.

            IDK.

            I may be a little biased when it comes to fighting games as I don't particularly care for their single-player modes (other than story-modes that is), as I just want to get online and mix it up with other like minded players so we can push the limits of our fundamental fighting game knowledge.

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        November 18, 2013 5:40 PM

        So by that logic, does that mean you're getting BlazBlue: Chrono Phantasma?

        I had a blast with Continuum Shift's story mode; lots of great character writing (and excellent English localization and voice acting), which made me feel more at home with each character's personality than I would with just a goofy 5-dialogue-line-per-step "story mode" like I remember seeing in Dead or Alive 3. Then again, Arc System Works is in that bizarre sphere of Japanese developers who know how to do the "visual novel" style of story mode, much like Atlus (half of why Arc did P4A with Atlus was because Arc's developers are Persona fans).

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      November 18, 2013 8:02 AM

      Can I use my 360 arcade stick with the xb1?

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        November 18, 2013 8:15 AM

        Unfortunately, no.

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          November 18, 2013 8:20 AM

          that is some fraggle narckle bullshit, i spent like 100 bucks on my qanba stick!

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          November 18, 2013 10:04 AM

          what fucking bullshit is this? I bought a SF stick and a MK stick.

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          November 18, 2013 12:01 PM

          Is an adapter possible, or are people really going to have to buy new fight sticks for the new consoles?

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        November 18, 2013 9:57 AM

        No. I think Mad Catz is supposed to have new arcade sticks ready soon. And you'll need them, because if you think the D-pad problem on the 360 is bad...just wait...

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          November 18, 2013 10:01 AM

          What about the new d-pad makes it bad for fighting games? Too small, too stiff/clicky?

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            November 18, 2013 10:13 AM

            It's very stiff and clicky and has a lot of trouble reading quarter-circle inputs. That's bad news for a fighting game.

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              November 18, 2013 4:19 PM

              I actually use the analog stick. It took a while to get use too, but not getting Nintendo thumb was the reasoning. Glad I did too:)

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              November 23, 2013 5:08 AM

              I can echo this. I am having a hell of a time doing quarter circles with this d-pad. Thought it might just be me but glad that isn't the case. Going to just get use to the analog stick.

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          November 18, 2013 10:02 AM

          Aww, I thought they refined the refined d-pad from the later controllers? Boo...

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            November 18, 2013 11:56 AM

            They have, but I'm guessing the fact that is clicks when you press it in a direction makes it so diagonals aren't as easily registered but will be fine for games that use it for weapon switching or using special abilities and stuff like that when you just press it up/down/left/right.

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          November 18, 2013 10:02 AM

          Ozzie, I only play fighters with joysticks. Me playing with a d-pad (no matter how good/bad) is like you becoming a Raiders fan.

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            November 18, 2013 10:12 AM

            I grew up on the Super NES generation of fighters, like SFII and MKII, so playing with a D-pad isn't unheard of for me.

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              November 18, 2013 9:06 PM

              Man, same for me. That sucks.

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          November 18, 2013 11:59 AM

          ugh, that's kind of retarded. the fight sticks are USB! we should be able to re-use them!

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            November 18, 2013 4:40 PM

            Same for wheels but there is pretty much no chance of support for those on the x1.

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      November 18, 2013 9:17 AM

      Fair enough Ozzie.

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      November 18, 2013 9:00 PM

      what are all the characters?

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      February 8, 2014 10:35 PM

      Would love to have the original Killer Instinct arcade and N64 games on Wii U.