It’s been nearly two decades since fans last played a new entry in the long-dormant Killer Instinct series, and enough time had passed that many thought the franchise was put out to pasture long ago. Since the game had effectively been missing in action since 1996, it was a little more than surprising when Microsoft announced a followup to the arcade classic at E3 2013. Gamers hoping for a solid fighter will more than find it in Killer Instinct, but there are a few issues that keep it from feeling like a next-gen game.
First and foremost, Killer Instinct isn’t the full retail experience that fans may having been hoping for. Instead, Microsoft has made this a free-to-play downloadable title that gives players the option of purchasing small snippets or entire sections of the game. The base package comes with one character, Jago, and players can access all the other modes and multiplayer offerings without paying a dime, but those hoping to experience the game from the perspective of other combatants will have to begin forking over cash. For a total of eight fighters (six of which are available now) it’ll cost a very reasonable $19.99, but a few individual characters can also be picked up for $4.99 a pop.
Despite this method of delivery, Killer Instinct‘s roster provides plenty of uniqueness while still ensuring that the game remains a balanced, flashy affair. From day one, players will have access to Jago, Sabrewulf, Glacius, Thunder, Orchid, and newcomer Sadira initially, and so far these offer a basic, yet enjoyable, layout of combatants that will each cater to a certain type of player. Glacius, for example, is effective from medium to long range as a result of his ice-based attacks, while Thunder is a slower and more powerful brawler that specializes in close-combat encounters.
Having a balanced roster is important, but the game’s initial enjoyment is cut short by the lack of characters currently available. Although Spinal and Fulgore will be coming to the game months down the road, the character depth just isn’t there. Also missing in action from the game is an Arcade Mode (although it’s planned to launch in March) so the title itself currently feels like it’s lacking a lot of the appeal that standard fighting games have from day one. That said, these are all things that developer Double Helix plans on addressing soon, so it’s hard to be disappointed with the lack of current content the game itself only costs $19.99 and there’s plenty more planned to be made available in 2014.
In lieu of an Arcade Mode, Killer Instinct has added a Survival Mode that features an endless onslaught of combatants to test the mettle of players. With each fight that comes and goes, fighters receive less and less starting health in each consecutive round until they’re eventually pummeled by the CPU. As should be expected from a single player mode of this type, enemies gradually become more and more challenging and the end result is something that’ll grab the attention of fans looking to sharpen the execution of their moves in an offline setting.
When it comes to initially learning complex combos and techniques, there is no better tutorial than Killer Instinct‘s Dojo. Where other fighting games feature tutorials that appeal to players with, at the very least, a brief knowledge of the genre, KI walks wannabe fight masters through every step of its game. Everything from the simplest of light, medium, and heavy attacks to the complexity of openers, linkers, and closers are explained in an incredibly simple and easily digestible fashion. There are 32 lessons in total featured in Dojo Mode and it’ll take a few hours to complete, but it’s the best tutorial to ever appear in a fighting game, period.
Given how simple Dojo Mode is, it’s surprising how complex the combat actually is. The series’ signature Ultra Combos and Combo Breakers make their prolific return this time around, but they’ve been refined and modernized for a genre that’s significantly evolved since the franchise last reared its head. Combat is still over-the-top and flashy, but Double Helix flushed out the strategic elements of the classic arcade fighter — effectively broadening the depth of the gameplay in the process. Knowing when to intentionally drop combos, swap up attacks, and bust out Shadow Moves becomes a game of cat and mouse, and being able to read an opponent will secure an easy victory.
While Killer Instinct is filled with flashy moves and jaw-dropping Ultras, the game itself fails to look like a next-gen experience. The graphics lack the sheen of other Xbox One titles, seeming more comparable to an Xbox 360 game than something debuting on the incredibly hyped all-in-one entertainment device. Aside from an abundance of particle effects, all of which to the game’s credit are nifty, KI‘s look won’t turn heads or fulfill the needs of eye-candy enthusiasts hoping to get a glimpse of a gorgeous next-gen fighter.
What gamers will get is a well-balanced fighter that takes time to teach users how to play against foes online and offline — and have fun while doing so. There isn’t much to Killer Instinct quite yet, but there’s a lot of potential that the resurrected series still has up its sleeves. With additional characters and modes planned to hit by March, 2014, laying down the cash in advance allows fans to experience the frameworks for one of the best fighting games in recent memory. As it stands, the lack of content keeps Killer Instinct from achieving greatness — the lackluster look of the game doesn’t do it any favors either — but Double Helix has put together a very promising first step.
Killer Instinct is available now, exclusively on the Xbox One’s Games Store.
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