Killer Instinct review

  • Incredibly entertaining, thanks to great presentation
  • Deep mechanics, while still staying accessible
  • Smooth online play
  • Only six fighters at launch
  • Scarce single-player content

Have you ever enjoyed a demo as much as a full game? If the core mechanics are fun enough, even a tiny chunk of a larger whole can provide hours of entertainment. I remember playing the TimeSplitters 2 demo over and over again, totally enamored with exploring every possibility in what little piece of game I was given. It's the same feeling I get playing Killer Instinct, an Xbox One launch game with a scarce amount of content and a wealth of potential. With a mere six characters and incredibly limited options for single-player, KI may initially seem incomplete--but its supreme fundamentals take it so much farther than the sum of its roster.

The Killer Instinct franchise may not be as iconic as Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat, but it's always excelled in one very important field: presentation. The Xbox One reboot keeps that streak going, with vibrant graphics, superb sound design, and a clean, easy-to-read UI. It also has one of the best exciting-moments-per-second ratios I've ever seen in a fighter. KI's gameplay flow is heavy on combos, but it treats long strings of attacks like a two-way street. Instead of having to just sit there and take big damage, you're constantly engaged during every moment of the one-on-one brawls, looking for any opportunity to bust out a combo breaker and reverse the momentum of the match in your favor.

Does the 2.5D fighting scream "next-gen" to any and every onlooker? Not quite--though the action runs at a crisp 60 frames per second, even while particle effects fill the screen, the character models range from amazing to just alright. Frosty alien Glacius and his smooth, icy carapace look incredible in motion, while close-up shots of B. Orchid give her the appearance of a plastic-skinned brunette Barbie doll.

While we're talking about the roster, old-school KI fans may very well tear up at seeing some of their favorites rendered in high-res. The six fighters may look a bit different than you remember, but they're all packed with personality; Sabrewulf's feral rage is palpable, while Thunder has a distinct aura of stoicism about him. More importantly, no two fighters share the same playstyle--which, given the roster's small size, is an absolute necessity. Players looking for the traditional Ryu archetype will gravitate towards the fireball-chucking monk Jago, while spider-woman Sadira (the only newcomer in the bunch) is perfect for those who prefer tricky, nimble agility. No matter your taste in fighter, there's a good chance you'll find someone to love here.

Instant classic?

The only valid reason to buy the $40 KI pack is Killer Instinct Classic, an Xbox One port of the original arcade brawler. It's got some decent trimmings, as far as ports go: two authentic ROM versions (one buggy, one refined), some graphical options, and an infinite-life training mode. No online play, sadly. If you don't already know how to play the first KI, Classic does little to teach you, and you'll probably lose interest after 30 minutes of messing around. But if you hold the debut KI close to your heart, it might be worth the extra money--because cruelly, it looks like KI Classic won't be sold separately.

Like all great fighting games, KI is accessible enough for a newcomer while still providing the depth that the hardcore scene craves. Mashing buttons whilst your thumb spasms on the D-pad will actually produce some fairly impressive results, at least at first. You don't need to be a joystick savant to rack up 10-, 20-, even 50-hit combos--but the ease of chaining together attacks is balanced by some ingenious mechanics. With the way KI's auto combos, linkers, and enders work, maximum damage can only be achieved by carefully orchestrating and then "cashing in" your combos. Of course, the longer the combo, the more opportunities your opponent has to unleash a combo breaker. Then again, there's always counter breakers, which reverse the reversal in the flashiest way imaginable. This kind of back-and-forth pace is electrifying, ensuring that there's never a dull moment during a bout.

If you have no idea what I'm talking about, don't worry. Though KI lacks a single-player story to familiarize you with its mechanics, its Dojo tutorial section succeeds in doing something so few fighting games do: actually teach beginners how to play. Complex, genre-specific terminology gets broken down into plain English, and even veterans may learn a thing or two. Study the Dojo's lessons well--partially because they apply to many fighters, but mostly because its the only solo activity of value. KI has no campaign or final boss to speak of; you can spar against cheap AI bots or slog through a droll survival mode, and that's about it. Without some local or online competition, your attention will dwindle faster than Glacius on a hot summer's day.

Again, as with any self-respecting fighter, KI's appeal skyrockets when played with a like-minded group of friends. Matches are quick but strategic, flashy while still retaining a classic rock-paper-scissors parity. Playing in front of an audience is exhilarating, largely thanks to KI's magnificent audio. Matches are rife with bone-crunching thumps, pulse-pounding rhythms, and extraordinary finishing combos that will literally be music to your ears. But nothing compares to the enthusiasm of the announcer, whose booming voice puts all the excitement over the top. Hearing him scream the classic "C-C-C-C-COMBO BREAKER!" always makes me giddy, even mid-match. Every time the announcer croaks out a labored, throaty "ULTRAAAAAAAAAAAA!" like a town crier on crack, you'll get chills of satisfaction.

Happily, the action stays just as intense in the online arena. From what I've seen, KI's netcode is smooth and steady; never did I feel a drastic disconnect between my button presses and in-game actions, and not once did lag rear its ugly, fun-ruining head. Your profile can be tweaked as you level up through the various wittily named ranks--all stuff you've probably come to expect from an online fighter. The only thing to be wary of is rage-quitting: If you're utterly humiliating your opponent with a 100-hit combo at the end of a match, there's a good chance they'll bail before you can bask in your glorious victory. You'll still get the win, but the abrupt full stop makes bad sportsmanship that much more irritating.

Unless you're a diehard fan of the series, treat KI as a $20 purchase and avoid the $40 bundle. Dropping a 20-spot will give you exactly what you need: a bundle of all six available fighters, plus two more (Spinal and Fulgore) that are coming down the pipe. Technically, you can download the game for no money down, which only gives you access to Jago--a solid entry point, but you'll be craving a wider selection before long. Buying characters for $5 apiece seems like a rip-off, as do the customization items exclusive to the $40 bundle. Interchangeable outfit items do help you stand out from the crowd, but the majority of them look, in layman's terms, dumb as hell.

A year from now, Killer Instinct could be one of the best fighting games ever made. In its current state, it feels like the inherently replayable foundation for something bigger. The general lack of content is made up for by the mind-blowing fun factor, where pick-up-and-play controls meet meticulously crafted game mechanics. And despite the sensation that I've seen everything there is to see, I suspect I'll still be playing KI for months. Because sometimes, an awesome piece of a finished product is all you need to enjoy yourself.

More Info

Release date: Nov 22 2013 - Xbox One (US)
Available Platforms: Xbox One
Genre: Fighting
Franchise: Killer Instinct
ESRB Rating:
Teen: Blood, Violence, Mild Suggestive Themes, Mild Language

Excellent mechanics and incredible playability make up for Killer Instinct's shortage of single-player content. Franchise fans and fighting game junkies will be most pleased.




  • Materson92 - April 16, 2014 4:45 a.m.

    If someone is looking for Killer Instinct for the PC, it is already available :) PlayGameHacker remade this game and gave the manager so that the retrieve for free :) Link to the Manager: Link to the video of the action Manager:
  • awesomesauce - November 20, 2013 3:14 p.m.

    omg i thought this was that old dinosaur fighting the game. I gpt hyped for the wrong reboot
  • Jackonomics - November 19, 2013 12:44 p.m.

    Shouldn't have doubted 6 characters sure but atleast they are still gonna upgrade due game later down the line and that $20 price is too good.
  • angelusdlion - November 22, 2013 3:05 p.m.

    Long storty short? Because Microsoft demanded it be a launch title. Still not bad for a years worth of work eh?
  • Jackonomics - November 22, 2013 8:15 p.m.

    Exactly, the game would've been a complete clusterfuck if they rushed, put every character being dull and just not care, but nope,they said fuck it and made the best use of the limited due date
  • alexandre-bret - November 19, 2013 9:08 a.m.

    Only 6 characters? Why not wait unitl it is totally completed? Online is going tomake UMVC3 Vergil, Wesker Zero Doom usual like nothing
  • lordgodalming - November 19, 2013 3:30 a.m.

    "Have you ever enjoyed a demo as much as a full game?" Worst. Sales pitch. Ever.
  • Darklurkr23 - November 18, 2013 6:48 p.m.

    Only thing that could be better would be if it had a backport.
  • Swedish_Chef - November 18, 2013 7:01 p.m.

    I would love a PC port of the game personally but I know that Microsoft won't do it as they want exclusives for the XBONE to try and get people into buying the system. It's the same reason they stopped porting Halo games to PC along with Gears of War. It sucks but that's how business is unfortunately, there is hope that it'll eventually come out for PC with news about Microsoft increasing priority on PC ports but it'll probably still be a year after launch at best.
  • Oujisama - November 18, 2013 6:32 p.m.

    I miss the old days, when they completed games before releasing them.
  • angelusdlion - November 22, 2013 3:06 p.m.

    Would you rather have 50 characters done poorly of 8 done well with more on the way? Microsoft insisted it be a release title. This, I think, is a great compermise.
  • MrJechgo - November 18, 2013 5:31 p.m.

    Kinda wished that Microsoft hired DHG 2 or 3 years prior to make a more complete game. Many other reviews say that this game would have been a system seller, a.k.a. a killer app for the XBO, if it was a complete game with a 24-character roster with loads of single-player and multiplayer modes. Right now, it feels like they're gambling at a very risky price. KI is one Hell of a series that was just awesome back in the days and to see it finally return is glorious. However, segmenting the game into seasons seems to be a very risky model, because unless you KNOW that season 2 and even 3 is coming, the future of the game is still up in the air. 20$ for a game's segment is kinda ok, since after 3 seasons, you would have paid a total of 60$ just like a retail console game, BUT you're always left hanging for the other segments. YOU might have bought your share, but you'll never know about the rest. What if sales are actually low and disappointing? What if MS decide to shut down DHG? What if the XBO doesn't sell as intended? What if KI doesn't catch on in the FGC? I know I'm fatalizing a lot, but honestly, I'd sleep better if I would have bought a complete game that wouldn't need extra icing immediately. Finally, it's KI people. How the HELL can you ever go wrong with KI, aside from a watered down arcade port for the N64? The graphics looks gorgeous, the character models are extremely well detailed, the stages are well-designed, the animation is fluid as water, the tutorials and mecanics are up to date with today's fighting games... Come on, we're FAR from the digitized graphics and controls from the SNES, Arcade and N64 here. Now, if only after getting 3 seasons for a total of 24 characters, we get to have guest characters like Marcus Fenix and Master Chief...
  • Swedish_Chef - November 18, 2013 7:17 p.m.

    Actually talking about guest characters in Fighting games originally in Street Fighter X Tekken Microsoft were given an offer by Capcom to add a representative of their choice into the game (most likely Master Chief) and have access to other non Sony guest characters on their system (similar to how Playstation got Cole/Kuro/Toro added into the game as guest characters along with BB Megaman and PAC-MAN) but Microsoft refused, which is why Sony got all the guest characters in their version but not Microsoft. As for in Killer Instinct I'd be fine with guest characters but only if they're added in later on (post story mode or in Season 3+).
  • angelusdlion - November 22, 2013 3:07 p.m.

    What if they just built a really shitty gamewith 24 characters done poorly for 60 bucks instead? Microsoft wanted a launch game, microsoft gets a launch game.
  • MrJechgo - November 23, 2013 4:12 p.m.

    You don't get it: they should have taken 4 years BEFORE the launch to release a complete game, or simply skip the launch and release the game later, complete as well. I honestly don't care WHEN the game is released, I always vote for complete games.
  • Vonter - November 18, 2013 11:46 a.m.

    SO this game DOESN'T suck? Hurray I have my first reason to get the Xbox One. I really like this series and I hope this sells well so that maybe Microsoft brings back some more Rare properties with new updates. Maybe Blastcorps, or Jet Force Gemini, Conker I think its the most tricky, since making a good parody nowadays seems harder than ever. Still awesome I'm going to look for the OST now.
  • Swedish_Chef - November 18, 2013 7:22 p.m.

    Here's a link to some suites of the game that Mick Gordon (the guy behind the soundtrack) has uploaded, they aren't the full versions of the songs (apparently Glacius' full theme alone is over 10 minutes long due to the soundtrack being dynamic 0_0) but it does show off a lot of the different tracks in the soundtrack.
  • Vonter - November 18, 2013 7:33 p.m.

    Thank you very much. I was like "Oh wait the game and CONSOLE are not even out yet", so I went looking for the original OST which is also awesome. Thanks.
  • Vonter - November 18, 2013 8:11 p.m.

  • shawn-phillip - November 18, 2013 10:55 a.m.

    Low amount of figters at launch can only mean 1 thing. DAY 1 DLC CHARACTERS. Don't look now, but this new gen will test the limits of how much gamer's will buy into this new TEST..... M$ is testing the waters here. If gamer's buy additional DLC in droves, this will become the new COD/ DLC model for fighting/ racing games on the XB1.

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