Killer Instinct’s Shadow Lords mode is the best single-player content of any modern fighting game

We’re deep into three ‘seasons’ of content now and it’s fair to say this is an under-appreciated gem. People who give it a proper chance are treated to one of the most interesting fighting games of recent years, a game full of wildly different characters, netcode that appears to be some kind of magic and flawless play against opponents almost all the time. Now it can lay claim to having a brilliant single-player component, too.

Yes, Mortal Kombat X is held up as the standard for single-player content in a fighting game. The OTT story mode is a right laugh and the quicktime cutscenes that lead into battles are really cool, but other than that, it’s just a nice frame for a series of straight-up scraps against the A.I. There’s not a great deal to it, y’know?

Shadow Lords is a strange one, at first. Part roguelike, part XCOM’s war room, it has you picking skirmishes that appear on a map of the Earth, building up your team of KI characters before end boss Gargos appears for a final battle. The mode is split into turns, with each of your team members going on one mission each. Once you’ve deployed them, you take part in the usual Killer Instinct scrap, and whether you win or lose dictates what happens with the Global Threat Level. Once it reaches the top, Gargos appears.

If you’ve done nothing but lose over and over, Gargos will make short work of you. People complain about how most game bosses are “broken” because they dish out loads of damage, or move super quickly, or have cheap special moves. Gargos is actually broken by design. He’s unfair and has abilities that make him almost impossible to defeat. What you have to do, before he arrives, is ensure you’re properly prepared.

Winning fights earns you items and coins that you can use to buy one-off consumables. These items are handy in a match-up, for refilling your health or shadow meter, or to buy Guardians – familiars that grant you special abilities. For instance, a favourite is the BAT guardian, which allows you to completely circumnavigate the game’s core Combo Breaker system by granting you a Psychic Breaker. This allows you to break out of any opponent’s combo at the touch of a button, rather than take part in the usual three-way guess. One allows you to parry attacks, while another poisons them and drains health. They’re great fun – most of them ostensibly being cheats – and as you discover more powerful versions, they become more and more effective.

Eventually, you’re going to have to face off with the big man himself and you’ll probably die, but this is where Shadow Lords gets interesting. With each additional run through, you keep all of the powers you accrued in the previous attempts, so you’re always progressing, always improving your chances in battles and making it more likely you’ll be able to take out some of Gargos’ more ludicrous abilities. Eventually, you’ll be able to nail him, and that’s where the multiple difficulties come in. There’re plenty of reasons to come back and try again.

Killer Instinct uses a free-to-play model, so there’s a microtransaction element to Shadow Lords. As you take damage in fights, you need to use consumables to top up your health bar. These can be acquired by playing the game, or by spending the currency on packs of items. You can also use KI Gold – the microtransaction currency already built into the game – to buy these. It’s not too bad, and for the most part you can ignore this stuff, but if you’ve bought the base game, plus the three full expansions, you might find it a bit cheeky to pay £3.99 for a chance to get a rare Guardian.

For three years now, Killer Instinct has garnered a reputation among fighter-game fans as being the weird one out, so it’d be very out of character for it to introduce some dull arcade ladder or cutscene-heavy story mode. Instead, Shadow Lords continues the KI tradition of being wildly unique and extremely fun.

This article originally appeared in Xbox: The Official Magazine. For more great Xbox coverage, you can subscribe here.