Killer Instinct is a fighting game franchise that gained a cult following in mid 1990s due to its gorgeous graphics and emphasis on brutal combos.
In spite its reputation, it was never able to match the popularity of series like Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat, and thus was never taken up after Rare Studio’s sale from Nintendo to Microsoft.
After 17 years of absence, the series saw resurgence in the shape of a reboot that was released in 2013 as a free to play launch game for the Xbox One.
What was then criticized for its initial lack of content and started off as a bare-bones budget fighter for Xbox One, has now come to PC packed with 2 years’ worth of content and improvements.
This is certainly not a broken port of an old fighting game. This PC version is essentially Xbox One’s brand new Killer Instinct Season 3, which is built on the great foundation laid by Double Helix Games and now Iron Galaxy Studios has filled in the gaps present in the game’s initial Xbox One release to make it a robust fighting game experience for its launch on the PC.
Killer Instinct retains its service model in its PC release as a free-to-download game, where players are given access to all the modes with one rotating free character and ability to buy characters individually or in packs of 8, 17 and 25.
On top of that, due to its integration with Xbox Live, all in-game purchases and saves are now Cross-Buy, so if you own characters on Xbox One then they will transfer over to PC and anything bought and earned on the PC app will be unlocked on the Xbox One version.
The game furthers its cross-platform features by allowing PC players to Cross-Play with Xbox One Killer Instinct players, with an added benefit that Microsoft’s paid service; the Xbox Live Gold membership, is not required to participate in online multiplayer gameplay for the PC version of the game.
Online play is divided into competitive ranked matches that feature leaderboard support, and casual matches; that can be played via quick exhibition match or by getting in player lobbies that allow for up to 8 players to play and spectate in a group.
The quality of online play is not just maintained by making players begin with 10 qualifying matches to determine their rank and optimize matchmaking, but also by minimizing lag experienced in a match via implementation of the roll-back Netcode.
The game takes stability of competitive online play so seriously that it requires players to pass an in-game performance test before giving them access to ranked battles.
If a player’s PC specs are not capable of maintaining 60 frames-per-second in the most heated circumstances then he or she will not be allowed to participate in ranked matches and be forced to make due with casual play.
Killer Instinct also features the ‘Shadow Lab’ mode, where players can create a ‘Shadow Fighter’, which is an A.I. that studies how the player plays a specific character and then maps player’s playstyle and mannerisms to adapt its playstyle accordingly.
Shadows can be used to play against other players online, even in the absence of the player. The Shadow Fighter for a player’s specific character grows stronger the more that character is used by the player in their playtime.
Speaking of playing the game, Killer Instinct has a very distinct, combo heavy playstyle that hearkens back to the roots the original two Rare games of the mid-90s. If you try to play Killer Instinct like Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat then you are bound to get slaughtered.
Killer Instinct’s primary game mechanic is its Combo system, which is based on Openers, Auto-doubles, Linkers and Enders.
An Opener is an attack that start combos, Auto-double is a move that continues the combo by providing multiple hits, Linker is a special attack that ‘links’ two auto-doubles to extend the combo and finally an Ender finishes the combo.
These Enders are important to cash in the damage incurred, otherwise the combo is dropped and the opponent recovers the white damage which accumulates on every hit of a combo. This disincentivizes players from needlessly extending their combo strings.
Another disadvantage of extending combos is the risk of opponents realising a pattern in the ‘Auto-Linker’ combination and execute a combo breaker.
And while these breakers are easy to perform, they require timing. If players try to mash combo breakers, it can lead to timeout situations barring the player from trying anymore breakers for a time.
If that wasn’t enough, the game also allows combo breakers to be broken. These Counter Breakers allow players to bait combo breakers and punish them with an extended lockout and start of a new combo string.
Thus the close range game in Killer Instinct is all about landing that opener to get maximum possible combo damage without getting your combo broken or dropped.
While this emphasis on executing combos might sound like execution hell, the timing for combos is kept fairly lenient and accessible.
What’s more, the game also contains a combo assist mode which allows beginner players to remove any motion based execution from pulling of combos and making it all about pressing correct attack buttons.
The inclusion of ‘combo assist’ does not cheapen the gameplay, as it does not cancel out traditional controls or execution by complex motions, and the limits placed on the mechanic necessitate moving on to traditional execution for intermediate or advanced techniques.
However the gameplay here does not completely revolve around landing combos. The new Killer Instinct has decent neutral game options, good movement for footsies and great variety catering to rushdown, zoning and other gameplay styles.
Aside from character’s health bar, players are also presented with a Shadow meter, which is functionally the same as EX or Super meters from the Street Fighter games. It is the purple bar at the lower part of the screen, which builds up from attacking or blocking hits and can be utilized to execute more powerful versions of the character’s special moves.
Outside of the Shadow meter, another gauge that players have to keep a lookout for is the Instinct meter, which is the yellow bar right underneath the player health gauge. This meter fills up as the character takes damage or performs combo breakers.
Once it is filled, the Instinct Mode can be activated, as a character specific comeback mechanic, to grant a different ability to each character in the game.
Therefore, even though the gameplay in Killer Instinct is flashy and accessible enough to keep beginner and casual fans interested, there is a lot of depth to its game mechanics that provides a variety of options and complexity for consistently entertaining high level play.
Singleplayer portion of the game is split into four categories that include Fight, Master, Store & Collection and Fight Archive.
Fight mode allows players to interact with Killer Instincts computer A.I. with Player vs. CPU, Story mode, Survival mode and a spectator CPU vs. CPU mode.
Story mode is essentially a traditional ladder based arcade mode where players are rewarded with character specific ending at its completion. However the way it differs from standard arcade modes is in how it brings back the concept of multiple endings from the classic Killer Instinct games.
Each character has three different endings that the player can achieve by fulfilling different conditions that are specified before and during player selection. At the moment this story mode is limited to 16 of Season 1 and Season 2 characters, while story mode for the 8 Season 3 characters will be added at a later date.
The Fight mode offers a lot of variety in ways players can play against the CPU to entertain and challenge themselves through various CPU difficulties, of which the hardest one; named Kyle, features an adaptive and responsive A.I. which looks at player patterns and adapts to how players play, which makes the challenge all the more greater.
Master mode features multitude of training options including: Practice; which is a standard training mode, Trails; containing different challenges, Combo Breaker Training mode; which allows players to hone their combo breaking skills against opponents of different skill levels and the Dojo mode.
Dojo is a special training mode designed to teach players the basics of Killer Instinct’s mechanics as well as fighting games in general.
It is very beginner friendly and a fairly detailed hands-on tutorial that not only familiarizes players with beginner to higher level controls, but also terms like normals, mixups, linkers and juggles.
Fight Archive is a place that houses data on gameplay elements like replays, stats and leaderboards as well as player progression for each character in the game roster.
Store & Collection mode gives players access to the “service” part of this game.
Players can not only purchase in-game currency and new characters but also tailor the game to their liking by adding new music and customizing the appearance of each character with new costumes and accessories.
Each of these customization options is unlocked when the player reaches designated level for their profile and/or character.
Conversely they can also be purchased via in-game currency called KI Gold, however these purchasable items only provide aesthetic variety and have no bearing on the gameplay of these characters.
Killer Instinct’s roster features a total of 26 characters, out of which, 22 are currently available for play and 4 additional fighters are upcoming as a part of the season 3 package.
Anyone who has sampled the previous two seasons of Killer Instinct on Xbox One can attest to the fact that each one of the 18 characters is unique in how they play.
From Jago; who is a shoto-like balanced character to a rushdown character like Orchid, from a zoning character like Glacius to Aganos; who is a tank, the Killer Instinct character roster caters to almost every type of play style.
Not only that, but the aforementioned integration of instinct mode adds even more unique moves and strategies to each character that makes every fighter different and distinct from each other.
New additions to season 3 package continue this trend of delivering unique characters. Two characters that return from old Killer Instinct games are heavily redesigned from their old forms. These include the sword wielding Viking warrior called Tusk and Kim Wu, a sassy woman that uses nun chucks while harnessing the power of dragon spirit.
Additionally, for the first time in the series, 2 guest characters make cameo appearances in the roster; Rash from Battletoads and Arbiter from the Halo series.
Rash is a boisterous character that brings a little bit of camp into the grim roster and whose attacks transform him into things like a wrecking ball and a ram. Arbiter, on the other hand, is a seasoned warrior who utilizes his carbine gun, plasma grenades and energy sword to inflict damage.
These guest characters are not only very faithful to the games from which they originate, but their playstyles also mesh in well with the gameplay of the existing Killer Instinct roster.
Aside from these 4, Killer instinct’s season 3 package promises 4 more characters in the future, including a vampire named Mira who is coming in April and the main antagonist for the season; Gargos will be realised in the month of May.
Despite its model of periodic character releases and so much variation in how different characters play, the game roster is quite balanced where no one character is over powered in casual or competitive play.
Since this is essentially the start of Killer Instinct Season 3, in addition to the upcoming additions of 4 characters, the developer Iron Galaxy, has promised to add a couple of new modes as part of the Season 3 service.
One of these modes is called Shadow Lords. This mode is teased by the developers as “part ladder, part arcade mode, part story mode, part roguelike, all rolled up into one unique experience” and is said to include a crafting system as well as items and elements that can be earned and carried over through multiple runs.
While there is not much else known about this mode and is essentially a blind promise, it has evoked great interest and excitement in the player base, as the developer Iron Galaxy studios has garnered a pedigree for listening to player feedback and providing great content through their history of season 2 support for the game.
Similarly, for the past 2 years, Iron Galaxy studio has been continuously updating the game’s visuals and with this iteration they have added even more detail and improved graphical fidelity of the game. Hence the PC release of Killer Instinct features impressive visuals that dont feel dated due to the game’s age.
Character designs feature a visually diverse roster that includes a dinosaur, werewolf, mummy, skeleton, cyborgs, aliens, demon, golem, Japanese ghost lady, slew of modern and traditional warriors as well as a guy engulfed in flames.
Aside from their variety, the characters in Killer instinct also contain impressive amount of visual detail like tattoos, skin textures, hair and cloth physics, as well as unique animations like Sabrewulf’s twitch and Hisako’s ghostly aura.
Additionally the combat in Killer Instinct is bloody and brutal, though the game doesn’t take it as far as the Mortal Kombat series. Therefore players won’t see any dismemberments or character fatalities, but there are some stage Ultras that might satiate some gamer’s blood lust.
These game effects are further bolstered by the game’s dynamic lighting system, real-time stage reflections and the bountiful particle effects like fireball hit sparks as well as dust and smoke effects.
Killer Instinct also features distinct visual effect cues for activation of things like shadow moves, instinct activation, combo breakers, counter breakers and shadow counters, so that there is no ambiguity left regarding the tactics being employed in each match.
In its current form, Killer Instinct features 20 stages that range from antique locations like underground temples and outdoor ruins to contemporary areas like industrial complexes and urban environments.
Not only does each location contain intricate details and moving elements but each stage also features animations and effects that respond to execution of impact-full moves like Ultra combos.
Likewise each stage’s music theme is also dynamic enough that the stage tracks actually change according to the actions performed during each fight.
Killer Instinct’s soundtrack is a mixture of trance and techno synths with metal riffs and tribal percussions. The music composition is brilliant, in that it not only is adrenaline pumpingly upbeat in fights but also becomes hauntingly tranquil in menu screens without any jarring transitions.
The game also features an extremely enthusiastic announcer that exclaims at the end of every combo and practically screams if a character manages to execute an Ultra combo. Surprising this never becomes grating or annoying but adds a lot to sense of achievement and impact of delivering an effective combo.
Overall, Killer Instinct’s sound design features so many little details and is so wonderful that it almost overshadows the game’s visuals. It goes a long way towards establishing the mood for each fight and solidifies the game’s presentation by bringing it all together.
With this level of quality put in the game’s presentation it is a shame that Killer Instinct could not offer a proper cinematic story mode to compliment the effort put into developing context for each character in the game.
That isn’t the only thing missing in the game’s current form; the game also lacks story mode ladders for the 4 playable season 3 characters and there is no set date announced as to when players can expect to receive that game update.
Despite these small shortcomings, the PC release of Killer Instinct is an extremely fun and robust game package that is easy to recommend to any fighting game enthusiast on the merits of its presentation, its character roster and its game mechanics.
Even if you are not sure about its combo-heavy game system, you should absolutely give this game a chance and experience it for yourself; as it is absolutely free to try and offers great value for money for any type of player due to the variety of purchase options it offers.