Killer Instinct Review

Thanks to amazing sound design, flashy combos, inviting free-to-play hooks, lengthy single-player content and a flamboyant roster, this Killer Instinct reboot is one of the best games on the Xbox One.

Who was expecting Killer Instinct, a Rare-developed series that hasn’t seen the light of day in decades (and wasn’t that great in the first place) to become one of the best fighting games of the past few years? But thanks to amazing sound design, flashy combos that are easy to execute, inviting free-to-play hooks, lengthy single-player content and a flamboyant roster of characters, this Killer Instinct reboot is one of the best games on the Xbox One and the best part is that you don’t have to pay a cent to enjoy it.

I know most of the people who come to fighting games do so to be able to compete against others, but Killer Instinct features a handful of single-player modes in case you don’t have a sparring buddy. These include everything from CPU vs CPU, which lets you watch the computer fight itself, to practice mode, where you fight the artificial intelligence under specific conditions. Most fighting games have variations of these modes and they are self-explanatory, but a few single-player modes in Killer Instinct are rare in the genre and are worth playing.

In the Shadow Lab, you fight the AI a couple of times and the game creates a shadow of yourself which is essentially an avatar that mimics your behavior (it learns your habits and applies those in other fights) and this avatar challenges other players with a similar skill level even when you’re away from the console. As your shadow completes matches, you receive several rewards, such as experience points or in-game currency. This is an exciting feature, since you can even challenge your own shadow and it’s scary to see how accurate your avatar replicates your strengths and weaknesses. Unfortunately, my shadow never got into any matches and I don’t know if that’s because the game couldn’t pair me with another player because it couldn’t find anyone with a similar skill level or if this feature in particular is unpopular.

Other single-player modes include player vs. CPU, story mode, survival, the dojo (which does a terrific job of teaching you the basics,) practice, combo breaker training and trials. The trials is one of my favorite parts of the game because these quick challenges encourage you to do something different every time, you get experience and in-game money for your efforts and you can complete most of them in a few minutes. Some of these challenges tell you to complete dojo missions, deal 20% damage in a combo with a specific character, perform an ultra combo and so on.

Another single-player mode that deserves a paragraph of its own is Shadow Lord, a quest-based mode where you assemble a team of fighters and you complete a series of missions before evil lord Gargos conquers the world map. Apart from being able to fight Gargos’ minions, different items come into play, including guardian cards that grant you special abilities and artifacts that give effects to your characters for a limited time. As you progress, you craft more items, get currency to purchase guardians and unlock consumables and artifacts and you can always shell out real some money to accelerate the process. Taking into account that there are several fights in a given turn, that you have a small team of fighters and that their health decreases the more you fight (health replenishes completely when you use healing items or when you let a character rest for an entire turn) there’s a lot of tension as part of this mode. Should Gargos’ forces overwhelm your small team, you can always start over with all the items you’ve accrued in failed playthroughs.

While I’ve discussed the different single-player modes at great length, I haven’t even brought up multiplayer. In short, there are several modes to choose from and there’s an active community, so those with an Xbox Live subscription and a copy of the game can have months of entertainment. As you’d expect in a game that’s so popular and one that’s been around for so long, the competition is fierce and finding someone to play with as a beginner can be a frustrating endeavor. I’d recommend practicing a lot and playing locally with people you know. As awfully specific as that sounds, that’s the best experience you can have with most multiplayer fighting games, at least until you learn the ropes.

I’ve managed to talk about Killer Instinct this far without mentioning its gameplay. The entire game revolves around a combo-based system, so you land a hit, push the attack button several times and finish with special attack. If you’ve build enough Shadow meter, you can add specials in the middle for extra damage. Linking different types of attacks (these include autos, linkers, openers, specials, enders and ultra combos) to maximize your damage is the heart and soul of this game and even if there’s an element of accessibility as part of the gameplay, figuring out the best way to maximize your damage is an art that takes hours of practice.

And part of what makes fights so electrifying is the fantastic sound design. The announcer provides instant feedback describing the combos you make and when you end an ultra combo, he points it out at the top of his lungs. The sound design is full of nice little touches, such as the ditty that plays whenever you highlight an option in a menu. There’s also a heavy metal soundtrack that complements the colorful look of the game in a fitting manner.

The same approach goes to the flamboyant roster of character that includes a blue werewolf, a flame-throwing ninja, a moving skeleton, a native American, a velociraptor and so on. There are also some bonus characters from other games, such as The Arbiter from Halo, General Ramm from Gears of War, Rash from Battle Toads and more. It’s worth pointing out that new characters are added to the game on a regular basis, so there are always new characters to learn.

Killer Instinct is a free-to-play game and that usually goes one of two ways: this can be a title that never forces you to spend a cent, but it has so much free content that you want to spend money on it or it feels like the game’s always blocking content from you so that you spend money. For the most part, my experience with Killer Instinct resembles the former description. There’s a weekly rotating free character and if you want to be able to play as any character in every mode, you can purchase some of the bundles available in the store. Apart from bundle, the game offers exclusive characters, alternate costumes, concept art, music, taunts, icons and more. To be clear you can unlock most of that content by just playing the game, but you can always take the easy and effortless route and shell out some money.

Killer Instinct has been a pleasant surprise and this is one of the best fighting games released this generation of consoles. The colorful characters, fantastic sound design, sheer amount of single-player and multiplayer modes and entertaining combo system make this a title that will remain on my hard drive for months if not years to come. If you also take under consideration that the game’s in active development, Killer Instinct offers an experience that few fights do and that’s worth getting excited about.