You'd have to have an awfully foggy memory of the mid-'90s to be the sort of person who was clamoring for a new Killer Instinct game. The old fighting game always felt like an also-ran, combining muddy, pre-rendered graphics with a ridiculous combo system and a set of finishing moves that made the whole thing feel like it was occasionally biting from Mortal Kombat. It was flashy and had a weird sense of style, but I always thought it was a terrible game, and the sequel was only marginally better. So when word started swirling around last year that Microsoft was finally going to dig into more of the Rare back-catalog and produce a new Killer Instinct game, I wasn't exactly jumping out of my seat. But the team behind this new KI reboot has kept the charming things about the franchise intact and placed them into a better, more modern-feeling fighting game. It's still ridiculous, the announcer still screams his head off, and the combos are wild... but actually executing KI's combos is a good time, too, making this download-only fighting game an exciting turnaround for the series.
The smartest thing Killer Instinct does is teach you how to play the game. The dojo mode walks you through extremely basic fighting game tutorial stuff, like "walking" and "punching people." But then it starts getting into the game's specific brand of madness and talks about its combo system. It has a bit more in common with KI2 than the original game, but the system of openers to linkers to autos to more linkers to more autos to a shadow linker to a manual to one more linker to instinct cancel to another shadow linker to more autos and, finally, an ender is easier to understand once you're walked through it. A helpful meter shows up on-screen during fights to let you know when your combo is about to get too long and blow up on its own, giving you a good warning that it's time to actually finish your combo and cash in all the damage it's been building up. The combo system feels like it gives you a lot of options, which is nice because you're going to need to provide some real variety to keep your combos from getting broken.
Combo breakers require players to guess the strength of attack being used during the normal auto or manual attacks that connect your special attacks (linkers) and pressing the corresponding strength of attack to break out of the combo. The best players will probably learn exactly how each normal attack looks in a combo and react accordingly, making them very rough opponents. For the rest of us, it's sort of a mind game where you attempt to outthink your opponent and guess at the right strength. I'm not great at it, and though this process seems fair, it does provide the one thing that will probably turn people off from KI. It's a lot of fun to perform the combos, but if you're not a skilled combo breaker, getting taken for a ride for a few seconds and somewhere between 40- and 60-percent of your life bar isn't exactly a good time. Also, to keep people from mashing their way out of combos, the game will temporarily lock you out of breaking if you guess incorrectly. The three-second lockout is a long time when you're getting repeatedly punched in the face. So try to be on the dishing end, rather than the receiving one.
When it comes to modes and options, there isn't a lot to Killer Instinct right now. There are a total of six characters, a survival mode, a practice mode, and a local versus mode. You can, of course, also get online and play ranked or unranked games. There's currently no story mode, no end boss, and only one of the six characters is new to the franchise. Why is any of this OK? Well, Killer Instinct has a few different payment options.
If you just want to download KI and try it out, it's free. But you'll only get access to Jago (he's the most Ryu-like, in case you haven't heard of him), and the developers may be rotating that free character out from time to time, League of Legends-style. If you like, you can buy any one character for five bucks. That's fine, and if you know you're only interested in playing as one character, it's a passable way to go. But for $20 you'll get a pack with all six characters right now, with two more coming at a later date along with some sort of story mode. These eight fighters comprise the "season one" lineup, implying that TJ Combo, Cinder, and some of the other old fighters may eventually make their way back into the fight as part of a second season. If you're really into that free version, you can drop $40 on a pack that contains all of those characters, a set of accessory and costume options for each character, and Killer Instinct Classic, an emulated version of the original Killer Instinct that runs just fine on the Xbox One, though it doesn't have any online multiplayer (and is sort of terrible, anyway).
Visually, KI is full of great-looking effects, like the burst of sparks that blast off of Jago's fireball when it lands or the rain that increasingly pounds down in one of the backgrounds as the fight progresses. If you end a fight in that stage with an Ultra Combo--the game's fight-ending finishing move--the rain goes even crazier. You see it hitting the characters and running down their bodies, which is a pretty cool little touch. The costume designs are a little flat, though. It's got good music and a great announcer, and if you earn enough in-game currency to unlock it, you can get access to some of the original "Killer Cuts" soundtrack to use in the game' s practice mode. I'm fairly certain that we can all agree that the best part about the original KI was the song "K.I. Feeling," so having it here effectively renders that game completely obsolete.
The great training offered by Killer Instinct will help you get your feet wet, and it might just introduce you to some concepts that'll make you understand all fighting games on a slightly deeper level. That's a great touch. The flexible pricing is nice, but even at the full $40, Killer Instinct feels like a solid addition to the genre. It's also one of the better games to hit the Xbox One at launch, so if you've ever been interested in a fighting game, you might want to give this one a shot.