Killer Instinct holds a special place in my heart and remains one of those arcade fighting games that demanded my quarters anytime I walked into the local video arcade center. These days, that feels like an eternity ago as the last game in this franchise released all the way back in 1996. Since then, fans have been clamoring to see or hear anything about a new entry in the now dormant franchise and yet, (at one time Nintendo) Microsoft and Rare both kept their lips sealed. Cut to E3 2013 when a 30 second trailer answered those cries as a new Killer Instinct was indeed on the way. Interestingly enough, Rare had stepped aside for Double Helix who many people were unsure about with their uneven development track record. With the Xbox One now out and the game available for download, is this a return to form or is it in danger of getting knocked out?
Full review after the jump…
Tasked with reviving a long dormant fighting franchise in the face of juggernauts like Street Fighter and now Injustice: Gods Among Us, Double Helix called upon the franchise’s wild card: nostalgia. While not only bringing back familiar faces, a staple of the franchise would also be making a return with the over the top and flashy combos each character could pull off resulting in the announcer yelling things like “brutal” and “killer” wildly. Problem was, in the original games, these mechanics were often ambiguous and too difficult to pull off for the average person.
Double Helix took the mechanics back to the drawing board and thankfully developed a system that fits perfectly on top of the already fluid and diverse fighting mechanics. Starting a combo is simple enough but where the new cat and mouse mechanics enter is trying to perform a combo breaker. Performing a combo breaker is as simple as inputting the same combo strength the opposing player is using. So heavy combos can only be matched by heavy combo breakers, etc. It’s trying to read the attack pattern that becomes essential. Miss the correct input or don’t time it correctly and you’ll be locked out for a couple seconds giving the opposing player more time to swing wildly on you. It’s a very intriguing concept and one that works extremely well in adding an almost mind game element to a typically skill based genre of game.
The game looks as good as it ever has with vibrant colors, excellent character animations, and impressive particle effects raining down during fights. The stages are also dynamic in that the fight will affect what happens around you. For example, in Jago’s level, knocking someone into the wall on the right side will slam a bell. When Ultra combos are triggered, the level will literally begin to fall apart around you as the hits are then timed along with the music in a very flashy event.
While there are only six characters to select from currently, the ones that are available feel well balanced and distinct from one another, each catering to a particular strength. For example Sabrewulf represents the speedy rush-down character, Jago and Orchid as a jack of all trades, Glacius a zoning style character, Thunder staying in close for grapple type moves, and newcomer Sadira specializing in quick aerial attacks. Personally, I’ve found each character to be very satisfying to play, which for fighting games in general is a hard thing to accomplish.
While game modes are currently limited, players have access to a Survival Mode where they can fight an endless amount of battles to see how far they can make it, local battles against AI or another person, and online matchmaking. The real star here however is Dojo Mode, which features 32 trials for players to work through. Through these trials, Double Helix breaks down every aspect of fighting games in an effort to educate players how to learn the basics and also hopefully improve in more advanced topics as well. The information here is presented in a very clean and easy to read way with CPU demonstrations to show you want they’re looking for. With the Dojo, you just may go in not knowing much about autos, linkers, and advanced combos, but you’ll definitely come out better understanding not only of Killer Instinct, but of fighting games in general.
Players will also earn “KP” as a sort of “carrot on a stick” mechanic giving them the ability to purchase goodies from a virtual store which range from character outfits and accessories, to additional stages, to interesting odds and ends including even being able to use the original announcers voice. KP is earned by playing the game and completing various conditions held within a Trials menu. This can including everything from “perform a combo worth 15% damage” to “win 3 local maches with so and so”. What’s great is selecting a trial will send you immediately right into the specific mode the game wants you to play. These trials add incentive and an addictive layer to the already fun gameplay.
One of the biggest aspects to both the original and it’s sequel were the game’s soundtracks. The music was catchy and really added that unique and memorable aspect to not only each character but the game as a whole. For me, I was curious to see how/if Double Helix could somehow tap into that. Thankfully they found a way as they brought in composer Mick Gordon, who grew up a fan of the franchise. Killer Instinct’s soundtrack is fully dynamic, as the action defines how complex or simple the song is, Ultra combos are timed with the background music, and samples from the previous games are woven into each theme. Like the game he scored, Mick was not only able to create diverse, interesting, and memorable music, he did so in a way that fully embraces the past while still managing to tread new ground.
If you’re looking for the bad news, the biggest knock against it is that in it’s current form, Killer Instinct’s biggest flaw is that it’s missing a lot of content that people normally expect these days from fighting games. There’s no arcade mode to speak of, no online lobbies, no “danger moves” for characters, only six characters are available and the online portions are pretty barebones with only a ranked and unranked option. Compare this to other games like Injustice or Mortal Kombat and you’ll see some big holes.
With all that said, Double Helix has many plans in motion for correcting the majority of what I mentioned above. Spinal and Fulgore are coming later this month and March respectively, they’re working on a Story Mode as we speak, and a host of other additions coming down the development pike. Double Helix is aware of the game’s shortcomings and plans to address as much as it can as 2014 marches on. Not to mention, a planned “Season Two” of content is tentatively scheduled for late 2014 which will add even more to the game.
I really couldn’t be happier with how Killer Instinct turned out, especially coming from an unproven studio in Double Helix. The team there pulled out all the stops to deliver not just a well balanced fighter, but one that manages to toe the line between nostalgia and new ideas. With a fan base as rabid as this, that could not have been easy. Sure, the game still has a few rough spots to edge out, but how much can you really complain considering it’s a free to play game? With constant updates and content being released by Double Helix, a memorable soundtrack, solid and well balanced characters, and an engaging and helpful dojo mode, Killer Instinct is a must have for any fighting game fans, people looking for a nostalgia trip, or someone looking to learn more about fighting games. Supreme victory indeed.
Killer Instinct unleashes 4 ultra combos, out of 5