At first, Killer Instinct reminded me a bit of Darkstalkers 3. It’s a six button fighter with light, medium, and heavy punch and kick buttons (that generally combo pretty easily ino each other in order of increasing power), and like Darkstalkers 3, instead of rounds, each player has two health bars. When one is depleted, the downed character takes a moment to stand up as his or her health bars are swapped, with the opponent maintaining their current health.
Seeing this, I chose Sabrewulf (based on his slight resemblance to Gallon/Jon Talbain) and tried to play Killer Instinct like I would Darkstalkers. It was surprisingly effective.
Like Darkstalkers, special attacks could be made into more powerful versions (that in KI’s case had the character trailed by smoke) by sacrificing some meter and pressing two punches or kicks when performing the attack. While every character could dash and lighter attacks seemed to naturally flow into heavier ones, Sabrewulf felt fast, like he was built for rushdown. He didn’t have much range, but he was fast enough that I could dash into my opponent (who was playing Chief Thunder), knock them down with a few hits and dash back to safety.
When I didn’t do this, Thunder would grab Sabrewulf, toss him to the ground and stomp on his head as punishment. However, once I realized that Sabrewulf was a charge character, I started understanding what makes Killer Instinct unique: the combo system.
One of Sabrewulf’s attacks would simply make him run forward. A punch after that would have him take a forward leaping bite out of his enemy and a kick would have him slide under his foe and attack from behind. Either of these would stun my enemy into one of Killer Instinct’s combos.
My first couple of combo opportunities had me randomly mashing buttons, which would do a decent number of hits, but not that much damage. As you land your attacks, a gauge fills up under the number of hits. Fill that gauge and the opponent is knocked out of the combo, with a bit of their health converted to red health (which gradually restored itself, just like Darkstalkers 3!). However, you can use certain specials to decrease that combo gauge and extend your combo.
Lastly, if you use a special attack designated as a combo finisher, all of the red damage that you put on the enemy will be transformed into regular damage. Having realized that, my combos started getting longer and longer, and I had to start weighing whether or not I wanted to lengthen my combos at the risk of having my opponent break my combo (if my opponent knew whether my incoming attack was light, medium, or heavy, he could break out of my assault by pressing the punch and kick that corresponded to that attack) or if I wanted to deal a little bit of safe damage with a short string and a combo finisher.
After exchanging a few combos, my opponent and I both had very low health. He dashed forward and tried to use the EX version of his throw, but I’d slid under him and started a combo. The first few hits were to be expected, a few slashes and bites, but I extended the combo by sliding under him again. Each hit played a note that matched the theme of the stage (it sounded a bit like that thing a lot of bands do at the end of a concert where everyone hits the same note at the same time).
I extended the combo again to more grindy guitar, and when I finally landed the last hit (which was the 27th) the announcer shouted the famous Killer Instinct “ULTRAAAAAAA COMBOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!” At the same time, more wailing guitars started playing, and Sabrewulf struck his victory pose.
Killer Instinct is a different beast from the Darkstalkers-alike I thought it was at first, but that different beast is an awesome one.