In the Lab: Killer Instinct Season 2 (2014-15)

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The second season of Xbox One’s Killer Instinct reboot is now finished, with all the season 2 characters and gameplay modes fully implemented. Some hardcore fighting game people and anti-Xbone folks still turn up their noses at any mention of Killer Instinct, but what about those of us who have loved this dumb series since the 90s and thought Season 1 was actually pretty good?

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As I mentioned in the Season 1 review… article… thing (I’ll just call my articles about new games “In the Lab” from now on), Double Helix Games was bought by Amazon around the time they finished the first season of KI (and haven’t really been heard of since), and Iron Galaxy Studios took the reins from there. At the time, I was cautiously optimistic about the change, as Double Helix had left Killer Instinct with a ton of technical issues and I figured things would get better when KI entered the Dave Lang Zone. I am happy to report that the tech side of things does seem more solid in season 2 and the whole game is more fleshed out in general, but that still leaves the question whether Iron Galaxy’s version of KI has been entirely successful.

The matchmaking could maybe still use some work.
The matchmaking could maybe still use some work.

The groundwork laid by Double Helix is still there, for better or worse. If you didn’t like Killer Instinct in 2013, you’re probably not going to enjoy the current incarnation of the game either, as the core gameplay is practically identical. The main changes have been to the breaker system, as you can now pull off those combo breakers in just about any situation, including in the air. You can also practice combo breakers in a special training mode now, which is nice because one of the hardest things about playing KI is learning the correct timings and animation tells for breakers.

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I could swear Shadow Jago broke my ultra combo once, but that was the only time that happened and Shadow Jago is a total fucker anyway — especially now in S2 because there are more opportunities for breakers. It’s possible that he had just enough health to break the autodouble before the ultra. Fuck that guy. No, I did not beat him and I will never attempt that again. Speaking of ultras, some of the new stages have Stage Ultras which are basically less violent stage fatalities from Mortal Kombat and also appeared in the original KI games.

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Presentation-wise, the menus have gone through a complete overhaul to go with the “Rise of Ultratech” theme of Season 2. I thought the original menus kind of worked in all their simplicity, but it’s really a matter of taste which ones you prefer. The actual gameplay now runs at 900p instead of 720p, thankfully with no frame rate drops. Some of the graphical effects have been adjusted as well, most obviously the stage no longer darkens when someone shoots a fireball:

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This is a pre-release screenshot, but the same effect was in place in KI S1.

This was probably done to make the visual effects less distracting and I can’t really complain about the change because playability should always be the main priority over visuals, although I did quite like the original darkening effect. It was subtle enough not to bother me at all, and it looked really nice too. The visuals are still very flashy, with a ton of particles and motion blur effects.

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This is like the farthest thing ever from Maya’s original outfit. It’s great. Level 45 to unlock the hair color is pretty rough, though.

The customization options make a return, and all the Season 2 characters’ retro outfits have been designed by Kevin Bayliss, the former Rare artist who designed all the original KI characters back in the day. The unlocking system has been changed, as everything is now tied to your player level and the level of each character. You no longer need to use KP to buy stuff, because it’s automatically unlocked once you reach the appropriate level. Or if you don’t want to grind out levels, you can spend real money to buy “KI Gold”! Fucking microtransactions.

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Best Deal! These prices are in pounds due to the fact my Xbox One’s region has been set to the UK. Why? Because if I set it to my real location (Finland), I have to use the system in poorly translated Finnish. I’d really rather not.

You can also create a “Shadow”, which is kind of like the Drivatars in Forza Motorsport 5. Instead of driving against a bunch of idiots who crash into you in every corner, you get to fight against some button masher’s AI. I haven’t really delved into this feature, but basically you create your initial “Shadow Brain” after three test matches and after that you can send your digital representation to fight other people in the Shadow Lab to ideally earn EXP and SP (shadow points) Of course, you can also fight those other players’ shadows.

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Mick Gordon returns to compose the soundtrack for Season 2, and he has outdone himself here. I liked some of the songs on the Season 1 OST and didn’t care much for others, but Mick knocks it out of the park with Season 2 and produces a much more solid soundtrack. Unfortunately, he has already announced that he will not be working on KI Season 3, and as of this writing his replacement hasn’t been named. I personally hope Microsoft and Iron Galaxy manage to get Robin Beanland for Season 3, having the composer of the original KI music on board would be fantastic. FAKE EDIT: Turns out they did announce Mick’s replacement while I was working on this article. The music for Season 3 will be done by Celldweller and Atlas Plug, who aren’t Robin Beanland but not too bad a choice in any case.

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All the old game modes are still there, and Season 2 of Killer Instinct adds a new story mode to complement the Season 1 arcade mode. Don’t go expecting something rivaling the NetherRealm Studios games, though — KI’s story mode is really just a series of fights with a couple of simple cutscenes in between. According to Max “Maximilian Dood” Christiansen, who directed the cutscenes, there weren’t enough resources to create any grand cinematic experience and everything had to be done with the existing gameplay assets, and only the nine Season 2 characters got their own story mode paths. Each character has two optional goals in story mode, things such as “ultra the final boss”, and all their storylines factor into the overall plot of the game, although some of them are probably more canon than others.

DEAREST FRIEND!
DEAREST FRIEND!

The main antagonist of the storyline (and final boss for some characters) is ARIA, an artificial intelligence in a robot body who also happens to be the leader of Ultratech, the megacorporation from the original KI games (and the ones who set up the KI tournament back then) that is currently putting on a respectable front as a legitimate company while experimenting with all sorts of comic book villainy in the background. ARIA believes humanity needs to evolve in order to survive, so she tests their mettle against monsters and robots, awakens a bunch of ancient horrors and proceeds to endanger the entire world in the process. You know, the usual stuff.

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Killer Instinct Season 2 Cast:

TJ Combo

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Combo was the first character to be revealed for KI Season 2, and players got to try him out a good while before the new season officially began. In the original Killer Instinct, TJ “Combo” Garrett was a boxing champion who got stripped of his title after his use of cybernetic arm implants (from Ultratech, of course) was discovered, and his story is much the same here except that he looks more like an MMA fighter now and has actually removed the implants. He’s also more of a good guy in this timeline, originally he only cared about gaining back his money and fame (back in Killer Instinct 2, one of his endings had him stay behind in the distant past and become a fighting champion there).

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Combo used to be a charge-type character in KI and KI2 and it took some practice to get good with him, but he’s a lot easier to use now. He can also get a second wind if you knock him out while he has a full Instinct meter.

Stage: Downtown Demolition (click the stage names to listen to their themes)

Maya

Maya_-_City_of_DawnMaya used to be an ancient warrior queen dressed in a leopard fur bikini (and won the “Worst Dressed” award from Nintendo Power back in the day), but since it’s no longer 1996 and the time travel nonsense from KI2 has mercifully been thrown out, the character has been reimagined as a member of a secret clan of monster hunters known as the Night Guard. Turns out she’s got a job to do, as Ultratech pulled some shenanigans and let loose all kinds of horrible creatures.

maya_commentary-1413396688902Maya fights with daggers called Temperance and Vengeance, confiscated from Kan-Ra long ago. She can throw them at any point, but they don’t return to her and you have to pick them up in order to use them again. Many of her special attacks and combo moves depend on the daggers and how much magic energy you’ve stored in them. Basically, playing Maya requires you to learn her specific gameplay gimmick and is very hard to master as a result, which is a running theme with the cast of Season 2. By the way, she was mocapped and voiced by Kerri Hoskins, who you may remember as Sonya in Mortal Kombat 3.

Stage: City of Dawn

Kan-Ra

Kan-Ra_-_The_Forbidden_ArchiveSeason 2 of Killer Instinct introduces a number of all-new characters to the roster, and here’s the first of them. Kan-Ra is an ancient Babylonian sorcerer cursed to walk the earth for eternity and will stop at nothing to cure himself of his affliction. Hundreds of years ago he was imprisoned by the Night Guard, and that’s where he stayed until he was accidentally set free during Ultratech’s attack on Maya’s city.

Whenever
Whenever “ultra this character” is an objective, actually doing ultras suddenly becomes really difficult for me as the opponent keeps jumping around and doing other bullshit. Managed it on Kan-Ra here, though.

Kan-Ra might use his bandages and sand powers in combat, but please refrain from calling him a mummy. He doesn’t like that. (Before he was fully revealed, Iron Galaxy went out of their way to point out he’s not a mummy even though he totally is)

Stage: The Forbidden Archive

Riptor

Riptor_-_Hatchery_09

Riptor was a fan favorite in the days of the original KI, because she was a fucking dinosaur (technically a human/raptor hybrid, but still). She wasn’t brought back for KI2 or KI Season 1, but now she’s here and is totally awesome.

One day, ARIA decided to create her vision of a perfect hunter and came up with “Project Stalker”, which involved splicing human and dinosaur DNA and synthetic Ultratech genes. The first thing ARIA had the Stalkers do was fight an army of Fulgores, because ARIA is apparently six years old and thinks a huge fight between cyborg dinosaurs and robots is the coolest goddamn thing in the world.

Killer_Instinct_Season_2_68957
Dramatization of the events

Anyway, the Stalkers murdered the shit out of the Fulgores, and the leader of the pack was named Riptor because ARIA is apparently six years old and permanently stuck in 1994.

Riptor can breathe fire, pounce at the opponent, whack people with her tail and do all kinds of cool raptor stuff. Very well suited for aggressive playstyles. If you want your dinosaurs to be scientifically accurate, Riptor’s customization options include feathers. And if you want your dinosaurs to be fabulous, one of her retro accessories is a cheerleader costume. No, seriously.

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S–senpai? It–it’s not like I like you or anything!

Stage: Hatchery 09

Omen

Omen_-_Shadow_Tiger's_Lair

A loyal servant of the warlord Gargos (who you may remember as that CHEAP FUCKING PIECE OF SHIT BOSS at the end of Killer Instinct 2), Omen is the dark spirit that possessed Jago and tried to turn him into Shadow Jago. He has a shadow meter with three stocks instead of the normal two, giving him more opportunities to do shadow moves, and his projectiles have a variety of effects. He can also lock out one of the opponent’s shadow stocks for five seconds and has access to Shadow Jago’s demon slide special move.

Omen is a very gimmicky character, and he’s apparently considered fairly low tier among competitive players.

Stage: Shadow Tiger’s Lair (same as Shadow Jago’s, meaning that you no longer have to beat Shadow Jago to unlock it)

Aganos

Aganos_-_The_Forgotten_Grotto

I still prefer to call this guy Broccoli Man, which was a popular fan nickname for him when all we had seen of him was a silhouette. Anyway, Aganos is an ancient war golem that has been hunting Kan-Ra for centuries and is actually a pretty chill dude despite looking like an imposing rock monster (in fact, his name apparently means “person of a gentle disposition”). Aganos’ gimmick is that he can grab chunks of earth from the stage and store them in his chest to be used as armor or for special attacks. He can also create walls between himself and the opponent, or rip out a bit of the stage’s wall and use it as a club.

Aganos is kind of a low-tier character as well, and fighting him is annoying because he’s so big the camera has to pull back to fit him in the frame properly. This has the side effect of making it hard to see what the hell you’re doing, especially when he keeps getting in front of your character with those massive arms of his.

seriously look at this fat fuck
seriously look at this fat fuck

Stage: Forgotten Grotto

Hisako

Hisako_-_Village_of_Whispers

450 years ago, a village in Japan was attacked by a group of renegade soldiers. Many villagers were killed, including a former samurai whose daughter took up his naginata and fought the attackers in his place. She took down several of them before dying herself, and her sacrifice inspired the other villagers to defeat the invaders. A shrine was erected in the young woman’s honor, and it’s said her spirit his still around and has protected the village ever since. Her real name is lost to time but the locals call her Hisako, “eternal child”. ARIA hears about Hisako and sends Sadira and some Fulgores to desecrate the place and draw out the spirit. Now she has risen, and she is not pleased. Nobody attacks her village and lives.

spoopy

Hisako has a “wrath meter” that, when at least half full, lets her turn her attacks into “Vengeance Counters”. While counterattacking is important against tougher opponents, even without it she is capable of dealing absolutely massive damage with her combos. Just last night, I pulled off a 81% damage combo with her, and it wasn’t even a Godlike Combo (some rebalancing may be in order). Hisako walks very, very slowly, but her forward dash lets her scurry towards the opponent on all fours really fast (which looks creepy and cool). She can also teleport and do wall jumps.

Killer Instinct Hisako

I’m not a huge fan of most of the Season 2 cast, but Hisako is probably my favorite character in the entire game at this point (making Killer Instinct the second fighting game series where I like the creepy monster woman most of all characters… I’m not sure what that says about me). I really enjoy the way she plays, and her design and animations (such as those creepy jitters) are perfect. Not to mention her theme song.

Stage: Village of Whispers

Cinder

Cinder_Render

Cinder was my favorite fighter in the original Killer Instinct, mostly because I sucked and you could do big combos by just mashing forward and the punch buttons when you played as him. Doing big damage is a lot more involved this time, though, as you have to learn to use his Pyrobombs and “Fired Up” state to make him effective at all. If you don’t use the Pyrobombs properly, your damage output is pitiful.

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Ultratech’s HQ has a lava room. Can’t blame them, if I were a supervillain who owned an evil megacorporation I’d also build a lava room.

Storywise, not much has changed with Cinder in the reboot. He’s still a criminal named Ben Ferris, who is turned into a fire elemental in an Ultratech experiment (involving Glacius’ cells, apparently), and he’s got a cocky and wisecracking personality. Effectively, this amounts to him shouting “SICK BURN!” and other stupid bullshit every three seconds, which doesn’t get annoying at all and totally doesn’t make me never want to play as Cinder.

At least his awesome rocking theme song is mostly intact, except that it’s now even more face-melting than before. Ugh, sorry about that. I should be fired for that pun.

Stage: Fury’s Core

ARIA

ARIA_-_The_Pinnacle

An AI created decades ago by Ultratech’s original founder. ARIA (Advanced Robotics Intelligence Architecture) studies humans to find their weaknesses and attempts to correct them in order to make humanity evolve into something greater. In order for this to happen, she believes she has to unite everyone under the Ultratech banner and have them fight against a common enemy. Not just any enemy, something extremely powerful and terrible. Gargos is totally coming back in Season 3.

ARIA is unique among the roster due to the fact she doesn’t use the regular KI health bars (in case you forgot or didn’t know, fighters in KI start with a green health bar and switch to red health when knocked out for the first time, with the winner of the first fall keeping whatever health they have left — there are no traditional rounds in Killer Instinct) but instead has three drones surrounding her at all times. Each drone has less health than a normal health bar, and when they’re gone they’re gone (if one of them is destroyed while she is in Instinct mode, she apparently dies instantly). This also means ARIA has fewer combat options, as her special moves rely heavily on the drones.

Stage: The Pinnacle

Rash

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Wait, what? Yes, one of the Battletoads has made it into Killer Instinct as a guest fighter. Rash is technically not a Season 2 character and isn’t actually finished (he doesn’t have an ultra or a taunt and can’t be played in ranked matches online), but we get to mess around with him for the next month. Apparently, he’ll get removed on September 8th and won’t be back until Season 3 officially begins.

All the old Battletoads attack animations have been lovingly recreated, so you get to see Rash punch with giant fists and grow ram horns and all that fun stuff. He can also summon the infamous hoverbike and hit opponents with it, which at this point just seems to get him killed more often than not (perfectly accurate representation of the source material, then).

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Killer Instinct is still a fun game, but I do think Iron Galaxy went overboard when putting together some of the characters’ special mechanics. You pretty much need a degree in something obscure to understand what the hell is going on with ARIA and her drones in particular. The Season 1 fighters were all different from each other, but it was also easy to understand how they worked and even Spinal and Fulgore weren’t that hard to get to grips with. Here, it seems like almost every character requires you to keep track of ten different things in order to get anything done. Sometimes less is more, guys. You made Divekick, so you should know that by now.

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KI Season 3 has been announced for March 2016, which is also when KI finally comes out on PC. As a Windows 10 exclusive, of course, but still. PC and Xbone players will be able to play against each other, and if you buy one version you also get the other. Xbone arcade sticks are supposed to work too, which is a nice bonus if you happen to own one of those. As for the S3 characters, Kim Wu and Tusk from Killer Instinct 2 are the only “classic” characters (aside from the bosses Eyedol and Gargos) that haven’t appeared in the new game yet, and in fact Kim Wu was already confirmed to return at the end of Rash’s trailer. I hope she’s less generic than she was in her original appearance.

Gargos still sucks after all these years. Remember Eyedol from the original KI? Now imagine a flying version of him.
Gargos still sucks after all these years. Remember Eyedol from the original KI? Now imagine a flying version of him.

Speaking of Killer Instinct 2, if you buy the Ultra Edition package of Season 2 you get KI2 Classic as a bonus (just like you got KI Classic with Season 1 Ultra Edition). For some reason, the Rare Replay compilation includes an emulated N64 ROM of the vastly inferior Killer Instinct Gold instead of the original arcade games, which is strange considering the fact those were already on the Xbox One. To be fair, playing any of the old KI games isn’t recommended in the first place unless you want to hear the kickin’ rad soundtracks, and in that case you could just search for the OSTs on iTunes or Spotify or something.

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The Season 2 OST includes the music from Season 2 (duh) and the original KI2 tracks as well as some old demos. I am so happy I can finally listen to a good quality version of KI Gold Cuts, as the OST (which was only available through Nintendo Power) was known back in the day.

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Despite some of the problems I (and others, some fans have even said Iron Galaxy “ruined” Killer Instinct) have with Season 2, I still consider myself a fan of Killer Instinct and I’m still glad the series was brought back. Even though it’s not the greatest fighting game out there, I’m glad it exists and I’m looking forward to what Season 3 will bring. Play hard with a feeling!

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