Killer Instinct

Killer Instinct is a 2D fighter with one of the most freeform combo systems in the genre. Every single hit of a combo has several paths and there is no such thing as an optimal combo because there is a combo for every situation. To counter this, Killer Instinct's famous Combo Breaker mechanic breaks combos when your opponent is too predictable. Unlike other fighters, the combo sequence is not a one-sided affair as both the attacker and defender have their own options during a combo. Along with all of us, Killer Instinct has one of the most varied character rosters in the entire genre.

Helpful Resources

If you're interested in this game stop reading this page right now and check out The Complete Killer Instinct Guide by Infil.


Attack Notation

LP Light Punch
MP Medium Punch
HP Heavy Punch
LK Light Kick
MK Medium Kick
HK Heavy Kick

Directional Notation

up-back up up-forward
back neutral forward
down-back down down-forward

Numpad Notation

7 8 9
4 5 6
1 2 3

High attacks are overhead attacks that must be stand blocked. Mid attacks are attacks that can be blocked with both stand block and crouch block.

Killer Instinct uses Modern frame data notation. If an attack has 7 frames of startup, it hits on the 7th frame.

Health bars do not reset after a round ends. Characters have two health bars and both need to be depleted to win the game.

Blocked attacks build more Shadow Gauge than attacks that hit. This is the game's way of rewarding block pressure as Killer Instinct lacks a dizzy or guard break mechanic.

Throws are performed with LP+LK and are teched with the same input. There is a whiff animation if successful. Regular throws have 5 frames of startup, which is equally as fast as the fastest normal attack. Throws have a lot of recovery. Any character can neutral jump to escape a throw and still get a punish.

After a knockdown, press any attack button to quick recover.

Backdashes are invincible from frames 1-7.

Killer Instinct uses a priority system to decide which attack wins when attacks are active on the same frame. Heavy attacks beat medium and light attacks. Medium attacks beat light attacks. Here is Tusk's crouching medium punch vs Jago's crouching heavy punch. Even though Tusk's attack has a much larger hitbox than Jago's, it loses the exchange.

Instinct Meter is the gauge under the health bar. It builds as you take damage or when you perform a Combo Breaker. When it's full, input HP+HK to activate Instinct Mode. Instinct Mode lasts for 15 seconds and powers up your character's existing attacks.

The activation can be used like a Roman Cancel. It can be canceled from normal attacks and special attacks. It's always safe as it has 0 frames of recovery.

You always build a gauge of Instinct Meter per health bar so it's a good idea to activate Instinct Mode before you lose your first health bar or immediately at the beginning of the second health bar. When used during a combo, Instinct Mode resets KV Meter to 0 and scales the combo limit value of following attacks by 20%.

Almost every normal attack is special cancelable and this even includes command normal attacks like overheads. Also almost every special attack starts a combo sequence. Which means that almost every normal attack can start a combo sequence.

Special attacks in Killer Instinct have a wide variety of uses. The fastest attacks have 5 frames of startup meaning -5 is when attacks are considered unsafe on block. A good portion of special attacks are safe on block and can be used in neutral or block pressure safely. Utilities of special attacks include upper/lower body invincibility, projectile-invulnerability, and full screen whiff punishing.

The gauges on the bottom of the screen are the Shadow Gauges. Shadow Meter is built by hitting attacks.

Shadow Attacks are enhanced versions of special attacks that cost 1 Shadow Gauge. Perform them with the special input and two punch or kick buttons. A Shadow Attack used at the beginning of the combo sequence is called a Shadow Opener, in the middle it's called a Shadow Linker, and at the end is called a Shadow Ender.

Shadow Attacks hit five times and are safe or plus on block. In fact there seems to be a lot of multi-hitting special attacks that are safe on block. Special attacks seem to be very powerful, how can they be countered?

Shadow Counter is this game's Alpha Counter. Press MP+MK in blockstun to perform it. It costs 1 Shadow Gauge and puts your character into a parry state. If they are hit during the parry state, they will counter attack. Shadow Counters have 8 frames of startup and the counter attack is not fully invincible.

If you anticipate your opponent will Shadow Counter, you can beat it a couple ways. You can try to interrupt the counter attack because it's not invincible. You can do nothing and make your opponent's parry state whiff. Or if you are in the middle of a multi-hitting special, you can activate Instinct Mode to instantly recover.

The parry state is not the same as being armored. Armored attacks have one hit of armor but lose to grounded heavy normal attacks.

Combo Sequence

The combo game in Killer Instinct is like the okizeme/wakeup game: the attacker has a clear advantage but the defender has some options to get out of the unfavorable situation. Think of combos like bonus damage. You don't get the full damage from a combo until it's finished but you still get a minimum amount of damage. You can decide between a short low damage combo that gives you almost guaranteed damage. Or you can go for a long combo with more damage but that gives your opponent more opportunities to Combo Break it.

You might be wondering "If all combos can be broken, how do you punish something unsafe like a DP and make it hurt?" The first attacks of a combo sequence cannot be Combo Broken. The third distinct attack is the first attack that can be broken. An attack that chain/combo into itself count as one attack. For example, crouch LP that chains into itself three times counts as one distinct attack instead of three. The first hit of a combo does 200% bonus damage. To get the most out of punishes, a heavy attack into Shadow Opener is guaranteed damage and unbreakable.

During combo sequence, attacks deal part of their damage as Potential Damage. Potential Damage is recoverable and recovers after a character hasn't been hit for three seconds. Potential Damage becomes real damage by properly ending the combo sequence.

Every character has a special property for combos called Unique Combo Trait. For example, Jago gets a damage boost if his combo sequence goes from light to medium to heavy attacks. Infilament's website has a full list of all the Unique Combo Traits.

The gauge and 4 bars that appear near the combo counter are the Knockdown Value Gauge (KV). When the KV Gauge is filled all the way, the opponent falls out of the combo and recovers their recoverable health. Finishing the combo, activating Instinct Mode, or Counter Breaking reset the KV Gauge to 0.

Openers start the combo sequence. Most special attacks are Openers. Other Openers include jump ins, command normal attacks, and Shadow Counters. Not every combo starts the combo sequence like multi-hitting fireballs.

After the Opener, it's time to add some damage to the combo. Auto-doubles are the main source of damage. Press any normal attack button and your character will perform it twice. Light auto-doubles are impossible to Combo Break on reaction but do little damage. Heavy auto-doubles are the most damaging attacks you can put in a combo but are slow enough that they can be Combo Broken on reaction. Medium auto-doubles are somewhere in the middle. Any part (startup, active, recovery) of an auto-double can be Combo Broken.

Manuals are link combos that can be used in place of auto-doubles. Like any link combo, they are done by hitting your opponent with an attack, completely recovering from this attack, then successfully following up with a second attack while your opponent is still in hitstun.

Manuals add little to the KV Gauge as they're single hit and do half the damage of auto-doubles. Manuals can only be broken during its active frames and are impossible to Combo Break on reaction. Manuals sacrifice damage to make combos more difficult to break. You don't need manuals to win but they definitely help.

It's not possible to combo auto-doubles/manuals directly into auto-doubles/linkers. Linkers act as the bridge between normal attacks in the combo sequence. To perform a linker, simply perform a special attack during the combo sequence. You have three different strength of linkers. To perform a heavy linker, hold down a light or medium button. Shadow Moves can be used a linkers as well and they don't add any KV.

Let's finish this combo to turn Potential Damage into real damage. Perform any special attack with a heavy button to perform an ender. Different special attacks end combos in different ways. Enders can be used for damage, positioning, resets, Shadow Meter gain, or okizeme. There are no optimal combos in Killer Instinct because the best combo and ender depends on the situation.

The 4 bars near the KV Gauge show the strength of the the combo ender. The more Potential Damage is on the opponent's health bar, the higher the ender level will be. Shadow Enders increase the level by 1 without adding KV.

Combo Breaker

Killer Instinct's most iconic mechanic is the Combo Breaker. When you're getting comboed, perform the Combo Breaker by pressing both the punch and kick button of the same strength that matches the strength of your opponent's attack. For example, if you're hit by a heavy auto-double you Combo Break that by pressing HP+HK.

After a successful Combo Breaker, you break free from the combo and immediately heal 50% recoverable health. The rest of the recoverable health recovers soon after. Combo Breaker always hits when successful, even if the other character is on the other side of the screen.

Reactable attacks:
Heavy auto-doubles
Medium auto-doubles
Heavy linkers

Sometimes reactable:
Medium linkers (At the edge of human reaction times. Players break these by listening to sound cues.)

Not reactable:
Light auto-doubles
Light linkers
All manuals

Another way to Combo Break, is to react to what your character is doing. I'm playing against a character I've never fought against and I don't know what their attacks look like. I'll look at my character instead. When my characters gets hit by heavy attacks, they turn their body a certain way.

Failing a Combo Breaker puts you into Lock-Out state. During Lock-Out, you cannot Combo Break for three seconds. The best thing to do when your opponent is in Lock-Out is to perform as many heavy auto-doubles as you can to inflict the most damage.

The attacker can counter Combo Breaker with a Counter Breaker by pressing MP+MK. Even if the defender attempted a Combo Breaker and it was incorrect, Counter Breaker still triggers. A successful Counter Breaker resets KV Gauge to 0 and the defender is in Lock-Out for four seconds. Four seconds of unbreakable damage and 0 KV leads to serious damage! A failed Counter Breaker ends the combo and leaves the attacker in a whiff animation.

Shadow Linkers are broken by pressing any attack button at the same time as any three of the five hits of the Shadow Linker. The three hits do not have to be consecutive. The defender cannot be put in Lock-Out state during this. The character flashes white and the announcer shouts 1, 2, 3! This makes it obvious that a Counter Breaker is coming and the attacker usually prepares a Counter Breaker when they expect the third hit will be broken. Try to use different Shadow Linkers as they all have different rhythms.

Infilament's website has a cool tool for learning the rhythm of breaking Shadow Linkers.

At the character select screen, you can choose to play with Combo Assist Mode. There are different ways to customize auto combos for your game. Competitive players play with Ultra Assist on. When your opponent has less than 15% health, you can instantly kill them with an Ultra Combo. In my game, Ultra Assist is performed by pressing forward and the left trigger button which is LK+MK+HK. When my opponent has less than 15% health, I'll perform a special attack and press Ultra Assist. If my attack is blocked nothing happens but if it hits the Ultra Combo starts and I automatically win the game.

Infilament's website has more information about the Combo Assist Mode.