Killer Instinct has many strong offensive tools. Normals, specials, and shadow moves are all very powerful, and once you get hit, combos using lots of heavy auto-doubles and shadow linkers will easily do 50% damage or more. If this was the whole story, the match would be over in five hits and all combos would look the same.
KI is most famous for its combo breaker mechanic that allows combos to be escaped at certain points, as long as the defense has good timing and good anticipation. The concept and implementation are quite simple, but they add a lot of interesting strategy and mind games to the game at all levels of play. Let’s first take a look at how they work. If you are not familiar with how combos work in KI, a quick refresher in the Combos section might help.
How Combo Breakers Work
When your opponent hits you with any attack in the combo sequence, simply press the punch and kick buttons that match the strength of the offense’s attack, and you will perform a combo breaker (you can also perform some shortcuts for this command if you like). Easy! For example, to break your opponent’s medium auto-double, you would press MP+MK while the move is hitting you. You must be in the combo sequence to perform a combo breaker, which means stray normals and openers are not breakable. You can, however, break all auto-doubles, manuals, linkers, and post-opener juggles. Combo breakers do no damage by themselves; they are purely a means of escaping future damage. However, as an important bonus, breaking a combo will immediately regenerate 50% of your white life, which is helpful if your opponent attempts to stretch his combo too far.
If you successfully combo break while on the ground, your opponent will get put in a flipout state and land right outside the reach of your longest normal attack at roughly even frames. If you are in the air, your opponent will get put in a blowout state (similar to your KV meter getting too high) and land with a soft knockdown instead. In either case, your opponent is invincible until he hits the ground, so you cannot combo after a combo breaker at any time, and the neutral is up for grabs again! Combo breakers will also never whiff and can never be blocked, no matter where you or your opponent are on the screen.
Choosing to break is a risk. If you press buttons of the wrong strength, or your break attempt is poorly timed between attacks, you will get locked out. An icon will appear above your head and you will be unable to combo break for 3 seconds (or until the combo ends), which will allow your opponent to transition to the highest damage combo he can manage without fear of being broken. If you lock out, you can expect to take a lot of damage.
The color of the lockout X and the icon in the middle indicate how you failed to break; a blue L, yellow M, or red H are strength lockouts, meaning you had correct timing but chose the wrong strength. The letters tell you what the correct breaker strength was supposed to be, which can help you identify animations and perhaps predict your opponent's habits for future break attempts. A white clock icon is a timing lockout, indicating that you tried to input a breaker of any strength when there was no attack to break. This typically happens during manuals, shadow moves, or if you are slow to react to an auto-double and miss the break window. (Note: if you are watching footage of KI recorded before December 2015, lockouts looked different.)
The timing for inputting combo breakers depends on what you are trying to break. If your opponent is doing an auto-double, you can break at any time including during startup frames all the way through to the end of the move’s final active frame. Breaking a linker is only slightly more restrictive; you can't break during a linker's brief startup, but any time after that is okay. In both cases, the timing is wide and you will likely only get timing lockouts if you are attempting to react to the strength used and miss the move's active window. If, however, you are trying to break a manual, you must break exactly on the hitstop; this is much more difficult to time. When manuals are used in combos, Killer Instinct adds 4 frames of additional hitstop to help the defender, but even so, reacting to most manuals is impossible and inputting the correct strength will require a prediction. To balance this, manuals come with some restrictions which might help you anticipate correctly.
Not Everything Is Breakable
Let's talk briefly about what is not combo breakable. As mentioned before, the beginning of your combo, up to your opener, is not breakable, as you have not yet entered the combo sequence. This means frontloading your combo with high-damage moves, such as heavy attacks and shadow openers, is an excellent strategy for dealing large amounts of unbreakable damage to your opponent.
Apart from Maya’s dagger toss combo trait, projectiles are never breakable. This rule applies only to projectiles that travel away from the character; these are typically special move projectiles, such as Jago’s Endokuken and Spinal’s Searing Skull, both normal and shadow versions. Some oddball normals have a projectile hitbox attached to the character itself (such as Riptor's flame normals or Kan-Ra's heavy kick sand normals), and these remain breakable as usual. Since projectiles cannot be broken, shadow projectiles will never be enders, which means they can never cash out white damage.
In addition, enders are never breakable except if the opponent performs a combo that does not contain a breakable attack. For example, going directly from opener to ender or trying to fill your combo with only unbreakable projectiles before your ender will both allow the ender to be broken (via HP + HK) in an outlier case. If you want to cash out your opponent's white life, you can't do it without giving them a chance to break something. Watch out for these in matches and break them! Even strong tournament players will accidentally perform an opener-ender sequence on occasion, and the offense cannot counter break an ender, so it is a risk-free combo break if you can recognize it. In fact, it's not a bad idea to always press HP + HK on every ender in case something fishy happened.
Breaking When There's No Opener
Most combos in KI will begin when the offense uses an opener, but what about special moves that aren't designated as openers? Some specials will launch an opponent into the air and allow for follow-up juggle hits (such as TJ Combo's Vortex or Cinder's Pyrobomb explosions), while others generate enough frame advantage to allow for a manual (such as ARIA's medium Allegro or Jago's Endokuken). You cannot sidestep the combo system via these moves; in KI, the combo system begins after every special move, whether it was an "opener" or not.
This means that even if you can't cancel your special move of choice into an auto-double or a linker, all future hits in that combo can be broken. If both characters are grounded, using a manual to extend the combo will let you start performing linkers or enders, just as any manual normally would. If your opponent was launched into the air, you will have to recapture them if you want to begin using auto-doubles or linkers. Recapturing is not mandatory for air combos, however; you can juggle them in the air with normals and specials as long as your character is able, but the opponent will be able to combo break these attacks in the air.
The 3-Move Rule
As we've learned, special moves (whether they are an opener or not) and certain other moves marked specifically as openers (such as jumping attacks and some throws) will trigger the combo sequence and allow future attacks to be broken. These instances cover the vast majority of combos in KI. However, some characters in Killer Instinct are able to string together long sequences of grounded normal attacks before canceling into a special move, seemingly dodging the combo breaker system entirely by not performing a special move or an opener. The system handles cases like these by introducing a 3-Move Rule; if you perform three distinct attacks to begin your combo, the third move and beyond becomes breakable under the normal combo system rules.
The definition of a "distinct" attack needs further explanation. Chained normals and target combos count as one total move towards your three move limit; to say it another way, canceling a normal into another normal does not count as a "new move". Similarly, multi-hitting "rekka" special moves that do not register as an "opener" until the final hit (such as Orchid's Ichi Ni San and Hisako's On Ryo Zan) count as one total move for the purposes of this rule, so you can't simply break the third hit of these special moves every time you get hit by them. But any time you link together three normal attacks, or even just two attacks and then cancel into a normally unbreakable special move opener, this special 3-Move Rule comes into play and makes the attacks breakable. It's worth stressing that this rule is very situational and turns up extremely rarely in normal Killer Instinct play, and typically affects only a small number of characters whose movesets allow for this type of behavior (including Spinal, Orchid, Hisako, and Jago).
Here is a summary checklist meant to help you answer the question "Can I combo break this attack?":
- Is the attack a projectile or ender? If so, then no, you cannot combo break, no matter your answers to the questions below. There are only two exceptions: Maya's dagger toss when used as a linker is breakable (it is her combo trait), and enders can be broken only if there has been no breakable attack before it (for example, an opener-ender sequence). Some wacky normals have projectile hitboxes; this rule does not apply to them.
- Have you previously been hit by a special move? If so, then yes, you can combo break. The special move might have been one of the character's main openers, a shadow counter, or any non-opener special move, including projectiles, dragon punches, and command grabs. This is, by far, the most common way to enter the combo system in KI.
- Have you otherwise been hit by an opener? If so, then yes, you can combo break. All air attacks are openers, so you can immediately break after being hit by any air normal, no matter if you are in the air or on the ground. Some characters have unique normals that register as openers (such as Glacius's +MP Ice Lance), and all throws that allow for follow-up hits count as openers as well.
- Have you been hit by three distinct moves? If so, then yes, you can combo break. This is the game's "catch all" case for characters who are able to link together many attacks without using special moves or other openers, and it doesn't show up very often.