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The combo system in Killer Instinct is vastly different from any other fighting game, and it is the biggest cause of confusion for anyone beginning to understand KI. While much of the rest of the game flows similarly to Street Fighter titles, the game takes a decided turn when a hit is finally landed. Fortunately, the combo system can be explained using concepts familiar to Street Fighter players, just applied in a few new ways. And even if you are brand new to fighting games, the following pages will walk you through everything you need to know.
Before we dive into how combos work, let’s discuss the philosophy of combos in KI. Combos are designed to be a constant two-way interaction in Killer Instinct; they are, effectively, a prolonged mixup that favors the offensive player. Unlike other fighting games where you take a hit and are forced to watch a combo, in Killer Instinct you can perform a combo breaker if you have the correct timing and reaction to your opponent’s moves. All combos in KI start with a varying amount of unbreakable damage so the offensive player is rewarded for landing a hit, and then he can continue the combo at the risk of being broken. If a combo breaker is successful, both players return to neutral, and if a combo breaker attempt fails, the offense can earn extremely high damage.
As a result of the combo breaker system, characters in Killer Instinct are intentionally designed with strong tools that can lead to combos much more often than Street Fighter games. In fact, it can be argued that the KI characters are as interesting as they are only because the unique combo system allows it. Because playing defense extends past getting hit and into the combo breaker system, you can never take a mental break while playing KI; this game requires a high level of consistent concentration, no matter the state of the match.
We’re going to take a look at combos from the offensive end first. It’s important to keep in mind for later that all the techniques we’ll be discussing are not guaranteed damage, but we can’t adequately discuss the strategy of breaking combos until the full picture has been painted. With that in mind, let’s begin by defining a few important terms.
Some moves for each character are marked as openers by the game designers. Openers are very important, because they are what trigger the combo system to start. With some rare exceptions we won’t cover right now, if you haven’t seen an opener, the combo system is not operating.
All jumping attacks are openers, and almost every single special move that leaves your opponent grounded is also an opener, including shadow moves that meet that criteria. The exceptions to the special move rule are usually fireballs; even though fireballs leave you grounded, Jago’s Endokuken and Fulgore’s Energy Bolt, for example, are not openers. Because some special moves might be hard to distinguish at times, it’s important to familiarize yourself with the animations of each character’s special moves so you don’t lose track of them during the mayhem.
Let’s take a closer look at a few characters and their openers. Jumping attacks and shadow moves are much easier to distinguish as openers, so we’ll instead just focus on the special move openers. Jago’s Laser Sword special move is a bottom-to-top sword swing accompanied by a characteristic voice effect. Sabrewulf’s Ragged Edge special move is a forward-moving two swing attack. Orchid’s Flick Flack is clearly recognizable as a special move, but her Blockade Runner slide move and the third hit of each of her Ichi-Ni-San sequences are also openers. Fulgore will either impale you with his Blade Dash, or shoot an Eye Laser at your feet.
It’s also important to recognize what is not an opener. For example, grounded normals are almost never openers, with only a few exceptions. That is, hitting with grounded normals, including two-hit command normals or target combos, is usually not enough to trigger the combo sequence. You must special cancel these normals into an opener first.
Because openers are very important to the combo system, when playing or watching a match and trying to understand a combo that is being performed, the first important question you should ask yourself is: "where is the opener?" The opener is the gateway that transitions the match from the neutral game into the combo game, so determining exactly when the switch happens will help you follow the action more easily.
Once you’ve landed an opener, any normal or special move you execute behaves differently until the combo ends. We’ll start with what happens to the normals.