No, hitstop is not an aesthetic choice purely by the developers, it does serve an intended function. Hitstop measured within individual frames add to fractions of seconds, which don’t really give any player a significant competitive edge unless your brain can compute on a quantum level and react with uncanny speed. Anything within a fighting game can be used to an advantage if done correctly, but relying on hitstop as a strategy for anything such as identifying various strength autodoubles or linkers is honestly much more difficult than is probably worth it to ANY player of any skill level.
There is a reason hitstop exists the way it does but why it isn’t standardized. If you play vanilla version KI, and compare it to the final version we have now, you’d have a MUCH better understanding as to why it does exists in the form it does now. I’ll try to explain it why in any case, but if you ever get the chance to play vanilla KI, do so, and you’ll see night and day differences behind this particular choice.
Basically, every character’s attack animations play out with a certain animation style. Hitstop has always existed in KI but was not very prominent initially in its launch version. As such, for example, when Jago executes a laser sword linker, the hitstop was so small and miniscule, but the animation moved fluidly and acted as though there were none at all. However, this made some of the early moves in KI very strong, where even if you could see the light laser sword coming, identifying a moment in which to combo break was still super difficult because it made identifying the actual window of breaking very difficult to identify. So an opponent who is spamming light autodoubles, light linkers, etc., could still be very difficult to break, not because they are being unpredictable, but because identifying the exact breaker window itself is actually hard.
So why not time the breaker window to be wide enough to go past a certain point in the animation? Because the auto combo system “cancels” the rest of the animation sequence and goes into the animation of the next move. However, if the breaker window is around a five frame opening, but the next move is a four frame startup AD, you’ve effectively created a confusing situation where you are actually able to break a move after the opponents next move has already begun and in some cases connected. If you adjust it to be breakable before the hit ever connects, then that gives too much leverage to the defensive player to guess.
Hitstop artificially “elongates” an attack animation, which a pronounced freeze as a gameplay aesthetic to give players a recognizable window to identify the exact breaker window, rather than guess during the animation when to break.
Now as to why the hitstop isn’t standardized across the board.
All fighters need good animation for more than just aesthetic. Good animations have to play out in a way in which makes sense to the player visually to give them the proper video cues they need to identify to perform various actions. If a move animation plays very fast, but there’s a long pause after the hit, the animation looks jarring and can be misleading on the visual cue intended for the player to pick up on. This could mislead them into thinking the breaker window is longer than it actually is, or isn’t there at all. Fast moves aren’t intended to have long hitstops to create an allusion of a hit that isn’t exactly powerful but hurts, while heavy moves rely on it more to create an impression of strength.
Depending on the move performed, hitstop needs to be adjusted to create a balance between the move animation speed and power, and to offer correct visual cues to the player. If your frame advantage is too long, and lasts way too long after the animation finishes or is cancelled, it looks like the hit has more advantage than actually does, and creates a misleading visual for the player, but the opposite side of this is a hit that can be confusing that offers little advantage for making contact. It’s very animation dependent because between all the different characters and their specials, the varying strength and utility of said specials, you have to counter balance the actual attacks with varying degrees of hitstop in order to create the correct visual cues, without them being too obvious, misleading, or poorly animated. Cinder’s traiblazer won’t play out with the same exact amount of recovery animation as Jago’s wind kick will, but without the correct placement of hitstop and frame advantage, the moves look jarring, and can be hard to identify where you can either counterattack or combo break. Standardizing hitstop can create problems that make key visual cues harder to identify correctly. It’s one reason why the developers go over the frame data and development of character moves so frequently in testing phases and why a mistake like a +11 on some move that should be +5 or so can sometimes slip past testing.
You’re trying to create balances in the key frames of animation so they don’t come across as too jarring but not misleading, and it’s a hard science to nail down because it’s in fractions of a second. Standardizing these moments would create more problems than it would solve, and break the animations of some specials altogether.
Anyone who played vanilla KI can tell you the night and day difference that hitstop makes, and why it has to be tuned to each individual special move, and why it’s a pain when identifying the actual breaking window is more difficult than it’s worth and just to take a hit than risk the lockout.
I hope I explained that well enough, but even so, it’s a complicated subject to describe with an exact terminology and quantifiable measurement which even I can’t quite do justice.