Reboot. Rehash. Restart. Franchise media has existed long enough that nowadays it feels that the majority of properties need to come with a primer indexing the continuities and pseudo-canon you need to imbibe to really ‘get it’. A focus group of individuals may like something – but that thing will differ vastly from person to person based on so many factors. It is so, so tiring to try and jump into a new fandom; particularly when you need to slide down some rollercoaster of timelines and universes and bulllllllshit.
So yeah, my approach to Mortal Kombat 1 was one (heh) of trepidation. Like, come on guys – we already rebooted once, what is there left to re-tell? To reboot? TO REHASH? It feels like only yesterday we were playing Mortal Kombat 9, with its very own reboot tale.
Oh, that was 2011? Excuse me while I wither and die from old age.
Kung Lao, that Hadouken is in the wrong fighting game franchise
So we find ourselves with a somewhat blank canvas, ready to be painted with all manner of viscera. From a narrative perspective, Mortal Kombat 1 wastes no time in reminding us of this. Heck, even the intro cinematic provides a succinct recap of how Liu Kang has restarted things – almost like a welcome to new players, and a wink to the old ones. So with time-based shenanigans on the table, how goofy should we expect this tale to be?
It is with distinct pleasure that I am to inform you that it is vintage Mortal Kombat, sporting that iconic tone of silliness that takes itself just seriously enough to capture you. Some political intrigue that finds us on the brink of war? Sure – but it’s all because of the prophecy of a dorky low-voiced sorcerer and his huckster friend harvesting bone marrow from monsters. A villain has revealed themselves, with a staggering power level that will see us all destroyed? No worries, let’s quickly divert and collect the super powerful macguffin that we left at that place, all those years ago. It’s not a literary marvel – and rightly so, it has no need to be. This is a series about ninjas punching blade-armed men wearing a nosferatu mask. It’s comic books. It’s comfort food.
It is the kind of story that will have you fist pumping when huge moments happen, because the vibe just wants you to have a good time. Every character munches on the scenery, every villain twirls their mustache – the very fate of the realm, and reality itself may be at stake; and you will fix this problem by punching someone in the face. It all crescendos in a spectacular finale that I genuinely have to restrain myself from detailing too heavily, simply because it is every bit as absurd and quintessentially Mortal Kombat as you’d hope – total armageddon, with an outright nudge and a wink. And yeah, it didn’t need to twist my arm to play through that end sequence a second time.
Holy shit, a talking sword
With these cinematic campaigns, the ongoing question is always a resounding why. Why are people about to fight. It’s a fighting game; if people are not throwing hands you would also be asking why. There have been some brilliantly stupid reasons to prompt a story-mode fight in the past (such as rebuking flirting) but in MK1 they have definitely tapped the barrel of creativity. Perhaps one of the greatest strengths of the game is the care and attention put into their NPC engine, allowing them to deploy goons for the odd fight between the bigger throwdowns. Not every clash has to be Scorpion and Sub Zero settling a desperate, lore-driven matter – sometimes it can just be a nameless thug that is begging for a beatdown. These interstitial fights add amazing breathing room to the story and help reduce the ‘jobbing’ nature of big names getting their face slammed in the mud over and over.
And the act of burying these dweebs is a joy. With the doors blown right off their hinges by way of reboot, the crew at NetherRealm didn’t really have to feel beholden to any expectations – paving the way for a cast of less-familiar faces from across Mortal Kombat history. Folks like Havik, Nitara and Ashrah speak to a whole generation of fans that I have never really crossed paths with – and settling in to spill some blood is a great introduction. The game is a dream to play, finally finding that exceptional balance between gameplay speed, input sensitivity and lethality.
Not all Mortal Kombats are created equal, and even after my immense tenure with Mortal Kombat 11, stepping into the new era meant I needed to refactor my habits. The series has evolved to encourage freedom of expression and reactive thinking, weaving portioned combos between the flashier special moves. In MK1 this feels so comfortable that I never once even had to have a quick break to re-centre and cool the jets of frustration. It’s a methodical game of reading each moment and either capitalising or reacting to what is going on – with every character offering some unique twist to the core gameplay experience for a comfy niche to be discovered.
He is glad
The faces within the game are further expanded by the addition of Kameos – a range of sub-characters that are selected to fight alongside your main roster choice. With their own dedicated button input, these goobers will run into the battle and deploy their payload, before racking off again to await your next request. It’s a novel system that somewhat appeared in its infancy in MK11, where slotted modifiers could summon a particular attack – and here it has been expanded to give that sidekick a proper spotlight. These BFFs will join in to assist with grab attacks, killing blows – hell, they will even perform a fatality if you ask nicely enough.
The Kameo mechanic initially felt a bit oppressive on paper, but in actuality it really just boils down to added character depth by way of slapping some additional moves into your kit. Initially I felt daunted at the burden of knowledge that would come from thinking of how every Kameo would impact every character – manifesting this weird Pokémon-like matrix of match ups in my head – before realizing that a) they are on a cooldown and b) the vast majority of them can easily be interrupted or blocked anyway. Simples.
Honestly the greatest novelty of the Kameo system is the freedom it offers to bring back characters that may have been entertaining, but don’t really translate well to a fully realised fighter in modern Mortal Kombat. Look, I love that Kurtis Stryker is ‘just a cop’, but a modern refresh would likely see him lose that simplicity – and therefore, his charm. As a Kameo, that dickhead can run in, sirens blazing and literally handcuff a ninja – it’s excellent.
Tell me this isn’t stunning
This all coagulates to form a rock solid gameplay experience that is every bit as deep as it is wide. There is a richness in the characters, with unique gameplay mechanics and twists on familiar kits to elevate them – you may have played Scorpion and Sub Zero a dozen times before now, but you will find that they are different enough to be refreshing and enjoyable here. There has clearly been a lot of careful thought put into what a reboot would do to these characters, ensuring that the iconic facets of a fighter would remain intact while also branching out and delivering a new hotness to remix them.
And for players they can truly ingrain themselves in what the game offers in the way of progression. Each character has a ‘Mastery’ track that levels and rewards you with goodies. The various modes within the game will shower you with currencies that can be redeemed for cosmetics or singleplayer power ups too. Daily and weekly challenges offer a multitude of ways to rapidly gain your Kombat Kash, leaving me doshed up and ready to play Brutal Barbie with the cosmetic options on offer.
Character customisation has been streamlined from MK11, ditching the myriad smaller cosmetic options and instead offering every character an iconic doodad to be changed, such as a Ninja’s mask or Johnny Cage’s sunglasses. This is then supplemented with a range of skins to be equipped, having a more dramatic outcome on an appearance; such as a full outfit change or hairstyle. Finally you can then dip into a range of palettes, swatches of colour to add the final personalised touch to your deadly action figure. It is enriching enough, and does a lot to promote a feeling of control on how your murder-dudes (and dudettes) look when you step into Kombat, but a few niggling disappointments still managed to raise their head. Things like only being able to customise the weapons of series regulars Mileena and Kitana, with no option to tweak their masks – something that was downright radical in MK11. It’s a system that was born of compromise, and I understand that what we gained likely outweighs what we lost.
Cover your face when sneezing
A comment to be made on the in-game store – it’s oddly marginalised. Tucked away in a quiet corner of the menu, opening it will reveal that the plethora of things on offer are mostly purchased by way of in-game koins. The few items that are available for the ‘Dragon Crystals’, while flashy, come in affordable bundles that contain an impressive amount of cosmetic options – a surprisingly generous bang for your buck. If the store persists in this way post-release, it may be one of the most unassuming implementations of ongoing monetisation I have seen in recent years. But in reality, visiting the store is the least interesting way to gain cosmetics.
MK1 has a killer story mode, but the new Invasions mode is the real game-changer. It’s like a tabletop RPG, where you assign elemental affinities and stats to your characters as they progress through board game versions of locations from the story. Traversing these worlds and beating the gimmicky fights within them is similar to the Tower options of the previous game, albeit now with a little more structure and constraint to make sure people are enjoying themselves – not overcoming frustrating silliness. It’s a smart way to appeal to solo players, and it’s basically the new Krypt. You’ll unlock all sorts of skins and palettes during your journeys, with a neat mode-specific progression that will see you become more adept at bashing your CPU opponents. It also has a bare-bones narrative for the sake of explaining why the invasion is happening, richly exploring fun facets of Mortal Kombat buffoonery.
General Shao challenges you to a BeyBlade battle
Visually, the graphical fidelity is absurdly amazing. Sure the focus of the game is brutality and gore – but that doesn’t mean that all the attention has been focused on shattering spines and the like. Characters emote with stunning details, while traversing environments that would look right at home in any modern adventure game. The wondrous and fantastical elements of Outworld simmer with magic and traditional eastern architecture – while fiendish laboratories of ill-intent ooze and drip with dark malevolence. It’s almost a shame that MK1 takes place on a 2D plane, the gorgeous spaces we are fighting in almost makes me wish the game was arena based.
Audio work is similarly exceptional, once more demonstrating a terrifying acumen to create the sounds of violence. MK11 already delivered a stellar soundscape so there is no surprise that its successor would also revel in the wet thuds and splatters of bloody conflict. Where MK1 shines however, is the addition of a soundtrack that outright slaps. At one point, the Mortal Kombat series was known for its music – until a lull in bangers occurred. That drought has been solved though, with MK1 weaving a tapestry of traditional oriental flutes and grimy electronic beats as a backing track for your brutality. It will have you nodding your head while you stomp a head.
The voice work is also phenomenal, with every character leaping off the screen with their larger-than-life dialogue. It’s just a bummer that the seemingly mandatory celebrity cameo within the game has managed to be the weak link once more – but that may explain why such a character barely speaks within the campaign.
Sub Zero, the ‘dick freeze’ technique is too brutal – even for Mortal Kombat
The new era isn’t some rehash or reboot, it’s a rebirth. It revels in all the things that make Mortal Kombat great, acknowledging everything a fan would expect – but also carefully delivering a fresh perspective to keep things unique and interesting. The stellar roster of faces, both base and Kameo alike, provide a foundation for players to immerse themselves in a violent realm of near infinite possibilities. Spilling blood has never been so approachable, or fun.
Reviewed on PS5 // Review code supplied by publisher
- NetherRealm Studios
- Warner Bros. Games
- PS5 / Xbox Series X|S / Switch / PC
- September 14, 2023