Though it features an all-new subtitle, Mortal Kombat: Unchained for the PlayStation Portable is basically a straight port of 2004's Mortal Kombat: Deception for the PlayStation 2, with longer loading times and without the online play. Contrary to what you might expect, it's not based on this fall's Mortal Kombat: Armageddon, though it does throw in a few of that installment's added characters. Seeing as there's so little new content in Mortal Kombat: Unchained, it's difficult to recommend to Mortal Kombat fans, unless they really want a version of Deception to have on the go.
Given that Unchained is based on Deception, it includes most of the same relative strengths and weaknesses of that game. So, in addition to the one-on-one fighting game at the heart of the experience, you get a couple of quirky extras in the form of chess kombat and puzzle kombat. The former adds a basic strategic layer on top of the one-on-one fighting, in a nod to the classic computer game Archon. The latter is a competitive puzzle game inspired by the great Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo. These were exciting extras in 2004, but their novelty outweighed their quality or lasting appeal, and by now, the appeal will be long gone for anyone who's played these modes before. Unchained also packs in a story-driven mode called "konquest," which gets into a lot of the elaborate, long-winded fiction of the Mortal Kombat universe, with numbingly bad pacing and voice acting, plus tons of pedantic tutorials. Noticeably long loading times bog down these extras as well as the one-on-one fighting, in which you're stuck waiting about 20 seconds in between a typical bout. Thankfully, there's a new endurance mode that lets you take on successive opponents without much interruption, and that about does it for this game's new content.
It's a strange thing to say about a supposedly new game, but the one-on-one fighting in Mortal Kombat: Unchained hasn't aged particularly well. While many of the changes to the fighting system in the recent Mortal Kombat: Armageddon were more of a step sideways than a step forward, going back to the Deception style of gameplay may not be an easy transition, even for devout Mortal Kombat fans. Meanwhile, anyone unaccustomed to Mortal Kombat's recent evolutions will probably be overwhelmed by the counter-intuitive nature of the controls. Each fighter has three different fighting stances, often including a weapon-based stance of some sort, and each stance has its own moves and combos for you to memorize. Fighters also have several different special moves, yet all of the different characters wind up feeling similar in practice because their moves are analogous. The combat has a stiff feel to it that doesn't click until you've learned all of the controls and a given character's moves and combos. Notably, Armageddon's fairly interesting kreate-a-fighter mode isn't in here, nor is the custom fatality system. But these aren't big losses, especially since Unchained's gory fatalities are still quite a sight.
The roster gains a few additional characters not found in Deception, though you might have seen them in Armageddon. Jax, Kitana, Frost, Blaze, Goro, and Shao Kahn are available in this installment, along with series favorites like Scorpion, Sub-Zero, Liu Kang, and Raiden. They, along with all of Deception's fighters, are immediately accessible from the character select screen, so you don't need to waste your time unlocking a bunch of not-so-secret fighters in konquest mode. It's good that the character roster is bigger than before, but some of the new guys, like Blaze and Goro, can't even perform fatalities, making them pretty underwhelming. Nevertheless, with more than two dozen different characters to choose from, as well as the game's variety of interactive fighting arenas, there's a lot of material to take in. And once you get the hang of the controls, the fighting can be quite tactical and exciting, especially if you're playing an ad hoc Wi-Fi match with a friend with another copy of the game. However, because Deception remains one of the only PlayStation 2 fighting games to feature online play, it's a little disappointing that there's no infrastructure online mode in this version.
While the fully 3D visuals don't appear quite as detailed on the PSP as compared with Deception for the PS2, the game still looks and sounds quite good and runs smoothly. The gore is still what stands out about the visuals, as some of the fatalities and arena death traps still carry all of their impact even on a relatively smaller screen. All of the different fighting stances and alternate outfits for the different characters are nice, too. Hard-hitting sound effects; a fittingly bloodthirsty announcer; a decent array of grunts and screams; and some moody, sinister-sounding music round out the audio.
Mortal Kombat: Unchained is based on a game that was great for its time, and a lot of those great qualities are still in here virtually untouched, though weathered by the passing of time. However, by taking the online mode out of the original version and saddling this port with longer loading times, the result is a handheld fighting game that isn't nearly as appealing as the game it's based on, especially since you can still get the original for bargain-basement prices.