Mortal Kombat 1 Review - New Era, Familiar Kombat

  • First Released Sep 14, 2023
  • PC
Jason Fanelli on Google+

Great mechanics and a wild story make a solid first impression, but a shallow selection of modes keeps MK1 from a flawless victory.

NetherRealm Studios had a tall order to fill with Mortal Kombat 1. As the game is positioned as the franchise's second lore restart in 12 years, the team had to find ways to make this new era of Mortal Kombat feel as fresh and new as the storyline demanded, all while maintaining the high bar of quality the fanbase has come to expect over the series' 30-year lifespan. Mortal Kombat 1 mostly accomplishes this goal through fun new mechanics and an unpredictable storyline, but the overall package lacks the depth needed to make this a masterpiece.

Mortal Kombat 1 picks up right where MK11 Aftermath left off, with Liu Kang ascending to godhood. As the Keeper Of Time, he is able to create a new universe as he sees fit, and his creation puts familiar faces on new and interesting paths. Raiden, for instance, is no longer the all-powerful Thunder God; instead, he is a simple farmer from a small village. Every character sees some kind of fundamental change, though some are less noticeable than others.

This results in a playable roster that features only returning characters from the series' past; there's not a single brand-new fighter to be seen. However, because of the game's narrative focus, each character feels like they're new--or at the very least has some new elements to their style--which creates the sense of discovery normally reserved for brand-new faces. MK1 takes existing names and reinvents them and it's a novel idea that works really well across the majority of the characters, though some don't feel as revolutionary as they could have.

Reptile is a perfect example of a character who has changed for the better. He's still a green-clad ninja with acid spit and the ability to cloak himself, but here he leans much more heavily into his Zaterran shape-shifting abilities. The result is a marvel of animation, as he zips back and forth between the two forms at will without the game missing a beat. Conversely, Reiko--who has only appeared twice before this--is simply a strong soldier type with grapples incorporated into his moveset. It's not a bad choice, and his moves serve him well, but there aren't enough changes in his character to make him as interesting as other members of the cast.

With the story changes come new and exciting gameplay mechanics, with aerial combos being one of the smartest. Not only do combos look flashier in the air, but the variety of options stemming from this new addition offer a new kind of excitement that recent MK games lacked. Some characters have ways to chain multiple air combos together, which result in massive damage while looking cool as hell. It's the kind of mechanic that encourages players to work on their timing, as pulling off one of these is not just effective, but it feels really cool, too.

A big returning feature are the bloody, gory hallmarks of the franchise: Fatalities. The trademark finishing moves are as disgusting as ever thanks to a combination of creative killing and all-too-realistic sound effects. A few of them shocked me, and I have a higher tolerance than most for gory stuff like this. Brutalities also return, and they function exactly the same way they did before, serving as surprise end-of-match exclamation points covered in blood. This may be a new beginning for Mortal Kombat, but it still plays the classics bloody brilliantly.

The biggest new addition to MK1's combat is the Kameo assist mechanic. After I select one of the 23 playable characters, I can choose from a separate roster of fighters who act simply as extra assist characters. Most of these are characters who don't appear on the playable roster, though a few are alternate versions of playable fighters. Once a Kameo is selected, I have three additional attacks at my disposal that I can summon at any time. Kameos can help extend combos, counter enemy attacks, or provide extra mobility in a pinch. Unlike normal abilities or combos, Kameos operate on a cooldown. This ensures each Kameo activation feels important and like a real tactical consideration; considering how versatile some of these attacks are, unlimited access to them would break the game. Motaro, for example, can produce a shield to block attacks as well teleport a character around the stage. Spamming either of those abilities would make fighting against him impossible, but thanks to the cooldown, that's not a problem.

Kameos are an ingenious way to include characters in the game who wouldn't have been included otherwise. Seeing faces like Sareena on-screen, even in this limited capacity, is really cool, as she has a legion of fans who have requested to see her again for years. While it's not a fully realized character, it is an acknowledgement of her existence, and it gives me hope that more unsung heroes and villains might again see the light of day. I also love some Kameos being old-school versions of playable characters, with Sub-Zero and Scorpion being prime examples. Kameos add a fun new layer of strategy to the fighting mechanics, while also serving up some grade-A fan service with long-dormant characters.

Nearly every character in the game--playable or Kameo--is backed by amazing voice work, with most of the chosen talent oozing personality, toughness, and grit from every spoken word. One major exception, unfortunately, is the most high-profile actress in the game: Megan Fox. I do not deny she is an accomplished actress, but there is a definite difference between her voiced lines and the rest of the cast. Every word she speaks is drab and monotone, and it sounds completely out of place from the rest of the cast. In battle, it's easy to ignore--partially because someone else recorded Nitara's grunts and attack sounds--but in the campaign she sticks out like a sore thumb. I appreciate the idea of a high-profile actress coming into this blockbuster video game--especially one known for being a vampire in a movie and also having a general… vampiric vibe--but Nitara would have been better served with a voiceover that fell in line with the rest of the group--especially when NetherRealm fell into a similar trap after Ronda Rousey's performance as Sonya Blade in MK11.

The story of Mortal Kombat 1 is a fun, twisting, and unpredictable tale which culminates with some of the wildest moments in franchise history. Some story beats are ripped right from Mortal Kombat history, as a tip of the hat to those who have stuck around for all 30 years of MK's existence. Others are simply chaos in the best way; I shouted in glee multiple times during the final chapter of the campaign, particularly in one scene which I wish was double its actual length.

The decision to develop characters in all-new ways through the story is bold and works wonders. I particularly like how it explores these new approaches through character interaction, like the dynamic between Kitana and Mileena, or the choice to turn Tarkatans like Baraka from a race of savages to normal Outworlders afflicted with a debilitating disease. These new ideas ground what is otherwise a fantastical story of magic and alternate realms with a minor dose of reality, which give each scene more emotional weight.

That said, the campaign is not perfect. A few decisions stick in my craw the more I dwell on them, and one major example is what was done with Ermac. Without delving too much into spoiler territory, Ermac's whole "I'm a being filled with multiple souls" vibe receives a new wrinkle that, frankly, erases everything that was cool about him. Not only does it happen out of nowhere with little explanation--the reason this change occurs is a head scratcher--but it sticks around for the remainder of the story. It feels like this decision was made simply to give longtime fans something to chew on, but in the process it broke my immersion in the story for a while. The campaign generally does a great job of changing this world, but a few of those changes dull the affected character's impact rather than improve it.

There is one caveat to this campaign, and that's its linear nature: Once it's over, there's nothing else to be done. The final chapter does offer some variety, as you're allowed to choose your fighter and the choice in turn changes a few things about the final battle, but that's the only change. Also, that's the only choice the campaign gives you, as unlike in the previous game, you're assigned a character in each chapter rather than having some choices. Luckily, the story is good enough to make up for these shortcomings, but there's still virtually no replayability outside of the last chapter.

There are other ways to play Mortal Kombat 1 outside of the excellent campaign mode, and while these modes are fun, they don't offer the same level of interesting gameplay throughout.

Online modes included ranked, casual, and private rooms with a "winner stays on" format called King Of The Hill. I encountered very little stuttering in my online matches, which is another feather in the cap of rollback netcode. However, the lack of spectator mode in private rooms is a major step back from other fighters.

Single-player modes include the traditional towers of Arcade mode, complete with each character receiving an individual ending, and a brand-new mode called Invasion. The classic Towers feel like old-school MK in the arcades, and ascending through them still feels great. Individual character endings are short vignettes as they were in MK11, but the extra lore padding they do offers some interesting potential threads for the future. Smoke's ending, in particular, answered one of my personal burning questions about MK1 quite nicely.

Invasions, meanwhile, take place across overworld maps with players running from one objective to the next. The idea is sound, and like the campaign there's plenty of nostalgia to be had--the security code to Cage's mansion, for instance, is "ABACABB," aka the code to enable blood in the Sega Genesis version of the original MK, which is a nice touch.

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However, most "stages" on these maps contain a single one-round fight, which means that the majority of the stages can be completed in 10-15 seconds. There are modifiers in some matches, like the occasional extra obstacle thrown at me, but they don't do much to enhance the experience. There's very little challenge here, particularly in later areas when I've been able to gain powerful Talismans and Relics to enhance my abilities, and it starts to feel like a grind. Compared to MK11's offerings--the Krypt, which was a sprawling dungeon packed with unlockables and hidden secrets, and the Towers Of Time, which offered new ideas for the classic tower format--Invasions seems like a letdown. There's some fun to be had, but the grindy feeling and lack of variety in the matches make this mode feel less impactful from those of its predecessor.

There is a lot to enjoy about this new era of NetherRealm's top fighting game. Mortal Kombat 1 casts a much-needed set of fresh eyes across its lore, which reinvents the roster in new and interesting ways. Not every choice works, both in character design and development, but the ones that do make an immediate impact. Fighting with these new characters is awesome thanks to air combos and Kameos, even if the modes outside of campaign leave something to be desired. The future of Mortal Kombat is bright, and MK1 marks the first step on that new path. I just hope the next chapter gives me more to sink my teeth into.

Jason Fanelli on Google+
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The Good

  • Air combos and Kameos are wonderful additions to the fighting system
  • The campaign is bonkers in the best way
  • Easter eggs and callbacks make this a great celebration of 30 years of MK

The Bad

  • There's a variety of modes, but none of them have a lot of depth
  • No spectator mode in online play is egregious

About the Author

Jason Fanelli saw Liu Kang's vision for his new era firsthand on PlayStation 5, completing the campaign in seven hours. He then spent an additional eight hours playing through Invasions, Towers, and battling with his friends online. Review code was provided by the publisher.