Mortal Kombat 1 excels where you'd expect it to in terms of gameplay, combos and strangely-inventive mini-games that only NetherRealm could cook up. It fails to make the most of a (re)rebooted universe with a too-safe story and poor writing that didn't do enough to hold our attention.
Fighting games are weird. Not only is the market inundated by the same three companies every four years or so, but it’s a genre that’s expected to redefine what it means to be a fighting game just as often. All while maintaining the same core gameplay loop and basic mechanics that stretch as far back as the series’ first game, which hit arcades more than thirty years ago. It’s no easy feat.
It begs the question; how does NetherRealm keep the Mortal Kombat series fresh while featuring the same faces, and that “Get over here!” line we’ve been hearing since 1992? The answer, apparently, is to reboot the universe (again) if the ‘1’ chucked onto the title wasn’t a big enough hint. Mortal Kombat 1 ushers in a fine new story, some great mechanics, other-worldly graphics, and bloodier-than-ever animations that ultimately fail to live up to the highs of the series’ past. Or Street Fighter 6, for that matter.
Mortal Kombat’s story has never been its strong point. It’s a who’s-who of all the same faces trying to keep Earthrealm out of the hands of The Bad Guys™. Mortal Kombat 1 might avoid conventional numbering, but it’s the definition of conventional – oftentimes erring on the side of safe – where its story is concerned.
If you, like most, rarely see the tail end of a regular Mortal Kombat campaign, we’ll give you a quick refresher. Mortal Kombat 1 picks up where MK11 Aftermath left off, with Liu Kang assuming his position as the Keeper of Time, before eventually remoulding the world in his own image and setting the series’ familiar faces down some unfamiliar paths.
You’d think that an entirely new universe might warrant at least some new faces to play with here. That… isn’t the case. NetherRealm’s focused its energy on reimagining those familiar faces and turning them into something resembling new characters. Scorpion and Sub Zero, for example, spend their time united as brothers rather than mortal enemies, and Raiden has been demoted from all-powerful Thunder God to a… lowly farmer? You get the idea. Things are different. Sorta.
Much of the game’s early story relies on making the player perform their best Rick Dalton impression (may he rest in peace) every time a new character appears on screen, rarely doing much to further the narrative in a satisfying way. It does eventually shoulder some bolder creative decisions – some we even quite liked – closer to the end of the game, which does fill us with hope for a sequel more befitting our time.
Fortunately, Mortal Kombat 1’s monotony and poor writing is broken up by the game’s decent cast of voice actors, filling out a few hours of the nine-ish hour campaign that didn’t have us falling asleep quite as often as we thought it might. Like everything in life, nothing is perfect. That strong cast is let down by the odd casting of Nitara, with Megan Fox voicing the character, pulling off some of the worst acting we’ve seen since Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace.
Get over here!
Now for the fun bits of any Mortal Kombat game – everything else. That’s usually the case, with the core campaign offering up enough meat for a single run-through before your attention is forced elsewhere. This time ‘elsewhere’ involved traditional singe-player Arcade mode and something entirely new known as Invasions. Those stand alongside the online staples consisting of ranked, casual, private matches and King of the Hill.
Most of our time was consumed by couch duels — offering up some of the purest Mortal Kombat fun we’ve had yet – thanks to the combination of smooth gameplay, great visuals, and some of the most brutal moves we’ve had the pleasure (?) of seeing in a Mortal Kombat game.
Whether you’re playing against Xx_MomDestroyer_xX or someone offline, it’s all bolstered by the flurry of new combos, fatalities, and the new Kameo fighter system that’ll soon be as iconic as any of the characters it’s accompanying. Kameos are a clever way for NetherRealm to introduce characters that didn’t make the playable roster, such as Cyrax or Jax Briggs. They can be called upon three times during a fight to help pull off a cool combo, give you a second to breathe or absolutely humiliate your opponent.
As far as the Kameo system justifies its existence alongside a great roster of characters, it’s let down by a severe lack of engaging voice work, failing to match the bigger personalities you’re actually controlling. That being said, we’re excited to see what NetherRealm can do with the Kameo system in a sequel.
Once you’ve got to grips with the Kameo system, it’s time to make use of the game’s extensive list of new mechanics, with aerial moves receiving the biggest overhaul. All the usual flourishes you’d find in a new Mortal Kombat are here, with fresh moves, combos, and a refined control scheme that might have more to do with the DualSense controller we played with than anything NetherRealm did. It’s generally more competitive and thrives because of it, though we routinely stayed away from the game’s online modes, which are still plagued with the usual one-move spammers.
Oh, and if you needed any convincing, the game’s signature fatality moves are just as gloriously gory as you’d imagine for 2023.
Were this any other Mortal Kombat title, we’d probably be wrapping up this review up. The addition of a new story and the usual updates to moves, characters and graphics, while welcome, isn’t anything new. What is new is something called Invasions, a mode that falls into the same vein as the other MK mini-games like Deception’s chess-kombat or Test Your Might.
Whatever Watchdog-related ideas the name might invoke; Invasions is a single-player mode through and through. It’s sort of RPG-inspired, allowing players to traverse through a deceptive tabletop world and tackle the levels at different locations; consisting of one-on-one battles with the game’s AI that can either be extremely fun or woefully frustrating.
That’s all to do with the mode’s match randomizer, applying a different set of circumstances that you’ll have to put up with during each match. Sometimes it’s something simple; like raining fireballs or increased enemy armour to elevate the experience that little bit more. Other times… you’ll be stuck playing out the match in total darkness. Fun, right?
Invasions operates on a season-by-season basis, with the game’s first season still ongoing. It focuses more on Scorpion, with most of the rewards you’ll unlock pertaining to the character. We’re guessing the game’s future seasons will be designed to unlock different rewards for each character and keep the game alive until NetherRealm gets around to making a sequel.
Aside from the few occasions we didn’t have fun with Invasions, it did enough to hold our attention when we weren’t playing with friends on the couch or online. It’s certainly better than playing the campaign again, and something we hope NetherRealm doesn’t just toss out in lieu of some other half-baked mode.
Mortal Kombat 1 verdict
Mortal Kombat 1 is an enticing and much-needed reboot that does less with the brand-new universe than we’d have liked. Still, it manages to entertain through the series’ usual gimmes, with faster-paced gameplay, gorgeous visuals and bloodier-than-ever finishers. It stumbles during its campaign which doesn’t do enough in the way of good dialogue but redeems itself with voice acting that can’t be ignored (mostly) and a mini-game that we’ll probably return to.
In short, it’s a Mortal Kombat game that’s been updated for 2023 which will struggle to disappoint if all you’re looking for is a good time with your friends. If single-player is all you’re after, however, we’d recommend throwing your money Capcom’s way or hanging around until Tekken 8’s 2024 release.