Mortal Kombat is no stranger to reinvention: It started in arcades, made the jump to full-3D, console-only releases in the 2000s, then went back to its 2D roots in 2011. The ninth MK retold the arcade era’s story with cinematic flair and added fighting systems that made the franchise popular at pro tournaments. That’s no small feat for a franchise long dismissed by snobbish pundits and players as all sizzle, no steak.
Mortal Kombat 1 offers the boldest revamp of its mythology yet, and a retooling of the core systems that have defined MK since the 1990s.
You’re not thinking fourth dimensionally
To understand Mortal Kombat 1’s story, you must understand the difference between a reboot and a reimagining. Mortal Kombat 9, released in 2011, is a reboot. The Earthrealm is on the verge of defeat, so Raiden sends a desperate message to his past self to right the many wrongs he made up to that point. To do that, you play a wide cast of characters spanning the events of Mortal Kombat through MK3. That timeline continues in Mortal Kombat X and Mortal Kombat 11.
Mortal Kombat 1 is not a retelling of that story. It’s a reimagining that flips everything you knew on its head. At the end of Mortal Kombat 11, Liu Kang ascended to godhood and used his newfound power to rewrite history. In the old timeline, Raiden was a god and Liu Kang competed in the titular MK tournament as his champion against Outworld. Now Liu Kang is a god and Raiden is his champion, and the tournament is a friendly competition between Earthrealm and Outworld. That’s not all that’s changed. Scorpion and Sub-Zero were once leaders of opposing clans; now they’re blood brothers. Johnny Cage and Sonya had fallen in love and had a daughter, Cassie Cage; in this timeline, Johnny is married to someone else, Sonya does not play a critical role (at least not yet), and Cassie does not exist.
Liu Kang’s goal is to create a utopia by erasing all the death, carnage, and acrimony of the old timeline. It’s a beautiful thought, and it goes about as well as you’d expect.
If, like me, you’ve followed MK lore obsessively since 1992, you’ll love exploring how Mortal Kombat 1 upends old rivalries and story beats. It takes a few chapters for the story to get exciting, but things heat up after a few schemers reignite the conflict between Earthrealm and Outworld. Friends become enemies, enemies become friends, and plot twists culminate in a final chapter that is total fan service. I had a huge grin on my face throughout that chapter, and have replayed it several times just to bask in all the Easter eggs it holds.
While I enjoyed the story overall, it has two strikes against it. The first is that it follows the same conventions as the story modes from previous games: cutscene, then a one-on-one fight, then a cutscene. There are a few minigames to shake things up, but the larger issue is that you only play as the heroes. This means you fight the same antagonists over and over. After you’ve beaten them with several characters, it’s hard to take any threat they pose seriously. The second is that story mode teaches you nothing about how to play. You’re expected to go through lengthy tutorials beforehand to learn systems like combo breakers and the new Kameo system at the heart of MK1’s gameplay. A few of these systems could have been introduced contextually in the story. On that note, every chapter casts you as a different character, but most chapters are just long enough for you to grow comfortable with one charaacter's specials and combos before you're playing someone else. Most of Mortal Kombat's story modes have followed this structure, but that doesn't mean NetherRealm shouldn't consider changing things up.
Most of the voice actors range from fine to forgettable, with the low point being a performance by celebrity guest star Megan Fox that's as moving as a first-grader playing a talking carrot in their school play about the five basic food groups. As a counterpoint, veteran actress Kelly Hu returns to the cast from Mortal Kombat X and Mortal Kombat 11, raising the quality bar considerably. Overall, though, the story mode is the primary draw for many Mortal Kombat fans, and all the callbacks and bold changes should leave them pleased.
The gang’s almost all here
Mortal Kombat 1 being a reimagining means that the cast comprises old favorites. Some players might balk at the revelation that there are no new characters outside of forthcoming guest characters such as The Boys’ Homelander and WWE star John Cena’s Peacemaker. But that makes sense. The premise of the story is in revamping familiar characters and stories. Moreover, many characters on the roster have been MIA since 2006’s Mortal Kombat Armageddon. A reimagined story presents the perfect opportunity to introduce or re-introduce them. Why detract from all these exciting changes and returns with new characters who have no history?
Mortal Kombat 1’s Kameo system is its calling card. At the outset of a fight, you choose your playable character, and then you choose a Kameo. These partners are not playable. Instead, each Kameo has unique abilities you can call upon as you fight. Those abilities and how you choose to exploit them change the way Mortal Kombat is played. Sonya, for instance, can deliver her patented square-wave (flying) punch in midair, keeping opponents airborne while you set up a longer combo; or you can have her fire projectiles or grab opponents with her hand-stand throw. Goro pops opponents into the air or charges forward with all four of his massive arms swinging. Sub-Zero freezes your torso to grant additional defense. Kung Lao’s teleportation move takes you to a different part of the screen while the buzzsaw hat can start or continue combos.
And that’s just scratching the surface. Your main and Kameo selections practically guarantee that you’ll need to change your play style. Even if your opponent makes the same choices, their approach to offense and defense will probably differ. You need only visit YouTube or Twitch to see how pros are dissecting the staggering variety of main-and-Kameo pairings on offer.
NetherRealm has also addressed complaints regarding Mortal Kombat 11’s slow pace compared to entries such as MK9 and Ultimate MK3. Mortal Kombat 1 is much brisker. That, coupled with experimenting with mains and Kameos, plus fine-tuning familiar systems such as combo breakers and fatal blows, makes it arguably the most creative and engaging installment in the seminal franchise. It’s also the most visually striking. MK1’s backgrounds are beautiful to behold, and the attacks are so fluid I felt like I was watching the martial arts movies that inspired MK in the early ‘90s.
Although Mortal Kombat 1’s panoply of game modes isn’t as abundant as those of MK Deception of MK Armageddon, there are many ways to play. The game’s tutorial continues the long tradition of being among the most robust teaching systems in all of fighting games, if not the best. Towers are a great way to unlock each character’s arcade-like ending cinematic and to take your chosen tag team for a test drive. Invasions is a new mode where you run around boardgame-like settings and tackle fights against opponents buffed with modifiers such as extra armor or projectiles raining from the sky. It’s not as unique as Konquest, a free-roaming adventure mode from MK’s 3D era, but the modifiers change up fights in fun ways, and I enjoyed roaming environments I couldn’t explore as fully in the story mode.
Mortal Kombat 1’s online offerings are not as robust as the deep options and virtual arcade environment of Street Fighter 6. However, I found its simple menus easier to navigate and more convenient for diving into matches. No matter which game mode you play, you’ll earn XP that goes toward leveling up characters and your player profile. Every level gives you goodies such as weapon or costume skins, concept artwork, or input codes for fatalities. Unlocks happen quickly, especially while playing Invasions mode, so leveling up felt fast and organic.
Fans waited four years for NetherRealm to release a new fighting game, and all that waiting paid off. From the surprises in its new mythology, to the white-knuckled pace and creativity in its gameplay, Mortal Kombat 1 is the freshest take on the series in years.
This review is based on a digital copy of Mortal Kombat 1 Premium Edition for PlayStation 5 and purchased by Shacknews.
Mortal Kombat 1
- Kameo system freshens up gameplay
- Exciting reimagining of mythology
- Fast-paced fighting
- In-depth tutorials
- Gorgeous visuals and fluid animations
- Variety of engaging game modes
- Hit-or-miss voice acting
- Online options less robust than those of competitors