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Mortal Kombat 1 review: a morbidly fun fighter with one fatal flaw

Smoke and Cyrax in Mortal Kombat 1
Mortal Kombat 1
MSRP $70.00
“Mortal Kombat 1's creative Kameo system helps reinvent the classic fighting series, but poor single-player offerings feel like a step back.”
Pros
  • Refined combat
  • Creative Kameo system
  • Gorgeous visuals
  • Solid online play
Cons
  • Story lacks emotional depth
  • Invasions mode is a letdown
  • Light on variety

During Mortal Kombat 1’s superhero movie-like story campaign, one standout action scene finds me inside a dingy dungeon full of Shang Tsung’s disgusting experiments. Kenshi, Baraka, Johnny Cage, and Kung Lao fight against a horde of monsters within the grimy lab, and an intense fight ensues. Instead of cutting to a traditional 1v1 fight, it all initially played out in an impressive cutscene choreographed and “filmed” like it had all happened within one take. The scene may not have much in terms of emotional depth or unique gameplay interaction, but it’s a thoroughly entertaining fight that I’ve gone back and rewatched multiple times since first seeing it.

That small moment represents my Mortal Kombat 1 experience in a bloody nutshell. It’s a morbidly pleasurable fighting game that is lacking when it comes to depth and variety. While its story and poor Invasions mode are a letdown, Mortal Kombat 1 still boasts refined core combat that any fan of the genre should have no problem losing dozens of hours to.

Spectacle over story

Mortal Kombat 1 is a soft reboot of the series, taking place in a “New Era” created by Liu Kang in the wake of Mortal Kombat 11: Aftermath’s events. It features reinterpreted versions of classic Mortal Kombat characters and even reintroduces some fighters we haven’t been playable since before the last reboot, like Ashrah, Havik, Li Mei, and Reiko. The result is a healthy launch roster full of variety that should appeal to Mortal Kombat fans from any era of the series.

Smoke and Cyrax in Mortal Kombat 1
WB Games

As for the story itself, it follows Liu Kang as he recruits characters like Raiden and Kung Lao into the Shaolin as evil characters like Shang Tsung, Shao Khan, and Quan Chi whom he tried to make miserable in his new era. They’ve been manipulated by a mysterious outside force, taking them back to their evil, magical ways. As I previously detailed in my first impressions, Mortal Kombat 1’s campaign is entertaining, although it doesn’t necessarily reach the narrative highs that its premise could enable.

The idea that Liu Kang has created this new world but isolated himself from old friends in the process is an intriguing idea full of dramatic potential, but the game doesn’t explore it to its fullest. Characters like Johnny Cage, Kenshi, Reptile, and Ashrah are all given engaging, emotional backstories and character setups too. Sadly, the story campaign doesn’t resolve these character arcs in satisfying ways as its focus shifts to bigger and bolder action set pieces in the later chapters.

Still, the action in and outside of cutscenes is captivating. Mortal Kombat 1’s characters are colorful and full of personality, and the story’s constant twists and turns make it an enjoyable watch the whole way through. It’s also a great place to get acquainted with many of the game’s characters, systems, and controls, so it’s still a mode that I recommend everyone who picks up Mortal Kombat 1 should play despite its issues.

Staying King of the Hill

While other elements of the package are far from perfect, NetherRealm Studios is at the top of its game when it comes to pure gameplay. I was worried that it might feel too slow in the wake of Street Fighter 6, but that was not the case. It plays slower than many of its current genre peers, but that makes that game more exciting and methodical. Every action, block, or reaction a player makes can have a drastic impact on the fights.

The Kameo system adds much more than it takes away.

That approach pairs well with the Mortal Kombat series’ brutal nature and iconic mechanics like Fatal Blow, Brutalities, and Fatalities. In terms of changes from previous games, there is now just one special meter that players can use to enhance certain special moves. More importantly, there’s a brand new “Kameo” fighter system. While Mortal Kombat 1 features a roster of 23 playable characters, players must also choose one of 15 Kameo fighters to join them in the battle before every fight. Many of these are characters not present in the base roster, and some haven’t been playable in a while, like Motaro. In practice, these Kameo fighters essentially give players access to assist moves they’d have in team-based fighters like Marvel vs. Capcom without the ability to switch to the characters.

Every Kameo fighter has unique abilities, with some being more aggressive and others being more useful in defense or with proper positioning. The most helpful thing Kameo fighters can do is break combos when players have a full meter. This proved an extremely useful way to counteract some of the game’s most devastating single-player fights and most frustrating combos in multiplayer. The only downside is the lack of personality it brings, as Kameos now play a part in every fighter’s Fatal Blow and make it so there are no longer any prematch conversations between fighters outside of the character select menu. Still, the Kameo system adds much more than it takes away, and I hope it’s a system that the Mortal Kombat series keeps around for some time.

A fight in Mortal Kombat 1.
WB Games

It helps that the game looks fantastic while doing all of this. Mortal Kombat 1 is one of the most impressive-looking games to release this console generation, expertly catching every stunning particle effect or grisly wound in intricate detail. That should make Mortal Kombat 1 as fun to watch as it is to play, which is crucial for a competitive title like this.

While Injustice 2 is still my favorite game from NetherRealm, this is the best a Mortal Kombat game has ever felt to play. And thanks to solid, stable online play, it makes Mortal Kombat 1 an easy recommendation for fighting game fans looking for the next title to sink hours into.

A disastrous invasion

Where Mortal Kombat 1 falters compared to games like Street Fighter 6 or Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is in its mode variety and quality. The core combat is outstanding, but some modes around them could be better. Ranked, casual, and King of the Hill are all solid multiplayer modes, but they aren’t new or innovative in significant ways for the franchise. The game also doesn’t feature cross-play at launch, which is sorely missed.

Then there’s the matter of Mortal Kombat 1’s single-player RPG mode: Invasions. I played all the way through the first season until the final fight with Scorpion and walked away disappointed. It’s a dull misfire in an otherwise entertaining fighting package.

Invasions feels like a grind only to help players level up characters and unlock new costumes and currency …

Invasion lies somewhere between Street Fighter 6’s World Tour and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate’s World of Light campaign. It’s an RPG experience where each fighter has stats and elemental types that are strong against and weak against others and can equip items to modify those things. Players move from fight to fight in locations from the Mortal Kombat 1 campaign as they would in World of Light, though, with each encounter featuring a unique version of one of Mortal Kombat 1‘s fighters. These fights can have special gimmicks, too, like lightning that can zap players mid-combo.

It intrigued me when I first heard about it, but it lacks the polish that made those aforementioned modes from other games special. While those stat and elemental systems are present, I never felt that the difficulty curve on these was noticeable enough to impact fights. The only things that would give me a tough time were the occasional match-specific gimmicks like one that would darken the entire screen or add an area boss with uninterruptible attacks (a gimmick the mode overuses).

This lack of challenge outside of a few key moments means that Invasions feels like a grind only to help players level up characters and unlock new costumes and currency to spend in the game’s stores (and potentially spend money on microtransactions in the process). That puts more pressure on individual encounters to be memorable, but they unfortunately drop the ball. While each character you fight has a unique name and outfit — like a tattooed-up Liu Kang being called God of War — I quickly saw most of the match-specific gimmicks Mortal Kombat 1 had to offer. They, nor the AI, seemed to have that much of a game-changing impact from encounter to encounter with the same fighter.

Rain stands next to Sektor in Mortal Kombat 1.
Warner Bros. / WB Games

I would fight the same five or so characters in each of the “Mesa” areas that made up this season. That made fights blend together despite how enjoyable Mortal Kombat 1′s core fighting mechanics are. On top of that, this mode requires an online connection to play, will change permanently every season, lacks a map for each area, and requires players to exit the mode to change into the cosmetics you unlock within it. That ruins its long-term appeal and the flow of playing through it.

Mortal Kombat 1 successfully soft-reboots the series with refined gameplay that should engage any fighting game fans for hours. The shortcomings of Invasion and its core story just mean that it isn’t the best choice for those who like to play and explore the single-player modes of fighting games by themselves. For those that care the most about action-packed stories and tight gameplay in their fighters, though, nothing else in the genre matches the feeling of watching fighters get shredded to bits by a satisfyingly gruesome fatality.

Mortal Kombat 1 was tested on Xbox Series X.

Editors' Recommendations

Tomas Franzese
Tomas Franzese is a Staff Writer at Digital Trends, where he reports on and reviews the latest releases and exciting…
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