Fighting games are not my forte, but I’m always enthralled by their ability to suck you in with an easy-to-learn yet hard-to-master formula. It’s a trait that NetherRealm Studios has embraced by including over-the-top violence and flashy animations, so scrubs like me can jump in and have a jolly good time ripping spines with jellified innards clinging to them. From its arcade origins over 30 years ago, Mortal Kombat has evolved drastically, veering into the 3D era and differentiating itself from competitors like Street Fighter and Tekken by slowly sculpting the larger lore. So, it’s not surprising to see a lot of confused faces when their 12th and latest entry is titled ‘Mortal Kombat 1,’ a nomenclature decision that can easily clash with the 2021 live-action movie, the original 1992 game, and its 2011 reboot. Yep, this marks the second soft rejig for the franchise, but sadly, NetherRealm’s latest fighting playground does little to explore new avenues.
Mortal Kombat 1 review: Story mode
Mortal Kombat 1 opens with a voiceover of Liu Kang explaining how his ascension into godhood helped him forge a new timeline, where familiar characters’ histories are rewritten to align with his vision of peace. He achieved this using Kronika’s Hourglass in Mortal Kombat 11, making this a continuation of that bygone arc, whose events are often referred to in the brisk eight-hour campaign. Historic rivals Scorpion and Sub-Zero are brothers now; villainous sorcerer Shang Tsung is a worthless nobody peddling quack cures; and Mileena is no longer a mutant clone of the fan-wielding Kitana. Instead, they’re biological twin sisters of royalty, with the former getting infected with the Tarkatan virus, resulting in razor-sharp teeth and superhuman agility. It’s a subtle change in character that turns her from a deadly pawn to a successor of Outworld’s throne, forced to maintain appearances and keep her so-called ailment hidden from the citizens.
Oh yeah, realms are still very much present in this universe, with Fire God Liu Kang guiding the lightning-powered Raiden and the Earthrealm combatants for the generational Mortal Kombat tournament. Only this time, the matches are held as a means to peacefully demonstrate honour and strength, rather than any world-invading motives. But given the blood-soaked legacy of this series, peace is soon threatened by some mysterious force, pitting fighters in a series of battles as they chart a heroic tale that’s in line with blockbuster popcorn movies.
There’s a lot of corny dialogue, set against gorgeous cinematics that seamlessly transition into combat scenarios with zero loading time. I’d maybe see the subtitles loading in slightly late, but beyond that, the game flows smoothly with barely any cuts, jumping between visually stunning arenas like Sindel’s bejewelled palace, the pricey Cage Mansion overlooking Los Angeles, and the capital city of Sun Do, adorned with red lanterns and vibrant fireworks painting the night sky.
If you’ve dabbled in previous MK titles — or even Injustice — the campaign format remains the same: you’re granted control over different champions across the fifteen-chapter ordeal and tasked with defeating oncoming opponents to trigger the next cutscene. In Mortal Kombat 1’s case, this works fine for the first, grounded half of the story, as you’re able to resonate with the core cast and their unique quirks through small backstory segments before the Fire God comes around to recruit his warriors. While quippy Marvel-style dialogue was expected from an action-driven title as such, I wasn’t a fan of the exposition bits, which are plainly spoon-fed to the audience. I don’t think Kung Lao needs to literally spell out how he’s going to incorporate a razor rim into his hat or that Liu Kang has to repeatedly insinuate that there’s interference from some alternate timeline. Subtle facial expressions or throwaway comments and references would be just as effective.
My gripe partly has to do with the cycle of events from past MK games repeating itself here, making a lot of the changes feel redundant. Sure, the character dynamics and histories are tweaked, but we’re still exploring past ideas like Shang Tsung treading the evil path once more and the returning conflict between Scorpion and Sub-Zero. It also doesn’t help that as the story reaches the midpoint, it rapidly expands the core cast, making it difficult to connect with them emotionally or mechanically. You see, each chapter — split into four fight segments — throws you into the shoes of a new combatant with zero warning, forcing me to intermittently flashbang myself with the pause menu, so I could learn their movesets and combos through trial and error. But by the time I’ve gotten fairly attuned to them, the chapter’s already over and we’re granted control over the next fighter.
Characters pop in and out quickly, reciting their plight in the most generic fashion, with no room for growth. In fact, I strongly believe that some of them were forcefully written into the story as a means to introduce the entire roster. This is more apparent in the final chapters, which heavily lean into multiversal nonsense, stripping off all emotional weight and having fighters play grand team-ups and bash into each other like action figures. It’s all spectacle over narrative at that point, which gets continuously bogged down by both classic and alternate versions of Mortal Kombat characters slipping into this timeline. There are twisted amalgamations, from a mime Johnny Cage to a laser-eyed Sonya Blade, and Scorp Lao, a Kung Lao and Scorpion hybrid brawler, who harpoons foes closer to follow up with a slicing hat attack. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were dropped as alt skins in the future, but the fact that it was achieved through a messy, rushed second half will always bug me.
Mortal Kombat 1 review: Combat, Kameos, and the lovely Fatalities
As implied before, I’m not the type of player who’s keen on spending hours in the practice room fine-tuning combos; I’d rather just be mesmerised by all the cool effects and graphic imagery the franchise has to offer. Mortal Kombat 1 delivers that in spades, with a satisfying weight and crushing thunk behind every punch, kick, or slash, accompanied by a (un)healthy dose of blood spraying across the floor. Its relatively simple controls helped me chain together some incredible combos — the eye-catching types that I never fathomed would be doable with my inexperience in fighting games. That said, I did get severely humbled during my online affair, with opponents pulling off devastating moves that barely offered breathing room or opportunities for trade-offs.
And so, I scurried over to the Tower Mode and tested my skills against a series of increasingly challenging AI kombatants, while working my way up the top of the tower(s) and bagging rewards. Aerial combat seems quite potent this time around, so mastering the art of juggling can easily help hack down one-third of the opponent’s health, as they’re rendered helpless. Special moves can be further amplified by following up each button combination with the press of R2/ RT, effectively dealing more damage and at times, opening enemies up for more attacks.
The Tarkatan Baraka, for instance, has a special Barrage move, in which he whips out his organic blades to perform a hurtful string of slashes that ends with an overhead attack downing the foe. But enhancing the special makes the last attack so impactful, that the opponent bounces back into the air, granting a free chance to get more hits in. With Scorpion, you can perform a fake-out — instead of his regular teleporting special move that ends with a punch, he just won’t follow it up with anything. So, while the enemy instinctively tries to block it, you can catch them by surprise with a grapple or a leg sweep. Of course, there’s a limit to these attacks, which is governed by the Enhance metre at the bottom left corner of the screen. Its three bars deplete with usage, but they can just as easily be refilled by simply trading blows throughout rounds.
Well, what if you’re the one getting constantly molly whopped in matches? That’s where the new Kameo system comes into play, which is essentially a secondary roster of partner fighters you pick at the start of a fight. With just a press of a button (R1/ RB), they can be summoned in for a quick assist — unloading attacks — before dipping back out. To prevent incessant spamming, these come with an exhaustive metre and with enough practice, one can synergise moves so it feels like genuine teamwork — all while retaining the combo. I like the classic design choices for the Kameos, though I see absolutely no reason for some of them to be locked behind as a profile level-up bonus. I largely relied on Kameos for breaking out of combos and occasionally timed them against specific attacks, so they’d sprint into my line of sight and tank the damage instead.
Fatal Blow is a returning feature from Mortal Kombat 11, unlocking when a player’s health drops below 30 percent, giving them a chance at redemption. Timing the prompted button input sees you and your Kameo work together to unleash a barrage of disturbingly gory attacks, with X-ray vision for good measure, as the opponent’s health bar gets heavily drained. Despite the Fatal Blow’s bloody delights, these are separate from the bone-krunching Fatalities the franchise is famous for. Fatalities are triggered when the enemy’s health has reached zero. Hit the required button combination, kick back and watch in horror — or delight — as the shapeshifting Reptile gobbles up people and pukes out their still-alive upper body, drenched in green acidic fluids.
The canine Mileena bites into skulls and devours brains as a quick snack, while her sister Kitana blends foes into a paste with spinning fans. And Hollywood star Johnny Cage prefers to take selfies with half-split faces. By default, all fighters come with one Fatality apiece, but more can be unlocked by simply playing as a specific character and earning Mastery XP for them, which unlocks more finishers, in addition to cosmetics — akin to a battle pass system.
Mortal Kombat 1 review: Invasions
For lore enthusiasts, Mortal Kombat 1 also serves up Invasions, a sizable new single-player mode that’s fashioned like a board game with branching pathways, stretching across Johnny Cage’s luxurious mansion to the Living Forest swarming with ghosts. Expanding on the campaign’s multiversal ending, you’re tasked with protecting your timeline by warding off foreign, alternate versions of MK fighters by progressing through a series of battles and earning rewards such as cosmetics, Koins (in-game currency), concept art, and more. As complexity starts to build, some of the nodes start pitting you against armoured enemies or have fire-spitting bats flying through the arena, whereas others might have you evade fireballs or engage in ‘Test Your Might’ QTE segments to chop down woodblocks, heads, and live chickens.
It’s surely a nice change of pace, but it falters with its incorporation of RPG elements. Finishing challenges helps you level up individual fighters by spending points on specific stats, though I never felt the need to do the same, or even received a decent benefit from it. Most fights felt like easy pickings that I could just steamroll through by spamming a combo until the process eventually got mundane, after which I’d swap to a different fighter and repeat the grind fest. Yes, there are shops with resistance-granting Konsumables, and even cool Talismans that allow ice-based characters like Sub-Zero to hurl an occasional fire projectile, but they didn’t seem game-changing enough for me.
NetherRealm plans to regularly update Invasions mode every six weeks with new locations and challenges, while focusing on new character stories. Hopefully, the mode flourishes and impresses me in time. And as you’d expect with any online game these days, Mortal Kombat 1 also comes with a fair share of microtransactions. Sure, they’re all cosmetics you can gradually grind for, but seeing some of the cooler skins being locked behind a paywall is disheartening.
Mortal Kombat 1 review: Verdict
Ushering a new era in the bone-krunching franchise, Mortal Kombat 1 is a worthy competitor in the teeming fighting game space and serves as a gleefully violent entry point for newcomers to the genre. The reboot doesn’t reinvent its blood-lusting roots in any form but drastically evolves over its predecessors from a visual perspective, delivering excellent particle effects and more gore via shocking Fatalities that look hyper-realistic. There are some noticeable attempts at shaking things up, with the new Kameo system opening room for diverse team-up combos. And while the Invasions mode goes beyond the campaign to offer something new, it soon devolves into a boring grind fest. For a while, it seemed like NetherRealm had once again nailed its story mode, but it drops in quality in the second half when dealing with multiversal mumbo jumbo on a grand scale. Overall, though, it’s a fun entry that’s here to dominate the FGC scene for a good while.
Rating (out of 10): 7
Mortal Kombat 1 was released September 19 on PC, PS5, Xbox Series S/X, and Nintendo Switch.
Pricing starts at Rs. 4,499 for the Standard Edition on Steam for PC. The PlayStation and Xbox versions are priced at Rs. 4,799, while the Switch variant costs Rs. 5,800/ $69.99