Mortal Kombat 1 is more than just a reset of the fighting game series’ timeline. After multiple recent entries got by on customizable move lists and a never-ending hoard of stuff to unlock from the Krypt, the latest from NetherRealm Studios represents the first time in a long time that the series is really changing for the better. With a new tag-team mechanic, streamlined combat, decent online offerings, and the brand-new seasonal Invasions mode, Mortal Kombat 1 is the complete package.
Series fans will likely gravitate to the story mode first. What began as a simple tournament between Earthrealm and Outworld 30 years ago has ballooned into a complex weave of timeline tinkering nonsense. This time, however, it seems that Liu Kang has taken to the role of Time Keeper – like a game developer balance-patching reality that nerfs only the most OP villains into obscurity. As such, Shang Tsung is now languishing at the bottom of the MK1 tier list: a peddler of useless tat widely ridiculed by Outworld’s populace. However, a familiar hooded figure essentially tells him he was always destined to be a top-tier sorcerer; it’s just the devs that are holding him back.
Other changes to reality give us a refreshing perspective on some of the best-loved Mortal Kombat characters. No changes are as significant as Outworld itself, which is now a lush party paradise with vibrant trees and fireworks aplenty. Its ruler, Sindel, is alive and well, and it’s clear that she’s a more suitable, benevolent ruler than her husband, Shao Kahn. Sure, it’s sad that Hanzo has been wiped out of existence so that Sub-Zero’s brother can become Scorpion, but all of these new dynamics are a welcome change. There are twists I didn’t see coming, even as a long-time fan of the series, and turns that frankly made my brain melt into a bloody mess. I enjoyed the journey and suspect there may be more to come.
Some familiar faces now also have new Mortal Kombat 1 voice actors, and nearly everyone is fantastic. I particularly enjoyed Vincent Rodriguez III as the new Raiden, conveying the evident nerves of being Earthrealm’s champion, a wildly different performance compared to being the main love interest in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Kelly Hu also impresses, pulling double duty as both the reimagined and frankly kick-ass Madam Bo’ Rai Cho, and the former Umgadi bodyguard turned Sun Do constable Li Mei.
As for the story mode’s gameplay, the structure is the same as previous Mortal Kombat games in that it’s a cinematic narrative with contextual fights spliced in. It does occasionally spice things up with bouts featuring surprise opponents to enjoy. Still, ironically, even though MK games are about duels to the death, they aren’t the best bit here as it’s fairly simple on medium difficulty, but rather, it’s the story that’s the main attraction.
But while the structure is the same, MK1’s fights couldn’t be more different from the overly complex customized loadouts from MK11. Baked into the new experience is the addition of MK1 Kameo characters, which are essentially Marvel vs. Capcom assist fighters, meaning things don’t feel too complex. By combining a single move set for its reasonably sized roster with the diversity offered by Kameo fighters, Mortal Kombat 1 makes its core game engaging without overwhelming those who want to learn without any bloat.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a NetherRealm Studios game without Mortal Kombat 1 Fatalities. They’re just as comically gruesome as I’ve come to expect from the series over the decades. Kameo fatalities are all callbacks to their previous appearances, such as Jax growing to the size of a skyscraper before squishing his dazed opponent with his size 60 boots. Mortal Kombat 1 Brutalities also return and are as hard to execute as ever. Thankfully, the unlocking process for both finishing move types is much more streamlined than the endless grinding Mortal Kombat 11 required its players to endure.
Upon finishing the story mode, it suddenly dawns on me that this is just the appetizer, and the returning arcade-like towers that house character-specific endings are the amuse-bouche. The main course is the brand-new Invasions mode, offering seasonal maps filled with fights against AI-controlled opponents with hazards. It gently eases me into its chaotic battles, giving me plenty of access to items that help in combat. In each map, I encounter Test Your Might and survival challenges, the latter of which tasks me with dodging projectiles. These shake things up a bit, but it’s mostly fighting against a single opponent with hidden bonus conditions or a tower filled with consecutive fights or bouts against bosses.
Given that there is a six-week timeframe to finish the current Season of the Specter, it’s perhaps a bit daunting to plow through every one of the massive maps leading up to the current boss character. I soon get access to extraordinary Towers that refresh weekly, daily, and hourly, each with modifiers. I’m unsure how long Invasions will keep me invested, but the seasonal approach is more engaging than endlessly grinding matches.
Finally, once I have enough of Invasion’s near-endless maps, it’s time for the game’s sweet dessert: the online multiplayer. It’s your standard fare, with various ranked and casual modes. In my time with MK1 online, I witnessed no problems with dropped frames, and all my matches felt smooth and fair. Matchmaking does an excellent job of pairing people of similar skill levels, which is a good sign.
I’m a sucker for weird MK lore, and Mortal Kombat 1 does a great job of keeping that balance in check. The six hours I spent in story mode were exactly what I wanted, and while its gameplay and structure are a touch formulaic, it’s still a good romp. MK1’s combat is the most fun it’s been in some time, cutting down the unnecessary complexity of its recent predecessors to focus on exciting, streamlined gameplay that feels great both online and off. I enjoy Invasions and like the idea of it being a seasonal offering, but I’m also not sure it will retain my interest in subsequent seasons.
Mortal Kombat 1 is the best MK has been since Mortal Kombat X, doing more than enough to win me – a series veteran – over. Newer players may lose track of the story’s wild swings toward the end, but the exhilarating action at its core more than makes up for this. How long it’ll keep your interest depends on how much you like Invasions’ seasons, but it’s still a bloody good time.
Mortal Kombat 1 offers smart changes to the series’ gameplay, an entertaining story that still threatens to baffle newcomers and veterans alike, an online mode that works well on PC, and tons of gore. While the seasonal Invasions mode is a fascinating idea, it’s unclear whether it’ll be enough to retain long-term interest. However, this is still a fantastic, horribly gruesome Mortal Kombat game that’s well worth your time.