Mortal Kombat 1 Review – A Reboot That Enhances More Than it Innovates

    Title: Mortal Kombat 1
    Developer: NetherRealm Studios
    Release Date: September 19, 2023
    Reviewed On: PS5
    Publisher: Warner Bros. Games
    Genre: Fighting

Mortal Kombat has seen its fair share of reboots over the decades, but the latest is making a statement that is more than just an alternate universe or timeline. This here is a complete numerical restart. Boldly titled Mortal Kombat 1, the idea here is to take familiar characters and tropes to create a brand-new story. One where a familiar cast of characters take on new roles and yet retain all the essential tropes. It’s hard to tell who this is for; on one hand, it definitely caters to lifelong fans of the franchise looking for something that is both fresh and yet traditional, but on the other, this is also meant to be the first Mortal Kombat game for a new generation of players.

It needs to be said Warner Bros. rescuing the franchise from bankruptcy was the best thing that could have happened. Sure, from a consumer standpoint, we can bemoan at the microtransactions and pricey DLC model, but there’s no denying how the publisher has provided the game with an utterly lavish production budget. Mortal Kombat 1 is undeniably a graphical showcase for your platform of choice, minus the very strange Switch version, with a file size that will have you considering updating your hard drive. From the graphical prowess to the sheer detail in the cinematography, this is a game that does its rich lore justice with a presentation rivaling that of a feature film.

Mortal Kombat has never looked better than it does here. This extends into its diverse characters and environments, which contain more vibrant and colorful settings. The effect on the experience this richer color palette creates a stronger contrast to all the blood and gore. If all the sunshine and greenery had you worried that the fighting game had gotten soft, then rest assured the violence is still turned all the way up to 11. If anything, the extra lighting brings even more attention to all the gory details.

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The graphics aren’t just for show, as the new game fundamentally shifts the fighting system to add a whole new dimension to the combat flow by allowing the intrusion of Kameo fighters during battle. These secondary fighters provide useful assists to the main fighter in the form of tag team grapple attacks, special moves, combo extensions, and, yes, even double Fatalities. It’s a gameplay mechanic that is simple to execute and yet opens up so many new possibilities by adding layers to the ebb and flow of one-on-one combat. If anything, it feels like a unique interpretation of tag team action seen in games like Marvel vs. Capcom, where extended combos can be used to juggle opponents.

The core combat feels just right here, where the main pause menu will list the essential special moves for each character. The core gameplay can be as simple and close to traditional Mortal Kombat as you want it to be, and yet the advanced move set menu will show you multiple variations of the same basic special moves as well as detailed combo setups. By now, Mortal Kombat has really started to resemble something like Killer Instinct, all while maintaining its trademark fundamentals. The uppercuts are intact as the perfect offense to interrupt the flow of your opponent, and Fatalities continue to provide the post-match spectacle that never gets old. In fact, these gory finishers now have their dedicated training mode, as executing a Fatalities requires swift and precise input and making sure the character is standing at the right distance.

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The core combat essentially further evolves what was established back in Mortal Kombat X (10), and if anything, the new game almost feels like a faster version of Mortal Kombat 11. No doubt the Kameo tag team system adds a new dimension to the core gameplay, and yet the gap between Mortal Kombat 11 and Mortal Kombat 1 still doesn’t feel obvious because it doesn’t play like a new game replacing its predecessor entirely. If anything, both games are very likely to remain in regular rotation in most fighting game circles. Mortal Kombat 1, both in its premise and gameplay systems, offers an alternative experience to Mortal Kombat 11 more than anything else.

Mortal Kombat 1 was built for competitive play with all the essential network features intact, but it’s clear by now that single-player modes are back in demand in fighting games, and there’s no shortage of single-player content here. Street Fighter 6 certainly pushed boundaries in its offline content, but no fighting game executes a story mode quite like Mortal Kombat. At times, the story scenarios come across like a movie that could have aired in theatres. The lavish production is punctuated by brief fighting sequences, which almost feel like a formality and nuisance after a while, as you can’t help but want to enjoy the banter of the story sequences without having to do routine battles.

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As a reboot, a lot of things have changed in the lore, where Liu Kang is the god, and Raiden is both youthful and naive. Sub-Zero and Scorpion get along great as brothers in this continuity, and yet some things somehow remain the same. Johnny Cage is a real star here, a self-aware fourth-wall-breaking comic relief with no shortage of wisecracks and obvious pop culture references. And it also highlights something that Mortal Kombat 1 does better than its immediate predecessors: it has a sense of humor.

Johnny Cage and his shenanigans are even more apparent in the Invasion mode, which is an odd single-player mode presented as a board game where players go from node to node, completing challenges to unlock new content, which includes gallery material and even customizable components for the main cast. The presentation is full of fanfare, with Johnny Cage owning a nice collection of memorabilia paying homage to classic games. This mode is also meant to go through seasonable updates with new challenges and even new locations, so this will be the main single-player mode to get hold of new content and challenges. Did I mention that Homelander from The Boys is set to join the character roster?

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Mortal Kombat 1 is a welcome addition to a thriving fighting game landscape. The new systems build on top of the already established foundation created in Mortal Kombat 11 but in a more refined way. It doesn’t shy away from its gorey roots, and thankfully the Kameo system is far better than the voice cameos heard throughout the campaign. Essentially, this is Mortal Kombat done in a way that embraces more powerful hardware and delivers an experience that lives up to the legacy of the series.

A review copy of the title was provided by the publisher for review purposes

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Jahanzeb Khan

Old SEGA games will go up in value... you'll see!