Mortal Kombat has been a staple in not only the fighting genre but also video games as a medium since its initial release in August 1992. Midway Games gave us the first finishing move in fighting games in the form of fatalities. The over-the-top gore and general graphic content was used as one of the key games presented to the United States Senate during hearings in 1993 that led to the creation of ESRB ratings. To say that Mortal Kombat has left a mark on video games would feel like a gross understatement.
Over the 31 years since Mortal Kombat first ice-slid onto the screen, the franchise has pushed new mechanics and story elements, for better or worse. With over three decades of history, there are more than a few examples of silly gimmicks, clunky mechanics, and needlessly convoluted and confusing story beats. However, NetherRealm Studios has righted the ship over the last four installments.
Mortal Kombat 1 takes notes and feedback from the previous three games to build a powerful fighting game experience. After the events of Mortal Kombat 11 it seemed like the story was bound to let fans down in one way or another. Instead, this installment takes a fantastic story and builds upon it even further. The fighting mechanics feel smoother and more refined, which makes for an overall better time. All of this is encapsulated in a masterclass of visual graphics, imaginative design, and impeccable audio.
This review contains minor spoilers for Mortal Kombat 1.
Story – Brand New Recipe, Same Klassic Taste
Mortal Kombat 11 set a high bar when it comes to stories in fighting games. Especially for a genre not typically known for its deep and rich stories. Mortal Kombat 11 set up a new universe in which everything from the previous games was completely reset. Mortal Kombat 1 was set to be a new beginning for the franchise. With a clean slate, it was difficult to guess where Mortal Kombat 1 would take things.
This installment took the unorthodox numbering convention to heart and returned to the story first presented in the original game from 1992. But, given the universal reset, things were not exactly the same. Everything was familiar but just off enough to keep a level of excitement and intrigue. The developers were also able to expertly weave classic aspects of the franchise into the story. By new means, they deliver important aspects of characterization. From how Kenshi lost his sight and Mileena’s face to Raiden’s lightning powers and Liu Kang’s iconic bladed hat are all introduced in new ways.
The full story mode of Mortal Kombat 1 will take roughly five hours to complete, depending on the difficulty level and whether or not the player is seeking a completionism playthrough. During this time, the player will find themselves locked in a riveting story of equal parts martial arts and science fiction. All the while, there persists a balance between gore, whimsy, and humor that is a real joy to play through.
Gameplay – Out of This Outworld
It is arguable that gameplay is the most important feature of a fighting game. Though the fluidity and feeling of any game is important, it is, in many ways, the defining characteristic of a fighting game. Mortal Kombat 1 builds upon the previous games to create a series of mechanics that feel excessively intuitive and smooth. There exists a learning curve for each individual character, but the basics are roughly the same. A little trial and error can have anyone playing well enough with anyone in no time. This, coupled with tweaks to blocking and retreating tactics, makes the game a little better-paced and fun than its predecessor. The shift from full-on, tag-team style to Kameo appearances by other fighters as a backup adds plenty of fun combinations to further expand the gameplay.
More Than One Way to Finish Them
Aside from the story mode, there are a few other game modes packaged with Mortal Kombat 1. First, there is a practice mode that lets the player work with any character of their choosing to get better acquainted with their specific move set. Second, the tried-and-true tower mode has returned, putting the player against a string of other kombatants. Third, there is the addition of an Invasion Mode that lets the player use any character to run through a roguelike scenario within the universe.
Fourth, and possibly the most important, is the online mode. Within online are three options: Ranked, Kasual, and King of the Hill. The core problem with online play is that there is still no system to match players based on either ranking or win-loss ratio. Oftentimes times the player may find themselves only being matched with others either wildly beyond or painfully behind their level. Matches in Kasual can be declined without penalty, but that culminates in longer wait times for matches.
Audio and Graphics – Brutality!
NetherRealm Studios has simply outdone themselves with Mortal Kombat 1. As far as visual graphics are concerned, the level of retail and realism is nearly unprecedented. Textures are rich and fleshed out to a truly inspiring degree. The world presented in the game is flooded with over-the-top blood and gore set to a backdrop of fantastical whimsy. The dimples and pores of humans in nearly lifelike, and the more Outworld-based characters have an undeniable level of believability in their development.
The Sounds of Peace and Fury
Engulfing the stunning visuals is a masterclass in audio design. Music ebbs and flows from tranquil scenes and imagery almost pulled directly from Eastern mythology to intense and fast-paced moments of blood and fantasy violence. Some moments are filled with the nearly overstimulating, in a good way, tribal drums and squelching of dismemberment. Others have an air of qigong-style peace and meditation. Festivals sound like festivals with overlapping music, crowded conversations, and the patter of footsteps on the stone walkways. Fights sound like fights, with the slapping of flesh against flesh and more frantic music. Every scene is accompanied by audio that not only matches but enhances what is presented.
All things considered, Mortal Kombat 1 is an engrossing experience for any franchise or genre fan. The story is rich, deep, and even humorous at times. With all of the subtle nods and hints, it could have lasted longer without complaint. Beyond the main story, there are four other ways to play. Though not without its faults, the gameplay and mechanics of Mortal Kombat 1 are a joy. Playing the game is further enriched by outstanding visuals and inspiring audio design. With so much to enjoy and many ways to enjoy it, Mortal Kombat 1 is sure to pull representatives of EarthRealm back time and time again.
Mortal Kombat 1 was reviewed on PS5.