Mortal Kombat has morphed and changed many times in its 30 years of existence. But through its various iterations–from 2D to 3D, with beat-em-up spin-offs and even a reboot in 2011–its identity has remained consistent with its two core tenets: scandalous and over-the-top violence, and dark, dire, and melodramatic storytelling. After playing about 90 minutes of Mortal Kombat 1, it’s clear that NetherRealm Studios wants to stay true to this identity while completely reinventing itself. It has done this, most notably, with an emphasis on a more lighthearted tone, albeit one that is still absolutely drenched in guts and bone fragments, and a new twist on gameplay.
Mortal Kombat 1 is a fresh start for its universe, its characters, and even its combat. All of this is apparent in the first chapter of its new story mode, which is centered around a young Raiden (no longer the god of thunder in this new timeline) and Kung Lao, both of whom we get to see in a year zero-like setting as farmers in a small rural village. The game takes its time to show the relationship between the two, which is built on a sibling-like love and rivalry. That is, until things go awry and the Lin Kuei, a clan of assassins that is being led by Smoke, show up and demand protection money from a local restaurant. Of course, Kung Lao and Raiden step in to protect their turf. It’s also in these brief moments we’re given a glimpse of some new and not-so-prominent characters of the MK universe like Madame Bo, the town cook and resident martial art master, who has been teaching Raiden and Kung Lao. She’s old, quirky, and tough as nails, and the moment she started thrusting punches and kicks in Smoke’s face, I instantly fell in love with her (fingers crossed she’s a playable character in the final roster).
By Mortal Kombat standards, the introduction felt reserved and grounded. Where we’re often hurled into epic battles of conjured magic projectiles and fantasy scheming for the fate of Outworld, in the opening moments of Mortal Kombat 1, I was fighting as a Kung Lao without his razor-rimmed hat, upending my tried-and-true strategy of throwing it across the screen to be met with a satisfying spray of blood and gore. Don’t be fooled, however, as Fatal Blows still displayed x-rays of anatomically impossible-to-survive injuries, with bones shattering into dust and organs exploding like balloons. It’s just that the moment-to-moment cutscenes threaded a more playful tone, like the old man sitting at the bar while a fight ensues, calmly plucking a piece from one of Sub-Zero’s ice spears and dropping it in his drink. It’s uncharacteristic of MK’s usual fate-of-the-world-hangs-in-the-balance drama. In one scene, Kung Lao throws his straw hat at Sub-Zero, only for it to bounce off into the air and gently float to the floor. It was charmingly slapstick–and there wasn’t a drop of blood in sight.
The actual feel of combat itself has received a welcomed overhaul that makes Mortal Kombat 1 feel like the most fluid it’s ever been thanks to its newly reworked combo system. Now, combos feel less restrictive to string together, which is leveraged well by the return of aerial combos (which hasn’t been seen in the franchise since its 3D era) and the game’s all new Kameo system. Stringing together a series of hits on the ground, followed by a juggle in the air, made for satisfying combos that felt as cool to input as they were to watch. It didn’t feel like it required a great deal of studying the move list to pull off, either. All of this is elevated by calling in a Kameo, a new feature that sends in another character to briefly assist you, with a simple button press to provide an extra hit or two in the chain. While each individual piece of the combat puzzle is easy to get to grips with, executing it all together showed off the complexity, fluidity, and depth of Mortal Kombat 1’s combo system, which is a much-needed step forward for the franchise. While Mortal Kombat is no stranger to combos, its emphasis has always been on its special moves, which series creator Ed Boon has touted as a strength due to the simplicity of their inputs. And although special moves are still essential, Mortal Kombat 1 has a much bigger toolset, which it very smartly introduces to the player by putting its combo and Kameo system front-and-center, while limiting the use of special moves in the early stages of its story mode.
When getting a little hands-on time with Kameos such as Kano and Cyrax, I was able to get a brief glimpse at just how deep and strategic character pairings can get. Kano, for example, utilized his signature laser eye to interrupt characters from across the screen, which is an excellent accompaniment to characters like Johnny Cage, who doesn’t have projectiles this time around. Cyrax, meanwhile, can briefly stop an opponent in their tracks with his net projectile, akin to Sub-Zero’s freeze. This mixing and matching of two character rosters broadens MK’s toolkit to exciting heights. Also, playing with Kameos just looks and feels awesome. Seeing them bounce in and out of the background in the midst of your combos and special moves added a sense of organized chaos on screen that matched the over-the-top cinematic nature that I only really got to see in the game’s cutscenes.
In the preview build I played, the Kameos I got to experiment with were Frost, Cyrax, Kano, Sonya Blade, and Jax Briggs. As for the main roster, I had access to Sub-Zero, Kenshi, Kitana, Liu Kang, Johnny Cage, Kung Lao, and Li Mei. The story mode, however, only allowed me to play as Kung Lao, with Raiden as the default Kameo. It was in the game’s all-new Invasions mode where I really got to experiment with the other characters and Kameos.
Invasions is the debut of a new single-player mode. Similar to MK11’s Towers of Time mode, Invasions mode is a series of battles under a wide array of challenges and objectives, with each fight featuring different circumstances for the player to overcome. Completing these fights will award the player with a random loot drop of items and medallions that change the attributes of your fighter, like giving Kung Lao Scorpion’s spear, for example. Additionally, you’re rewarded with cosmetics to change your character’s appearance, and currency to upgrade items and purchase more. From match to match, you’ll work your way across a map in board game-like fashion, encountering test-your-might style minigames and sometimes being ambushed (Pokemon-style) by special fights that have challenges like defeating a series of characters consecutively.
On paper, Invasions is an amalgamation of different modes seen in previous MK games, most notably an evolution of MK11’s Towers of Time, with a sprinkle of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate’s World of Light mode, which also saw players collecting items, leveling up gear, and fighting under special circumstances. The difference with Invasions mode is that it’s an ever-growing service that will feature seasons of content for players to return to. However, there was a sense of aimlessness to the mode in the brief time I had with it. I found myself meandering fight-to-fight with no clear objective other than to accumulate currency and loot items. This wasn’t helped by the slow movement speed of my character between matches, and too often did I find myself at a dead end, having to sluggishly move my character back from where I came. Nonetheless, I also don’t think the 40 minutes I played was enough time to understand the potential of its depth. There seems to be a lot there, but its early stages weren’t enough to see the scope it promised as a games-as-a-service mode.
Invasions mode aside, the most exciting prospect from my hands-on time with Mortal Kombat 1 is the way it’s preserving its history while not shying away from trying to elevate the franchise to new heights with some new ideas. The classic Mortal Kombat fan in me was overjoyed at seeing the addition of deep-cut characters like Lei Me, or Sonya Blade, Kano, and Jax Briggs’s iconic outfits as a cool nod to the series’ past. Meanwhile, MK1 is seemingly doing a lot to position itself as one of the most progressive in the franchise thanks to its new combo and Kameo system, as well as its overall lighter tones (at least from what I’ve seen in its opening chapter). Even the menu screens are lighter, touting a bright and colorful vista as its backdrop–a stark contrast to MK11’s pitch-black menu screens and doomy, gothic-like music. One could even say that the future of Mortal Kombat is the brightest it’s ever been. We’ll have to find out how bright it is when the game releases on September 14.