If there was a Mount Rushmore for fighting games, you can be sure that either Scorpion, Sub-Zero, or Liu Kang’s face would be on that rock. For more than 30 years, Mortal Kombat has been ripping spines and severing heads, and the latest, Mortal Kombat 1, represents perhaps the most dramatic gameplay shift the series has ever seen. The new Kameo system offers an unparalleled level of player expression for the series, allowing you to essentially break the usual rules of the game by giving characters tools that they weren’t designed to have, resulting in a uniquely dynamic fighting system that allows for some truly wild combos and set ups. Everything built around that system apart from the predictably excellent story mode could’ve used some more polish and refinement, but even with those blemishes, Mortal Kombat 1 more than lives up to its gory legacy.
If there’s one thing you can applaud Netherrealm for in recent years, it’s how each new Mortal Kombat game since MK9 has played dramatically different from the last without sacrificing that very distinct Mortal Kombat feel. So it’s not surprising that, even before we get to the crazy Kameo system, Mortal Kombat 1 makes some drastic changes from MK11 that really set it apart. For starters, it returns the meter management to just one meter that governs enhanced special moves, breakers, and now jump cancels out of uppercuts; fatal blows are still around, but are no longer invincible on start up; krushing blows are gone completely; character variations are gone; wake up attacks and wake up rolls are gone; every character is now able to do much more damage without even spending any meter thanks in part to a new air combo system; and thank the Lord, blocked crouching jabs are now punishable with crouching jabs of your own, making them much less spammable than before. These are all good, smart changes that make the action in MK1 feel fresh, yet familiar, while addressing some of the pain points that the fighting game community had developed with MK11.
The biggest new addition, though, is that Kameo system. For the first time in a Mortal Kombat game, you choose a second character that you can call upon as an assist during a fight. Your Kameo is governed by their own meter, and every time you call them in you use up half of it (or in some cases, like Goro’s powerful unblockable stomp assist, the whole thing). And it’s great that every Kameo has at least three assist moves, which adds multiple new tools to the repertoire of any character you choose to play.
Every Kameo has at least three assist moves, which adds multiple new tools.
So, for example, let’s say I’m playing as Baraka, who notably does not have any overheads or lows in the middle of any of his combo strings. That would make him a character you can pretty safely just block low against. Unless… I add Scorpion as my Kameo character, who has an overhead as one of his moves. So now there’s an additional layer to my offense that I can use to try and open up my opponent in a way I wouldn’t have been able to before. Or I could pick Frost and use her low hitting freeze attack in neutral to try and catch my opponent off guard and start up a damaging combo.
Other Kameos can be used to extend combos that typically would not be extendable, convert respectable damage off of small hits that normally wouldn’t be convertible, and some even have more specialized uses. Maybe you give your character a teleport, or a way to become invulnerable to projectiles, or a way to quickly retreat to fullscreen distance. I’m not one who generally enjoys assists in fighting games, since they’re usually accompanied by tag systems and I’m more of a 1v1 fighting game fan, but their implementation here is extremely well thought out and does nothing but improve upon the already solid foundation that MK1 stands on.
That said, Mortal Kombat has always had a very particular feel to its gameplay – something that can be chalked up to the dial-a-combo system, having to hold a button to block, and some general stiffness in the movement – and the more I play other fighting games, the harder it gets to come back to. It’s stuff that I eventually got used to, but it took some time to gel with MK1’s unique style of 2D fighting. Once I did though, it was clear that Mortal Kombat 1’s actual combat is as strong as it’s ever been.
It Has Begun
The story mode this time around is a true new beginning for the series, and that’s uniquely satisfying. This isn’t just a timeline reset like Mortal Kombat 9 – the entire history of Mortal Kombat has been re-written: familiar characters get brand-new looks, backstories, relationships, and powers. It picks up literal eons after the events of Mortal Kombat 11, in which newly minted Fire God Liu Kang used the Hourglass of Time to reshape the universe as he saw fit. Earthrealm is at peace, Outworld is ruled fairly by Queen Sindel, and while the Mortal Kombat tournament between realms still exists, it’s more of a tournament of pride and honor as opposed to a tool for realm invasion. Eventually that peace is threatened by outside forces that I won’t get into, but suffice to say, after a few very chill and lighthearted opening chapters with the supportive dad Fire God Liu Kang, cheering on his plucky new champions in their first martial arts tournament, things get very real very quick and the stakes get raised in all the usual ways.
Above all, I loved seeing these new takes on classic kombatants.
Above all, I loved seeing these new takes on classic kombatants, especially those who have historically been relegated to minor roles. Baraka and Reptile, for instance, never really got to be anything more than henchmen in previous games, but in Mortal Kombat 1 they’re major players with their own chapters and defining story moments. Plus, the writing is full of plenty of cheeky in-universe references that felt like nice rewards for being a longtime fan of the series.
Netherrealm fighting games have always been the best at delivering story modes that are essentially the video game equivalent of absurd popcorn movies, and Mortal Kombat 1 is no exception to that rule. The campaign has no new gameplay innovations to offer, but its six hours are big, bombastic, well-acted, and ridiculous in all of the right ways. If that sounds familiar, it’s because I said virtually the same thing three years ago in my Mortal Kombat 11 review about its single-player story mode. And if I had reviewed Mortal Kombat X, Injustice 2, Injustice 1, Mortal Kombat 9, or Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe, I could’ve said the same for those as well. There seems to be an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” philosophy at play with Neatherrealm’s designers, so if you liked those as much as I did, you’ll probably enjoy this one too.
While I wouldn’t say anything needs outright fixing, there’s definitely some room for refinement that still hasn’t been capitalized on. Every chapter just throws you into the shoes of a new character without a hint of guidance on what’s special about them – what their combo strings are, their launchers, or their special moves, for instance. I had to learn on the fly by bringing up the move list, trying things out string by string, special move by special move, and by the time I’d finished achieving a base level of competency with a character, the chapter’s over and I’ve moved on to the next. This mode would benefit so greatly from optional, short, developer-led character guides that can get you up to speed on the fundamentals of a character before you have to spend the next 30 minutes playing as them – especially when its tutorials are so good outside of the story mode.
Invaders of the Realms
Beyond the cinematic story mode, the big new single-player mode for Mortal Kombat 1 is Invasions, which combines the themed environments and rewards of The Krypt, some light RPG elements from older Konquest modes, and the quick back-to-back gimmicky battles of the Towers of Time, packaged in the form of a virtual game board. It’s a mishmash of ideas that sound good on paper but, unfortunately, tries to be a few too many things all at once.
Invasions tries to be a few too many things all at once.
Here’s how it works: Almost every invasion “board” is made up of a series of spaces that each have a themed fight assigned to them, like a fight against Reptile on a space called “Look to La Luna,” or a fight against a super powered Kung Lao on a space marked “Kung Wow.” You move around the board conducting an exhausting grind of clearing repetitive battles against enemies that don’t put up much of a fight, collecting a slower-than-usual drip of worthwhile rewards, finding keys to unlock gates, and completing challenges like Test Your Might or survival minigames, until you reach the end. Along the way you might find themed towers where you must fight in a series of battles, with one loss sending you back to the bottom, or you could be ambushed in between spaces and have to fight a challenging opponent with unique modifiers. But even those are often pushovers. For the vast majority of encounters I went into auto pilot mode with Li Mei, doing the same launching combo that would be risky against a smarter opponent, regardless of who I was fighting or what the modifiers were, only occasionally being forced to consider the RPG elements in the chapter-ending boss battles that dramatically power up one of the kombatants in unique ways.
Sure, there’s a lot of extra stuff going on underneath the hood in Invasion mode. Every character and Kameo has a damage type, with a complicated type advantage/disadvantage chart, there are talismans that can be upgraded to provide a variety of different status bonuses, and relics that frequently come with both a positive and a negative bonus to weigh against each other. But that’s all just a lot of complexity that doesn’t really add any value to the actual gameplay. Late game boards up the difficulty and force you to engage more with the RPG mechanics, but that’s not much more fun either, since Mortal Kombat 1 is at its best when there are no gimmicks involved. I’m happy to have the option to play the occasional silly match with wild modifiers and themed challenges, but Invasions strings too many of these fights together and expects you to play through them all in order to unlock many of the best cosmetic options for its characters. That turns it into a chore.
Mortal Kombat 1 is at its best when there are no gimmicks involved.
However, one thing that MK1 does get right is that the more you play with a character, the more you unlock for that specific character. And there is a ton to unlock for everybody. There’s new gear, skins, taunts, brutalities, and even fatalities that come with every level up. Granted, you’ll probably be able to find the input command for the locked fatalities before you unlock the in-game instructions if you search online, but nonetheless, you’re rewarded well for maxing out a character’s progression track.
One aspect that Mortal Kombat 1 does better than just about any other fighting game out there right now is its tutorial. It continues to build upon the great work done in Mortal Kombat 11, expertly explaining everything from the most basic controls to intuitive breakdowns of system mechanics, to highly practical tips that outright explain in detail how to approach pressuring your opponent, what to do when they’re knocked down, how to frame trap, how to jail, what all of those things mean, and plenty more. It’s the kind of comprehensive tutorial that all fighting game developers should include, and all fighting game fans should play all the way through. I do wish that same level of commitment was also applied to character specific tutorials, but there are seven combo trials for each character at least, which is nice to have.
Online is mostly unchanged from MK11, for better and for worse.
On the subject of online, it’s mostly unchanged from Mortal Kombat 11, for better and for worse. The netcode is good, King of the Hill is back, and Kombat League returns with seasonal rewards for achieving high ranks in the form of currencies, skins, gear, profile pictures and more. It remains a great ranking system, one that generally succeeds at matching you with appropriate fighters and rewards your investment with unique prizes that are worthwhile because they mean something more than just a skin you got from a random chest pull.
That said, it’s still incredibly frustrating that Mortal Kombat 1 does not let you matchmake while in another mode. Mortal Kombat is pretty much the only major modern fighting game franchise now that doesn’t let you do this. Not only that, but there’s no way to create a custom room with multiple slots for multiple matches to go on simultaneously, and when you join in on a match in progress, you have to wait for the match to finish and just stare at a blank screen. This might have been fine back in 2019, but the bar has been raised, and Netherrealm feels like they’re getting left behind by the competition. Crossplay is coming down the line, but it’s also disappointing that it’s not available right out of the gate.
One thing that can’t be overstated is how gorgeous Mortal Kombat 1 looks. The character models already looked incredible in Mortal Kombat 11, but here they’re taken a step even further towards photorealism without ever causing that uncanny valley feeling. The real star though are the stages — the environmental team at Netherrealm has truly outdone itself with some of the most gorgeous vistas and disgusting looking dungeons the genre has ever seen. Not to mention those fatalities, which are extra gruesome this time around.
Mortal Kombat 1 is another great entry in this legendary series, but it’s not one without issues. The new Kameo system is excellent, there are smart changes to the fighting mechanics that address many of the fundamental issues that cropped up over Mortal Kombat 11’s life, and predictably, the fantastic single-player story mode that continues to be the gold standard of the genre. But certain elements of online play are starting to feel dated, and Invasions mode is not nearly engaging enough to hold my attention for as long as is needed to unlock a majority of the goodies hidden behind its many treasure chests and gimmicky battles. Still, Mortal Kombat 1 marks a new beginning for the franchise, and it’s a very exciting launching point for the next era.