Mortal Kombat 1 has had more anticipation attached to it than previous NetherRealm Studios works. One reason is that it breaks the pattern of an Injustice game every other release. The other reason is that the time between this and the studio’s previous game was twice as long as usual.
With so much to live up to, I’m happy to say MK1 has exceeded my expectations in many ways. There are some caveats and room for concern, but I can’t deny how much fun I’m having and how much this entry already stands out across this huge franchise.
Mortal Kombat 1 Review: We’re in the Right Timeline
MK1‘s gameplay is a little different than you might expect. While the foundation of Mortal Kombat 11 is present, there have been enough changes to make this new timeline feel, well, new.
Those who played the previous entry will notice some big departures. Both the offensive and defensive gauges have been replaced in favor of a single meter. Krushing Blows and Variations have also been removed, leaving the fighters with a more cohesive and easy-to-remember move set.
That’s not to say some things haven’t been added. Making a return from Mortal Kombat: Armageddon are air combos. After so many entries that have been purely ground-focused, it’s exciting to have air combos again and to see them fully realized.
The biggest change is the Kameo fighter system. After choosing your main fighter, you’ll have to pick a Kameo fighter to join you as an assist. There’s some small overlap between characters — namely Kung Lao, Sub-Zero, and Scorpion — but this smaller roster is mostly made up of fan favorites and surprise picks from older titles. I find these to be an excellent replacement for variations and a fun extra layer to experiment with.
When it comes to the general speed of Mortal Kombat 1, it feels quite similar to its predecessor, if not a bit slower at times. One of the best examples of this is during combos, as you might be forced to watch a slow but lengthy combo, unable to do anything else. That might sound terribly unfun to some, and I would typically count myself among that audience. But Mortal Kombat 1 makes it work, and I think a big reason for that is the number of options.
Fighting feels a lot less restrictive this time around. By simplifying the general gameplay and adding air combos and the Kameo system, the end result is a refreshing and deep experience no matter which fighter you choose to play.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Mortal Kombat title without the infamous fatality and brutality finishers returning. While the latter are plenty grim, I was pleasantly surprised to see the return of more ridiculous fatalities. That’s not to say there aren’t some nasty kills here, but there are quite a few over-the-top ones with plenty of skeletons and bones instead of entrails.
There’s simply no way I write a Mortal Kombat 1 review and not mention the visuals. MK 1 manages to surpass the prior title’s visual fidelity, all while using a more expansive color palette. With the series and, most especially its recent entries, filled with stages saturated by dark or muted colors, it’s striking to see backgrounds with beautiful flora and big pops of color.
Even night versions of stages have something bright to help them stand out. It makes sense that this new timeline wouldn’t be overly dreadful, though. For the first time in a long while, I found myself enjoying all of the stages.
Something I admittedly wasn’t expecting was an incredible selection of music tracks. From the intense modern BGM in Cage Mansion to the traditionally Eastern-sounding Wu Shi Academy, every theme is a treat. Along with the visuals, it makes for stand-out stages, and that’s not something I can say much for the last two games. All of this is further highlighted when playing through the campaign.
NetherRealm Studios has made a name for itself when it comes to cinematic story modes, and it’s only improved with each subsequent game. As it stands, this is probably my favorite MK story mode in recent memory — and potentially my favorite throughout the entire series.
With that said, one of my main criticisms is how many fighters are thrown to the wayside after a couple of chapters. There’s also a lot of exposition to introduce them, and for many, they’ve been given more character than their previous incarnations. The lengthy introductions are welcomed since this is a new timeline.
Indeed, new players need to learn who these fighters are, and even fans who started playing over the last few entries might be at a loss when it comes to some of the legacy fighters who haven’t been on a roster for nearly two decades. It just feels like a waste to build them up and then not do anything satisfying with them.
There are also a few noticeable convenient plot moments that stretch logical reasoning — even by MK standards — to push the story along. Some of the previously mentioned exposition can also be pretty heavy-handed and slow the pacing down.
All of those issues are offset by a proper film-level presentation. Barring a couple of minor characters, so much of the voice acting and character performances are fantastic. The cinematography is also phenomenal, with plenty of fun and gorgeous shots. Best of all, the cinematic fight scenes are a huge improvement compared to the last entry, and I truly felt like I was watching what a bona fide Mortal Kombat movie should be.
The story itself is also simply a lot of fun. It’s awesome to see new takes on familiar characters or to watch them develop into who we expect them to be. I’ll also say that as someone who grew up with the sometimes lesser-appreciated 3D era of the series, it is incredibly satisfying to see so many characters and references to those games within the story mode.
Outside of the campaign and the classic character towers, which feature arcade-like endings, the new single-player mode to be introduced is Invasions. Fans will recognize it as incorporating elements from both The Krypt and the Towers of Time modes, albeit with a board game map and lite-RPG elements. It’s expected to be updated on a seasonal basis and revolve around a character invading from a different timeline.
Unfortunately, the novelty wears off pretty quickly. A somewhat complicated elemental type system and an array of talismans and relics to equip don’t shake things up enough. I’ve always enjoyed the wacky gimmicks that these sorts of modes have had, but some of the gimmicks here fall more on the annoying side. Covering the stage in smoke that interrupts all actions every few seconds isn’t very fun. Turning the entire screen black is even worse.
I think my biggest issue is simply with how slow and monotonous it all feels. Any slightly annoying gimmick is amplified by enemies having super armor and increasingly bigger health pools. Even outside of fighting, it’s simply not fun watching your character slowly jog from node to node on a board. I like the idea and themes behind it, but I dread the idea of playing it more once a new season is out.
Online is regrettably mixed. The Kasual and King of the Hill modes work fine enough, although the occasional bug sours the experience. Kombat League has fared a little worse for me, as I’ve had a bit more bugs and disconnects there. Making matters worse is that a set is a best three-out-of-five system, so you’ll be stuck dealing with any bad connection matches for quite a bit.
The lack of crossplay at launch is also disappointing. It’s expected to be added in the future, although we don’t know if it will be full crossplay or as restricted as before.
Aside from fighting other players online, a big draw is to earn gear and customize your fighters. This has also been quite simplified compared to the previous entry, with each fighter having one swappable gear piece and different palettes (skins and colors) to choose from. I think this will come across as a detriment to some. Admittedly, I’m okay with it, as I felt that the previous system was overly detailed at times.
That just leaves the Character Mastery system, which I feel is a great addition. Simply put, you’ll unlock many character-related things the more you play them. Gear, palettes, brutalities, and even fatalities are slowly made available as you play someone more often. It’s a big improvement compared to the grind or luck needed to unlock them in MK11 and a simple way to keep me coming back for more.
Mortal Kombat 1 Review — The Bottom Line
- Refreshing gameplay.
- Gorgeous Visuals.
- Music has personality again.
- A fantastic story campaign.
- Invasions mode is a drag to play.
- Online needs to iron out some bugs.
As someone who wasn’t the biggest fan of Mortal Kombat 11, I’m happy with how much fun I’m having with Mortal Kombat 1. The stages all stand out well, the story mode is a blast, and the characters are as enjoyable as ever. Making this an assist-based fighter with Kameos was a worthy gamble.
Unfortunately, the new single-player mode has quite a few annoying elements, and online play needs some fixing. The good news is that both of these can be tuned and fixed in the future. Even as they are now, I still think this is a fantastic time to jump into the new timeline and crush some literal skulls.
[Note: Warner Bros. Games provided the Xbox Series copy of Mortal Kombat 1 used for this review.]
Mortal Kombat 1 Review: We’re in the Right Timeline
Mortal Kombat 1 isn't a flawless victory, but it feels close to one.What Our Ratings Mean