"It's in our blood."
With a tagline like that, it shouldn't be shocking that while the Mortal Kombat timeline has been reset, some things never change. Mortal Kombat 1 — which is actually the 12th mainline game in the long-running franchise, and the fourth from NetherRealm Studios — is positioned as a soft reboot for the series, with the story continuing even as a large number of characters get fresh starts.
It's a great time, with a gorgeously-detailed story mode that lives up to NetherRealm's prior entries. The gameplay is fun and easy to learn, with additions like the Kameo system shaking things up. Multiplayer and customization leave a lot to be desired however, with limited progression and over-the-top microtransactions hindering what you can and can't tweak.
Disclaimer: This review was made possible by a review code purchased by the reviewer. The publisher did not see the contents of this review before publishing.
Mortal Kombat 1 — Story and characters
Mortal Kombat 1
Developer: NetherRealm Studios
Publisher: Warner Bros. Games
Genre: Fighting game
Playtime: 7 hours (story mode)
Platforms: Xbox Series X|S, Windows PC, PS5, Nintendo Switch
Reviewed on: Xbox Series X
Install size: 141GB
Price: $69.99 USD
Release date: Sept. 19, 2023
Mortal Kombat 1 opens untold millennia after the events of the Mortal Kombat 11's Aftermath expansion, with Liu Kang ascended as a fire god and taking control of the timeline. Using its power, Liu Kang seeks to create a more peaceful world, altering the fates of many iconic foes so that some would seek to defend Earthrealm, some would take nobler roads, and some would never rise to power at all. That peace doesn't last, and something is working against Liu Kang to reignite conflict in the realms.
NetherRealm Studios has built its name on delivering the best presentation possible for a fighting game's story mode, and that's just as true here as it was 12 years ago. Across the seven or so hours of the story, you'll get a few hours of detailed cinematics, with every character in the roster getting a moment to shine, so you'll have some highlights throughout the story no matter who your favorites are.
This reset is an opportunity for new possibilities, and while some classic characters immediately fall back into their archetypes, many don't, making the various reveals and twists fun to watch unfold no matter how much of a Mortal Kombat fan you are.
Almost all of the cast deliver great performances, with Megan Fox as Nitara providing a painful exception. While I understand the idea behind this casting — Fox played a succubus in the underrated 2009 horror-comedy Jennifer's Body — the voice direction isn't just off, it's jarringly bad. Fortunately, everyone else is at the top of their game and more than makes up for it.
Mortal Kombat 1 is often just a deeply funny game, and considering the overall tone, that seems to be by design. It strikes a fun balance of delivering a serious story while still introducing some fairly cheesy concepts. Part of me wishes that things were kept completely serious all throughout in order to give this new timeline more space to breathe, but Mortal Kombat has always been a bit goofy at times, and I can't be mad at how Mortal Kombat 1 leans in on that playful factor to deliver some big moments.
Mortal Kombat 1 — Gameplay and customization
The gameplay in Mortal Kombat 1 mostly follows a back-to-basics approach, with each character having a number of special moves that aren't too difficult to learn, but take effort to master. Mortal Kombat's gameplay has always been very punchy, with stiffer movement than games like Street Fighter or Killer Instinct. That's still the case here, but combos flow more naturally, and this is the most pure fun I've ever had with a Mortal Kombat game since the 2011 semi-reboot.
The addition of Kameo fighters shakes things up further, allowing you to call in a character for backup to perform a unique move or interrupt your opponent's combo. The choices of which characters are available for Kameos is confusing — everyone is available in the story mode at different points, but the multiplayer suite offers a far more limited selection — but ultimately it's a neat addition that adds new ways to mix-and-match characters together in order to find the right setup.
In addition to the story mode, there's also the classic Tower challenges to go through, which (per franchise tradition) can be finished in order to unlock various character endings. There's also a new mode called Invasions, which is meant to be taken on after finishing the story. From a top-down view, you can move your character around like you're in a tabletop setting, taking on special challenges such as versions of enemies that have unique enhancements or chaotic variables.
As you progress, you can improve your stats, unlock special Talismans that offer extra abilities, and more. It's a surprisingly complex mode and can be confusing at times, but it's something that you can pour dozens of hours into if you're hungry for additional challenge.
Where Mortal Kombat 1 falls a fair bit flat is in customization, which takes a huge step back compared to other NetherRealm titles. You can change out different palettes for characters, which includes alternate costumes as well as color schemes for said costumes. There's also gear customization, which means altering one particular aspect of a character, such as Kenshi's sword, Mileena's twin sai, or Johnny Cage's shades.
It's a far cry from being able to tweak every aspect of a character's appearance like with Injustice 2, or even the numerous gear options that were present in Mortal Kombat 1. It relying mainly on various skins does fit the "back-to-basics" approach that much of the game falls under, but therein lies another problem. While some of these can be unlocked with in-game currency, some can't. Mortal Kombat 1 follows an extremely aggressive monetization model, where a handful of special skins aren't available unless you buy a unique currency that isn't unlocked in-game.
It's inconsistent at best and obnoxious at worst, and there's no good explanations of why some skins can be bought with currency you earn from playing online but others can't. This would be somewhat understandable in a free-to-play game but Mortal Kombat 1 is $70 at launch, with a $40 character pack. If you didn't preorder and you'd like to play Shang Tsung, that's another $8.
Mortal Kombat 1 — Visuals and audio
Mortal Kombat is downright gorgeous, as long you're playing on an Xbox Series X|S, PS5, or PC that meets the requirements. The Nintendo Switch version is a bit different, and the struggles over there are well-documented.
Playing on Xbox Series X, the immaculate lighting makes every scene seem hyper-realistic, and the detailed character models stand out with an aesthetic that manages to be stylish without ever seeming too busy or visually noisy. The star of the game is the performance capture tech, lending incredibly believability to every actor and actress as they give speeches or taunt their foes. Seriously, it's some of the best I've ever seen, competing with the biggest-budget games from any other publisher.
Across hundreds of fights, I've never felt any noticeable slowdown or framerate drops, and things seem to be a smooth 60 FPS all throughout. Likewise, loading times are also not a nuisance, with short 5 to 7-second loads at the longest when resuming a particular checkpoint in the story mode.
Mortal Kombat 1 — Accessibility and approachability
Mortal Kombat 1 has a full suite of accessibility options that players can use to adjust their experience, such as a dedicated screen reader, a descriptive voice for everything that happens on screen, sound-based cues for fighters depending on how far away from each other they are, subtitle options, and the option to turn off the button-mashing "Test your might" segments in the story mode.
There's also extensive tutorial modes, with dedicated guides on blocking, combos, and other concepts that show button input timing and allow for hours of practice without having to play online. Breaking into fighting games for the first time is hard, but Mortal Kombat 1 provides the tools to enable anyone to succeed.
Mortal Kombat 1 — Should you buy?
It's unfortunate then that multiplayer customization and progression doesn't feel as rewarding or as deep as it could. There's plenty of entertainment to be had playing online, but if you want to give your main(s) a Kustom look, you'll have to cough up even more cash. Throw in the upcoming characters, and you'll be spending a fair bit of money on Mortal Kombat 1.
Still, Mortal Kombat 1 is a lot of fun. The story mode is NetherRealm at its best, with funny moments, great pacing, and a ton of action. Most of the performances are top-notch, while the visual detail here puts Mortal Kombat 1 up as one of the best-looking games available right now.
If you're in for the story mode and having laid-back fun, Mortal Kombat 1 is absolutely worth buying, no matter if you're a longtime fan or someone who wants to jump in for the first time.
Mortal Kombat 1
A new generation of Kombat kicks off with Mortal Kombat 1. While the monetization and kharacter kustomization leaves a lot to be desired, the story is gorgeous and silly, while the game players well no matter your skill level...as long as you're on Xbox Series X|S, PC, or PS5, and not Nintendo Switch.