The name is a bit rich, given the eleven previous Mortal Kombats and numerous spin-offs, but Mortal Kombat 1 doesn’t just reboot the series, but the entire cosmos behind it too. Perhaps it’s the only way to deal with the ridiculous, tangled storylines that have built up over thirty years of blood-splattered kung-fu fighting and brutal fatality moves. Reset the universe, rework the cast of heroes and villains, and let the endless brawling start again from scratch.
It's not a bad idea, even if the actual game still looks and feels broadly similar to 2015’s Mortal Kombat X and 2019’s Mortal Kombat 11, which themselves went hard on nostalgia for the series’ Nineties glory days. If you’re of an age to remember the good times of dodgy digitised video graphics, killer combos and vanquished fighters having their skulls and spinal cords ripped out, Mortal Kombat serves up much the same. Only it now comes with astonishing, cinematic visuals and a much smoother fighting style with more finesse. Two fighters enter the arena, and only one leaves – or at least leaves with all vital organs in roughly the same place.
Some of the unnecessary mechanics of previous games have been stripped away, to be replaced by the new Kameo system. This allows you to select a backup fighter who can swing into the arena, and help you out with the odd throw, grapple or eyeball-popping, skull-crushing blow. It’s a neat way to work around the weaknesses of certain fighters to, say, aerial attacks, or open things up for a string of punishing blows. What’s more, when you’re at your weakest, you and your Kameo chum can join forces for a scene-stealing ‘fatal blow’, sometimes pulling a last-breath victory from the jaws of certain defeat.
It all makes for some komplex, sorry, complex gameplay, and you’ll need the excellent tutorial mode to make much headway. Yet with its core moves, blocks, counter-attacks and special move combos, you’re free to put together awesome strings of powerful kicks and punches, augmented with slashing, blasting, freezing, acid-spitting, lung-piercing, fireball throwing and plain old lightning magic. Of course, you’ll need sharp reflexes and perfect timing to avoid getting steamrollered yourself. Positioning and developing a sense of when to strike and when to block is absolutely key.
Pulp fiction with a fatal punch
The best way to learn is through the brilliant story mode, which follows on from recent Mortal Kombats by delivering a ridiculous pulp fantasy storyline with sky-high production values and lashings of gore. For millennia, the Mortal Kombat universe has been held in peace through a once-per-century fighting tournament between the humans of the Earthrealm and the sorcerors and monsters of the Outworld. In the early stages, four heroes are recruited for this sacred task. Yet dark forces now conspire to fuel a war between the two realms and seize the power that was stolen from them when the series’ cosmos was reset.
It's nonsense, but hugely enjoyable nonsense, as the action skips from Chinese teahouses to Hollywood mansions to imperial palaces, evil laboratories and the forests of an alien world. The script goes big on humour, mostly at the expense of fan-favourite, fading action movie star Johnny Cage. Cleverly, the campaign mixes up its cast of heroes to focus in on minor characters, often previously portrayed as villains, giving them a chance to shine. By the time you’ve made it through six to eight hours of fisticuffs and cinematics, you’ll have a solid grasp of different fighting styles and a growing repertoire of combos.
Even with the story mode done, the single-player action isn’t over. Each of the game’s 22 core characters has its own storyline to beat in Tower mode, taking you through a series of bouts against arch-enemies and rivals. Then there’s the brand new (and slightly odd) Invasion mode; a kind of boardgame where your hero explores the map, fighting, unlocking doors and collecting upgrades including weird and wonderful costumes and accessories with which you can kit out your favourite champions, alongside concept art and new fatality moves.
At the moment, Invasion doesn’t quite hold together, with the board game elements and upgrades doing little more than break up the flow of the action. However, new boards will be released as seasonal updates, so there’s a chance it could improve with time.
As with any fighting game, the real long-term draw is going to be multiplayer, which seems smooth with effective skill-matching and tournament features should you want to prove your skills online. Recent Mortal Kombats have built up a strong community, so there’s hope that Mortal Kombat 1 will do the same.
Mortal Kombat faces stiff competition, not least from this year’s superb Street Fighter 6. It’s not quite as easy to get into as Capcom’s mighty brawler, or as smooth and polished in its fighting. Yet there’s no denying the impact of its slick, surprisingly deep fighting system, or the punch of its jaw-dropping visuals. And it’s great to see all the old faces, from the ice-blasting ninja, Sub-Zero, to the master of lightning, Raiden, revamped and looking great. It’s a series that could coast on sheer nostalgia, but that’s not the Mortal Kombat way. It’s here to kick ass and splash some blood and guts around, and it’s far from ready to retire.
Mortal Kombat 1 is available on Xbox Series S/X, PS5, Nintendo Switch and PC