When the credits rolled at the end of Mortal Kombat 11 and the future of a rebooted timeline was clear as crystal, I'll admit I was equal parts excited and worried. The Mortal Kombat universe is this gigantic, gruesome box packed to bursting with lore-drenched realms and dozens of playable characters, all stuffed down with years of skin, spine, and spindly bits. Surely, there are only so many times you can tell the story of the Earthrealm gang wandering into the blender that is the Mortal Kombat tournament before even the most devoted of MK fans dream of pastures new.
By the time Mortal Kombat 1 was announced, these fears subsided. Lui Kang is back with all his pals back, sure. But it looks so different! He's refreshed, and characters even my dad could name are rocking remixed designs! Mortal Kombat has wiped the slate clean in an interesting way! At last!
And, in playing it, it's clear that the game is certainly a pleasant mix of new and old – for better, and for worse.
As you'd expect in a triple-A, 2D fighting game, you'll be punching and kicking your way through a story mode, a limited spread of online modes, a collection of offline PvE towers, and the brand-new Invasion mode which you can only access once you hit credits. All-in-all, a standard package in terms of quantity. But quality, that's where things get especially interesting.
Mortal Kombat 1's story mode carries on the legacy established with Mortal Kombat (2011) with ample charm and intrigue. For over a decade, NetherRealm has made a habit of blowing its competition out of the water when it comes to cinematic, engaging narratives. Yes, Mortal Kombat is wacky and often ridiculous – it has as much subtlety as its action flick inspirations – but the team responsible for weaving a narrative through the realms are now experts at doing so. It should be especially proud of Mortal Kombat 1, it is a rollercoaster of twists and turns that exceed already-lofty expectations.
This game is both a love letter to old fans and new. If you're even somewhat familiar with the series as a whole, it's outstanding. When reviewing a game with a shorter single player campaign (MK1 clocks in at around 7 hours), I have a tradition of ordering pizza. Thanks to Mortal Kombat 1's final few chapters, it was cold and unfinished at the credits.
But what about after the credits have rolled? What do you do then? Invasion mode. Here, the entire roster can traverse several stages filled with various challenges, enriched with modifiers. Much like in Street Fighter 6's World Tour mode where a bull can charge across the screen and knock you down, here a bat from hell can shoot a fireball at you. It's a linear, single-player romp where you enhance your fighters with various talismans, relics, and consumables to gain an edge on increasingly difficult battles.
Invasion is largely unexciting. Sure, it has its moments with secret missions and good 'ol Test Your Might challenges spread around, but these perks were countered by modifiers that did more to frustrate than exhilarate. A missile from off-screen may be funny on occasion, but a super-armoured katana running at you, over and over again, begins to grate.
If that doesn't sound like something you'd enjoy, you aren't left with many alternatives. Invasion is not the main PvE method of gaining new cosmetics for your characters, it's also where much of the seasonal content will find its home. Right now, we have a cool fire-themed season, which means we have unique cosmetics that are only in the game for just under two months. If you want seasonal currency to unlock these cosmetics, you'll have to jump into either Invasion... or ranked matches online.
I'm disappointed by how additional content is obtained. If you want all the characters and kameos, you'll need to beat the game and bump up your account level before you can unlock them all. And then there's more. In Mortal Kombat 1, each character has their own level – rewarding you for continued play with cosmetics, banners, Brutalities, and even Fatalities. In prior games, a quick trip to the Krypt to spend some koins could reward you with a surprise gory game-ender, now you must grind out XP for a chance at something special.
The furthest I got on a single character was level 14 (Baraka). That took two realms through the board game-like Invasion to unlock his second Fatality. I understand the idea: you want diehard character loyalists to feel rewarded for their perseverance. However, the reality is that the vast, vast majority of players will not dump enough hours to experience the joys of absurd decapitations and beyond. It's hard to see a future for folks who aren't willing to dedicate days to levelling characters up aside from resigning themselves to their chosen mains, and searching up the rest of Youtube.
As for online modes – which will soon become the bread and butter experience for the more competitively-minded – it's a standard spread. Seasonal ranks and rewards are available to those who delve into ranked play, while King of the Hill returns as the game's sole additional mode. It's barebones, but considering the team shifted to a new engine with Mortal Kombat 1, it's a gripe I'm content to let pass me by. Especially when Warrior Shrine (a currently locked mode) will also be coming soon.
Mortal Kombat 1 is a generally positive step in a new direction. I find myself frustrated with Liu Kang's decision to allow live service DNA to creep into his new universe, and I long for some of the features left behind (like the Krypt). Mortal Kombat 1 sets the stage for a new era of MK that you can't help but get pumped up for. NetherRealm, like the characters in its ultraviolent universe, is staring right into the face of a brave new world and locking eyes with the future. Keeping those eyes in its head, though, may remain a challenge.