The smartest thing that Warner Bros. Games did with the “Mortal Kombat” franchise was start from the beginning. The ninth main installment of the series was a reboot that retold the events of the first three games and offered a clean slate.
Since then, the “Mortal Kombat” series has gotten messier following the steps of another Warner Bros. property — the DC universe. And much like the superhero comics, the fighting game is again getting a reboot, but it’s not cleaning much up. In fact, “Mortal Kombat 1” is making things a little more complicated.
The 12th franchise installment follows the events of “Mortal Kombat 11” when Liu Kang defeated Kronika and became the new Keeper of Time. With that power, he remade the universe and its six realms. He also decided to fix some of the more tragic events of the past. He made peace between Sub Zero and Scorpion and steered the franchise’s villains down paths of harmless anonymity. Fearing that he would go mad like Kronika, Liu Kang gave up those awesome powers to become the lord of Earthrealm.
OLD FACES, NEW STORIES
By doing that, the reboot gives fans a fresh look at the characters they’ve grown up playing. They see Sindel as a caring and careful queen of Outworld and Kenshi as a mercenary who can see with his own eyes. Unfortunately, a mysterious figure disrupts Liu Kang’s plans, and that sets off the major conflict in the four-act Story Mode.
It’s intriguing but not as beefy as previous efforts. The roots of the story seemed more ambitious, but the campaign felt rushed at the end, especially when Liu Kang finds out the identity of the villain. That’s a shame because despite the convoluted nature of this new “Mortal Kombat” universe, it did initially offer thrills and tight storytelling.
The only problem is that some of the 23 playable launch characters, especially the older and little-known ones, don’t have much of their backstory told. Nitara (played by Megan Fox) and Havik appear, but they aren’t as fleshed out as such heroes such as Li Mei. The fact that there have been so many “Mortal Kombat” characters is both a boon and a burden for the series.
Because “Mortal Kombat 1” rewrites its history, developer NetherRealm Studios dived deep into the franchise’s history and brings back lesser known characters such as Li Mei, left, and teams them with well-known heroes such as Sub Zero. (Warner Bros. Games)
A WAY TO BRING BACK PAST CHARACTERS
The developers at NetherRealm Studios have decades of content to mine. They have so much history that characters who seem novel to newcomers are actually retreads who were forgotten in the past. Built over time, it’s a cast that would even intimidate Tolkien fans. The team handles this issue through the creation of 15 Kameo characters.
It’s the newest wrinkle to the “Mortal Kombat” fighting system. When players pick a fighter, they also choose a support character whom they tag in at certain moments of a match. They’re essentially attached to the right shoulder button and pressing it will activate the Kameo for a quick move. It allows NeatherRealm to add characters without overwhelming players with a massive roster.
It’s not exactly a tag-in, as in “Marvel vs. Capcom,” but rather a more robust assist attack. Depending on the input, the Kameo fighter can jump in to throw a projectile and keep opponents off-balance or they can extend combos for more damage.
What’s more intriguing is how they can be used for defense to block an attack when a main fighter is defenseless, or to cancel out of a whiffed move. Each Kameo fighter has unique traits that can complement a playstyle, so choosing the right team adds depth to fighting system.
The one caveat is that the characters have a cooldown time for each move, so players can’t mash the Kameo button. It’s an innovative system, but unfortunately, the tutorials don’t teach the mechanic that well. Players won’t know how powerful it can be without diving in depth on the mechanic on the Web.
Kano is a Kameo fighter and can extend combos or keep foes off balance with his moves in “Mortal Kombat 1.” (Warner Bros. Games)EASIER TO DO COMBOS
As for the rest of the fighting system, “Mortal Kombat 1” carries over many of the features from previous games. Combos are easy to do and the moves flow really well together so that players can be creative in combat without feeling rote in how they press buttons. The combo system allows for more creativity.
Fatal Blows return and the comeback mechanic is harder to do because of the windup time. Players can still build up their meter to launch a powered-up version of a special attack or, they can save the resource for a Kombo Breaker that will use up that energy but save players from a damaging series of attacks. And of course, players can humiliate their adversaries with fatalities. Some elements of the series never change.
Beyond that, “Mortal Kombat 1” includes Towers where players tackle a series of matches in a single-player mode. On the multiplayer side, fans have the normal array of options such as local, online and tournament play.
THE ROBUST INVASION MODE
Interestingly enough, NetherRealm put a lot of work into the Invasion mode, which is a single-player adventure similar to previous efforts called the Krypt. Players take a character and run through Johnny Cage’s house before jumping into a portal to travel to different worlds. It’s here where they explore a primitive board map and tackle challenges and foes.
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To aid them on their adventure, players can equip items such as talismans and relics for stat boosts. Talismans offer a bonus that depletes with each use while relics offer long-lasting passive upgrades.
In addition, players also gain experience points for fighting. These role-playing game elements will keep fans engaged with “Mortal Kombat 1” long after the Story mode is done. But what will keep them coming back is that the Invasion Mode is how they unlock character and in-game cosmetics. It’s also a place where season content goes.
It’s more fleshed out than previous efforts, but compared to what other fighting games are doing, “Mortal Kombat 1” doesn’t go far enough to stretch those boundaries. If NetherRealm looks at what Capcom did with “Street Fighter 6,” the “Mortal Kombat” franchise can find several areas to improve on so that this new reboot has more staying power.
‘Mortal Kombat 1’
2½ stars out of 4
Platform: PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X and Series S, PC, Nintendo Switch