Mortal Kombat 1 review: A convoluted story dampens the gameplay

WB Games / NetherRealm Studios
WB Games / NetherRealm Studios /

Game: Mortal Kombat 1
Developer: NetherRealm Studios
Publisher: Warner Bros. Games
Platform: Xbox Series X (reviewed on), PS5, PC, Nintendo Switch
Release Date: September 19, 2023

Mortal Kombat 1 is a full reboot of the franchise after 30 years. Taking place after the events of Mortal Kombat 11, Liu Kang now possesses Kronika’s hourglass and the power to control time. As a result, he created his own universe in the hopes of setting things right. However, as we soon find out, this plan quickly falls apart. The premise of the reboot is intriguing, but the execution of it in Mortal Kombat 1 pales in comparison.

I want to start with the visual breakdown because both the stage and character design in Mortal Kombat 1 are exquisite. The level of detail in the stages, whether it be bar patrons running for cover or background fireworks at a festival, is so finely put together that it’s the best graphical setup I’ve seen in a fighting game ever. And no, that’s not hyperbole.

Mortal Kombat has always strived for immersion when it comes to its stages and how characters interact with them, i.e. stage fatalities. This installment adds a new tier of quality as the background merges with the foreground for an even greater level of immersion. I do have one graphical gripe with Mortal Kombat 1 – the character movement.

For some reason, we are still stuck with the same blocky, March of the Wooden Soldiers character movement from 1992. While it played well then due to the overall limitations of the technology, it stands out like a sore thumb in Mortal Kombat 1. Character movement has always been the punch line of the joke with Mortal Kombat, but it’s even more pronounced here because of how awesome the rest of the game looks.

The Kombat has a lot of the “something old, something new” routine which blends surprisingly well. For the old, there is of course the ole’ endless corner juggle combo that’s unblockable and forces you to lose the entire match because in between rounds you still start at the same place you died because the characters don’t reset. There’s also the way where players set you up to block one of their combos intentionally because it sets them up to start an even more devastating combo. These are frustrating to no end and could have easily (and should have been) removed from the game years ago.

For the good parts, we have the new Kameo system. I admittedly love this system and was amped up for it when I saw Stryker (my favorite character) was one of the Kameos.

Mortal Kombat 1
WB Games / NetherRealm Studios /

Similar to how Marvel vs. Capcom has characters jump in to team up, Mortal Kombat 1 does the same thing. Each Kameo has multiple attacks triggered by the RB/R1 buttons with a direction on the D-pad. While new players just starting to the franchise may feel overwhelmed and want to stick to standard fighting, it’s simply not possible.

The Kameo system is completely integrated into the combat with combo starters, breakers, blocks, throws, reverses, etc that it is mandatory to implement in order to become successful at the game. That is, of course, if you aren’t just playing to go from fatality to fatality. The Kameos are automatically used in deathblows and also have their own individual fatality. This change could have been a disaster and was a huge risk for NetherRealm to take, but it was done so seamlessly that you’d think it was there the entire time.

The Invasion mode is a brand-new, board game-style addition that’s available right from the start of the game. I was interested in playing this when I first heard about it, but admittedly expected it to be pretty boring. Ironically, I was half right. The setup got me hooked. You simply move one square at a time with the occasional choice in your route. Each square sees you complete a fight for some object, and winning gets you rewards. These rewards can range from in-game Kurrency to Brutalities for characters. Most are unlocked roster-wide, but there are also ones centered on the character you are currently using. Each of the Invasion boards is based around a certain character.

I chose Johnny Cage because he’s my favorite character. To start, you have to move to a square right outside his front door. Doing so will have you fight an enemy in order to get the key to enter the house (because of course, Johnny lost it). Once inside, each additional square builds on the previous in its own, little mini-story for the character. While the gameplay itself wasn’t exciting as it’s simply fight, move, fight, move – seeing how each character’s mini-story was contrived was pretty fascinating. New fighters and seasonal content are going to be added according to NetherRealm which will bring all kinds of special time-sensitive rewards as well. I’m curious to see how they build on it as there is lots of potential, especially with tying in the characters’ separate Invasion stories together for a second story within the story of the game.

Mortal Kombat 1
WB Games / NetherRealm Studios /

Speaking of story, let’s end it with the ACTUAL story of the campaign. The premise of Liu Kang creating his own timeline where peace could reign is great. It is Mortal Kombat, however, so we knew this clearly wouldn’t last. But, WHY it doesn’t last is the crux of the issue with the game.

The opening intro of the game starts with a Liu Kang voice-over telling us why he created this new universe for peace. The next sentence starts with how there is a new Mortal Kombat tournament that HE STARTED. Why have this tournament if the premise of the universe is peace??? Furthermore, the game goes out of its way to tell you that nobody has died in the tournament as of yet. To make sure this continues in the name of peace, Liu Kang decides to give Raiden an amulet bestowing lightning powers upon him. Got it, makes total sense…

It’s a crazy premise that makes absolutely no sense. The ironic part is that the voice acting and cinematography for the game are absolutely stunning. While it is so good you find yourself sometimes forgetting about how the story makes no sense, the bones of it are still there and take away from just how great the rest of its implementation is. The entire campaign will take you about seven hours or so if you just breeze right through it. I recommend doing this as quickly as possible just to really appreciate the bizarreness of it all. This, along with the fact that the game’s ending is perhaps the most ridiculously insane ending I’ve seen.

There is a training mode for those looking to refresh their skills or get a head start making their first foray into the game. It’s not extravagant, but it’s just enough to give you a good idea of how to play while leaving enough for you to figure out on your own. And yes, don’t worry, there is a fatality mode where you can check out one fatality per character. These are the basic ones that are located in the pause menu for your respective character. All of the fatalities can be done from the start if you know the combinations, but you’ll need to unlock them with your profile level in order to have them show up on the pause screen.

Mortal Kombat 1 (Xbox Series X) Score: 6.5 / 10

It’s hard not to enjoy Mortal Kombat 1, but the main story is too tied into the overall gameplay, which makes the “it doesn’t make sense” execution of it too difficult to ignore. The events of the story itself indicate that none of this should not be happening. While the rest of the game goes off without a hitch, the plot holes of lore-heavy focus and deep integration of its story take away from what Mortal Kombat 1 really could be.

A copy of this game was provided to App Trigger for the purpose of this review. All scores are ranked out of 10, with .5 increments. Click here to learn more about our Review Policy.