Mortal Kombat 1 signals a new era for NetherRealm Studios' notoriously grisly fighting game series. While you may have assumed the team would be looking to continue its dynasty with a 12th installment, NetherRealm has instead opted to hit the reset button on the Mortal Kombat universe as we know it, bringing back recognizable characters, albeit in all new roles.
As someone who enjoyed the classics of the series but struggled to stay up to date with later entries, this change-up is welcome as it enables players of all experience levels to get in on the ground floor. On top of that, it creates space for new heroes and villains to stake their claim as potential fan favorites; a lofty task given MK1’s already-hefty roster of fighters.
At Gamescom 2023, we went hands-on with the opening to Mortal Kombat 1’s campaign and a new mode called Invasion, a single-player experience with RPG progression systems and a distinctly irreverent tone.
Board game-style brutalities
Invasion mode functions similarly to a digital board game, but instead of picking up cards, you slaughter your enemies in style. The new mode provides a top-down perspective as you run between nodes, taking on modified fights to test the breadth of your brawling skills. Combining a range of notable Mortal Kombat locations and easter eggs, this new mode is a heart-pounding digital playmat full of bite-sized fights, where you can train your skills with specific fighters and unlock rewards for doing so.
Invasion mode functions like a digital board game
Kicking off the demo, I had to choose my champion and their Kameo Fighter - a new addition for MK1 that allows you to summon a supportive buddy with the press of a button. I beelined straight for Kitana and Frost, ready to thwart my enemies with a combo of ice and steel. However, I quickly found that my Mortal Kombat skills were more rusty than I had anticipated. My first challenger, Kannibal Warrior, was a lot tougher than I was prepared for, but I jumped into the combo menus and quickly found my footing after a few knockdowns.
For players like myself who are getting back into the series after a hiatus, and for those coming to the series for the first time, Invasion offers quick challenges that can help to hone critical fighting game skills and that are easy to digest. It was a tremendous boost to my confidence every time I’d nail a combo I’d been learning, and it was an incredible feeling to pull off dramatic Fatal Blows. Seeing my fighter and their Kameo collaborate to demolish the skeletal structure of my opponent’s body never got old.
As players work their way through the various realms, they’ll be collecting loot to spend at shops on cosmetic items, bringing a healthy dose of customizability to the experience. Progressing through the levels as my favorite character and picking up buffs and talismans to defy scaling challenges made for a sticky feedback loop that I’m excited to return to when the game launches later this year. It was particularly interesting to see how the mini-fights would be modified with certain parameters, such as hazards and elemental debuffs, creating unique challenges that I had to train to overcome. Long-term, it’s difficult to say how it will shake out, but Invasion mode is set to feature seasonal content updates. It also boasts a global progression board for those wanting to flex their competitive edge, so it could well have the staying power necessary to keep folk entertained well into the future.
A new challenger emerges
Switching over from Invasion to Mortal Kombat 1’s story mode gave me gore-induced whiplash as I mentally shifted from the immediacy of intense, sequential fights to watching marathon cutscenes framing the game’s new universe of lore. I didn’t get to spend too long basking in its world, but I was privy to some gorgeous setpieces that did a stellar job of introducing the new narrative. The preview focused on Kung Lao, a scrappy young fighter raised in a rural town, working the land with his friend Raiden.
The first hands-on fight between the two begins as a comical tussle over who was paying for dinner inside a local restaurant. The gloriously rendered locale was a well-earned distraction, with light from an opening in the roof delicately coating the scene as I attempted to focus on the fight at hand. This meticulous attention to detail was something I had noticed in Invasion and was glad to see in the Kampaign as well. The bout was set against a backdrop of eye-catching dangling lanterns and worried patrons reacting to my kicks and blocks in the background. This sort of attention to detail helps the locations of fights in Mortal Kombat 1 feel alive, existing beyond the excitement of the bloody fights in the foreground. It’ll be intriguing to see where this new universe takes players and how it shifts and punts the established Mortal Kombat Kanon to summon more killer setpiece brawls.
Finishers with friends
Kameo Fighters are a new addition to Mortal Kombat 1 that succeeds in bringing an extra tactical consideration to the game’s minute-to-minute brawling. Traditionally, you would be locked into the move set associated with your character, but with the addition of a teammate, your options are expanded greatly, leading to some awe-inspiring combo takedowns that I relished recreating time and time again. On the flip side, this also makes your competitor something of a wild card in battle and helps keep you on your toes, as you watch out for their unpredictable extra moves. It’s hard to get annoyed when you get caught out by a Kameo, as the implementation is always stylish - if your head has to be blasted to bits by a laser, at least it's a visually appealing, iconic character doing the honors.
If your head has to be blasted to bits by a laser, at least it's a visually appealing, iconic character doing the honors
The Kameo Fighters belong to a unique roster that encourages you to experiment and find the right pairing depending on how you play; giving each potential duo a bespoke feel in combat. Luckily, Kameo attacks exist on a cooldown, so they can’t be spammed constantly, and players have to manage their charges to capitalize on an enemy’s overextension. I often caught myself mentally choreographing my next step while sending Frost out, sometimes resulting in fluid Wrestlemania handoffs and finishers that were filled with tactical flair.
Mortal Kombat 1 feels like an exciting fresh start for the series, geared at finessing the fighting experience for veteran players while also making the on-ramp easier for newbies with modes like Invasion. It’s not an outright revolution, but NetherRealm Studios’ latest effort is full of careful iterations that complement Mortal Kombat 1’s striking visuals and intense but deeply rewarding combat.