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Scorpion’s goons burn Baraka alive in Mortal Kombat 1 Image: NetherRealm Studios/Warner Bros. Games via Polygon

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Mortal Kombat 1 is a blast, but needed more time to cook

NetherRealm’s reboot feels fresh in many ways, but falters in others

Michael McWhertor is a journalist with more than 17 years of experience covering video games, technology, movies, TV, and entertainment.

In Mortal Kombat 1, Liu Kang rewrites history in the hope of creating a kinder, gentler Mortal Kombat tournament. In its second major reboot of the 30-year-old fighting game franchise, developer NetherRealm performs a similar trick, unburdening itself from the complex lore of nearly a dozen games.

Mortal Kombat 1 is also a fresh start mechanically; NetherRealm’s last game was incredibly complex, with each of its dozens of fighters having multiple variations. The studio has pared its roster down to 22, along with the pre-order bonus of the long-running villain Shang Tsung. Additionally, there are 15 Kameo Fighters — a subset of characters that can be summoned to aid a main character in battle. Those Kameo Fighters pull double duty as a major source of nostalgia; classic versions of characters like Kano, Sonya, and Jax, and deeper cuts like Shujinko and Darrius, can all hop into matches with a button press to extend or break combos.

NetherRealm pushes the Mortal Kombat series forward graphically, with its most lux visual presentation yet. Character models are intricately detailed, and many fighters have been given impressive makeovers — particularly those that featured prominently in the “3D Era” of Mortal Kombat, like demoness Ashrah and the ninja Reptile, who was done particularly dirty by games like Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance. Backgrounds in fighting stages are gorgeously detailed, brimming with character, personality, and in one notable case, the horrifying gore of Shang Tsung’s torture laboratory.

Raiden charges his hands with electricity while Kung Lao poses in a screenshot from Mortal Kombat 1
Raiden and Kung Lao are stars of the single-player campaign.
Image: NetherRealm Studios/Warner Bros. Games

When the fighting starts, Mortal Kombat 1 feels immediately familiar, especially if you’ve been playing NetherRealm’s Mortal Kombat and Injustice games over the past decade. MK1 is still that established brand of combo-heavy, rigid 2D fighter, with strangely stiff animations and a meter that can enhance special moves or be burned to break a lengthy combo.

MK1 differentiates itself from recent games, with their customizable gear and character variations, with the ability to call in Kameo Fighters during fights. Each of the kombatants from this secondary roster has their own set of special moves. They can set up or extend a combo, freeze or stun your opponent, or teleport your fighter around the stage. To be most effective in battle, their moves should synergize with your main fighter’s moves — players have already found incredibly deadly pairings (e.g. Li Mei with Scorpion, Reiko with Darrius) and it can be fun to experiment with how these primary and secondary fighters complement each other. Online, players have already settled on popular pairings, which can make battles feel pretty repetitive.

Those Kameo characters, who mostly quietly pop in and out in battle, and silently mug for the camera before and after fights, are lacking the personality of the main cast. But, they’re impressively rendered action figures of some of Mortal Kombat’s most famous designs; the low-budget looks of characters like Sony, Jax, and Mortal Kombat 2-era Kung Lao are all stunning in 3D.

Even some of the personality of the main cast has been shaved off compared to recent games. The pre-match banter between fighters that was such a highlight of Mortal Kombat X and 11 is watered down here, and it feels like MK1’s friends and rivals have little to say to one another now in versus modes.

A Mortal Kombat character runs around a farm, seen from a bird’s-eye view
The Invasions mode looks stunning.
Image: NetherRealm Studios/Warner Bros. Games

That change feels like a minor one compared to the larger ways NetherRealm is trying to switch up its groove. That includes an ambitious new mode called Invasions, a seasonal, single-player quest where players walk through tabletop game-style levels and battle a series of AI opponents. These fights are full of fun, weird, and occasionally extremely annoying effects. A match may be plagued with a series of magical fireballs that seek out both fighters and interrupt combos, for instance. In many, your opponents will be souped up with super armor, severely impacting your ability to perform combos on them at all. In extreme cases, matches may be pitch black — and, consequently, incredibly unfun.

Invasions mode is still in its first season, one themed around Scorpion, with an attendant story hook. As players work their way through Invasions, they’ll earn special seasonal credits to spend on in-game cosmetic goods, much of them Scorpion-themed (or at least Scorpion-colored). Invasions doles out ample rewards — color palettes, gear, and finishing moves — as you progress, compelling you to move around the board from node to node for just one more fight. As an obsessive collector, it’s highly compelling.

While there’s no paid battle pass for Invasions, the game encourages you to level up your Mastery with both the core roster and Kameo Fighters to unlock in-game perks like skins and name cards. In this way, it distributes rewards better than, say, Mortal Kombat 11’s Krypt. You’ll almost always get cool new stuff for your preferred fighters.

Kitana and Liu Kang face each other head to head before a fight in Mortal Kombat 1.
You could cut the sexual tension with a hat.
Image: NetherRealm Studios/Warner Bros. Games

All that said, the single-player highlight of Mortal Kombat 1 is, unsurprisingly, its story campaign. NetherRealm has set the standard for fighting game story modes over the past decade-plus, and MK1 is its most ambitious and gorgeously produced yet. As a direct sequel to the events of Mortal Kombat 11, 1’s narrative focuses on Liu Kang training a new group of champions to defend Earthrealm in the titular tournament against Outworld. NetherRealm has reset more than just the timeline — it’s rewritten the origin stories and motivations of its cast. The story casts rival ninjas Scorpion and Sub-Zero as brothers this time, Sindel as the carefully measured queen of Outworld, and goons like Baraka as sympathetic heroes. It’s refreshing to see these characters reimagined as the series marches into the future.

There’s a disproportionate amount of watching compared to playing in Mortal Kombat 1’s story. You’ll spend very little time actually engaging in fights, as in-game cinematics — beautifully shot and rendered though they may be — can run for upward of eight minutes. But those scenes are full of drama and light-hearted comedy, mostly thanks to characters like Johnny Cage and smirking sorcerer Shang Tsung, voiced luxuriously by Alan Lee. Things spiral out of control around the game’s final third, when Mortal Kombat 1 devolves into current blockbuster genre tropes and goes full-on fan service. But as one of said fans, I relished what NetherRealm does here — and replayed its final chapter multiple times to bask in its silliness.

Elsewhere, in Mortal Kombat 1’s tutorial, practice, and online modes, NetherRealm is behind the curve compared to other modern fighting games. There’s a competent tutorial to run players through the basics, but practice mode feels insufficient in learning how to pull off the all-important strings of combos essential to competitive play. Online, the game lags further behind the competition with no cross-platform play at launch, and no Wi-Fi filter to help more serious players find lag-free matches.

Ashrah jump-kicks Havik in the face in a screenshot from Mortal Kombat 1
Mortal Kombat: Deception’s Ashrah and Havik return in MK1.
Image: NetherRealm Studios/Warner Bros. Games

With Mortal Kombat 1, NetherRealm has made an admirable effort to refresh its gameplay mechanics and differentiate its latest entry from the recent trilogy of games. On some fronts, particularly around the story, audiovisual presentation, and accessibility, it’s a huge step forward. But some very visible elements, especially online play, do not represent the same leap. Even after a four-year gap since Mortal Kombat 11, Mortal Kombat 1 feels like it needed a bit more time to cook. But with a commitment to seasonal content and the next six fighters already revealed as part of the game’s first Kombat Pack, it’s clear that Mortal Kombat 1 will grow over time and, hopefully, improve.

Mortal Kombat 1 was released Sept. 19 for Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, and Xbox Series X. The game was reviewed using a final “retail” PlayStation 5 download code provided by Warner Bros. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.