The jagged icicle shudders sickeningly into my opponent’s mouth, unleashing an explosion of blood as his eyes roll back and his spinal cord shatters. My victory, while not flawless, is decisive. The lumps of viscera that used to be my foe squelch to the ground, and my triumph is complete.
Fresh off dabbling in Capcom’s latest brawler, Street Fighter 6, I momentarily wonder, am I good at fighting games now? Certainly not. But Mortal Kombat 1, the latest installment of the iconic, gory brawler, is refreshingly approachable in more ways than one.
For starters, the series’ notoriously intricate lore has gotten a bit of a soft reset. Series staple Liu Kang has become a fire god and created a new timeline. Practically speaking, this means you’ll see some familiar faces and personalities, but if you’re a longtime fan of the series, they may not be exactly as you remembered them. Conversely, if you’re a Mortal Kombat newcomer, you’ll likely find MK 1 a welcoming entry point for the series as a whole.
As the move from MK 11 back to MK 1 suggests, NetherRealm Studios’ latest also calls back to the series’s loopier, irreverent arcade roots. While it seems strange to type out, this is a brighter, sunnier iteration of Mortal Kombat than we’d seen in a while.
“In our previous games, there’s more of a darker color and tone, especially if you follow all the way through where we had the Dark Raiden timeline. Here, just visually through the game itself, you can see things are brighter, and Liu Kang wants to create a timeline of peace and balance,” Derek Kirtzic, Lead Systems Designer at NetherRealm Studios, tells Inverse. “It’s allowing us to have these reimagined characters and classic characters. The beauty of this game has a lot to do with this being his timeline, his vision.”
The control scheme has more of a pick-up-and-play feel to it than MK 11, which makes it easy to get into the action and throw down some impressive moves if you’re a novice or just a bit rusty. Each character has several special attacks that require only two or three inputs (like down + right + triangle). There’s plenty of depth and complexity within each fighter’s moveset for experienced players, but it’s also very possible to pick up the basics in a round or two. MK 11 doesn’t allow for simplified input options like Street Fighter 6, but the movesets feel more accommodating to less experienced players than ever.
“We want to make sure that it feels simpler, but it’s still very familiar and rewarding for longtime Mortal Kombat players, and has the depth and the technical aspects for the competitive scene,” explains Kirtzic. “Tying the Kameo system to one button is so much simpler than trying to do some sort of extended input to just have your character come out.”
Mortal Kombat 11’s Kameo system is its headline-grabbing new gimmick, and it’s a whole lot of fun. Essentially, it allows you to select a support character who you can summon using one of the trigger buttons to join in a combo or break off an attack from your opponent. The Summer Game Fest demo included four main roster fighters (Sub-Zero, Kitana, Kenshi, and Liu Kang) and three Kameo fighters (Sonya, Kano, and Jax), which could be paired in any combination.
I enjoyed the Sub-Zero / Kano pairing most, especially because the latter can cover the whole width of the screen with his nifty laser eye. I struggled most to dole out damage with Kenshi and Sonya, with the blindfolded warrior summoning “deadly” apparitions that seemed to shrug and peace out immediately, and the leotard-clad Sonya whizzing above uselessly over my head.
One of the biggest lures of the Mortal Kombat series has always been the over-the-top finishing moves known as Fatalities, where a winner rips the loser’s spine out or devours them whole and spits out the bones. As someone who’s always struggled to pull these off in previous MK games, this time around, it’s way easier to reduce your enemies to a pile of quivering goo. And somehow, even after 30 years, these mini monuments to gore still manage to shock, surprise, and delight. A lot of that comes down to a formidable collaborative effort.
“We have a big group of people that pitch different ideas. First, we go with personality and the abilities that they have. From there, it’s just what crazy, crazy stuff can we come up with? Like, if it makes us laugh, we’ll probably do it,” says Kirtzic.
Mortal Kombat 1 launches September 19 for PlayStation, Xbox, Nintendo Switch, and PC.