At Summer Game Fest Play Days, we got the chance to go hands-on with Mortal Kombat 1, and Warner Bros. Games and NetherRealm Studios don’t disappoint, at least for me, a player who has been out of the franchise for a little while. Mortal Kombat 1 is really the 12th in the franchise of iconic Western fighting games. That said, the use of “1” in the title is less about being trendy and more about pressing the reset button. While this may leave some veterans in the dark, especially with rewriting some characters’ lore and purpose and getting to go hands-on with the game, the heart of Mortal Kombat is beating in this reboot, waiting for any player just to reach in and grab it. If anything, Mortal Kombat 1 is about making something new while keeping everything that made it great to begin with.
When I picked up Mortal Kombat 1, I viewed it as a reentry point. This isn’t something new; with Street Fighter 6 lowering the skill ceiling and becoming more inclusive with Dynamic controls and Naruto x Boruto Ultimate Ninja Storm Connections also adding a Simple Button scheme, it’s safe to say that the fighting game Renaissance is all about capturing new players, bringing back those who lapsed, and still giving veterans what they love. It’s a tall task, but from our 30 minutes with the game, it shines through. As the developers explained the goals of Mortal Kombat 1 in the pre-preview presentation, they kept repeating one focus: player choice.
When you look at the game from that angle, the new additions, like the Kameo Fighter System, make more sense. Kameo Fighters are akin to the tag system in other fighting games, only characters only appear to perform a move in a combo or a fatality. While there is no cap on how many times you can call on your Kameo Fighter, learning to be strategic about when you do can turn a fight quickly. For example, Kitana and Sonya are a power team that, when done right, can keep an opponent pinned, all working off of Sonya’s iconic throw. Outside of that, the game’s lore and relationships between the characters will also impact how the Kameo fighters connect with the main fighter you chose.
While the full roster hasn’t been released, in our hands-on preview, we used Liu Kang, Kitana, Sub-Zero, and Kenshi Takahashi and we got to choose between Kano, Sonya Blade, and Jax for our Kameo Fighters. The status of a character as a Kameo fighter doesn’t eliminate them from being one of the main roster fighters. This is clear in the most recent gameplay trailer that showed Scorpion, Sub-Zero, Sonya Blade, Kano, Goro, Kung Lao, Stryker, and Jackson “Jax” Briggs. Each Kameo Fighter is based on a klassic version of the character pulled from over 30 years of Mortal Kombat history and is shown performing offensive and support-based moves, including devastating Fatal Blows, brutal Fatalities, and defensive Breakers.
The Kameo system embraces the klassic looks of characters and, in doing so, adds nostalgia to this reboot of a franchise. But the Kameo system isn’t just about nostalgia or visuals. Kano’s assists are probably the most significant, with a defense breaker you can hold and release upon will. It was probably the most disruptive move of any used against me and the one that took me completely off guard. That said, the most fun part of Mortal Kombat 1 is the fact that you have options of which character to use for a fatality. And man is Sonya’s Fatality the right kind of patronizing as she blows a kiss and disintegrates her opponent.
The Fatalities are as brutal as ever. They’re kinetic, dynamic, and not what you expect—or in Kenshi’s case, it’s exactly what you expect and it’s bloody fun to watch. Talking about fatalities is difficult because they need to be bloody, they need to be gross, and they need to capture the brutality of the fighter using them. Of the characters we saw, not a single one was underwhelming. Even Sonya’s kiss which didn’t feature blood and guts, hit the spot for her character.
In addition to the move-sets, Fatalities, and Kameo elements, this hands-on preview also gave us a small look at how characters relate to each other, which hints at a story that feels absolutely more cohesive than the one I originally fell in love with but ultimately was confused by as each game built it larger and more convoluted. In Mortal Kombat 1, Fire God Lui Kang has restarted history by crafting a New Era for the sake of peace. At the same time, Mileena, twin sister of Kitana and rightful heir to Outworld’s throne, has been infected by a dreaded and lethal disease.
Next, we know about the famed brothers, Lin Kuei warriors, Scorpion and Sub-Zero fight for the clan’s future, while Earthrealm champions Raiden and Kung Lao fight for family and honor. And, of course, Johnny Cage, who is more concerned with staying relevant in the eyes of his fans, fights for his own vanity. Also joining the main roster is Kenshi Takahashi, who is on a quest to retrieve the revered sword, Sento, and restore his family’s name. With different reasons to fight, gamers get to embrace characters and their relationships as they work through the game’s campaign.
There is a lot to love about Mortal Kombat 1 for players looking to come back to the fighter, and it’s a great moment to jump into a famed franchise. That said, the game maintains the blood, guts, and one-liners that made playing it fun since it started. There is just enough nostalgia and past in this new iteration for the game to still feel like it belongs, even while throwing its lore out the window.
Mortal Kombat 1 release September 19, 2023.