I have always had a soft spot for the Mortal Kombat franchise. Whilst my skills at fighting games are amateur at best, the story and characters within the series have always appealed to me. That’s why when Mortal Kombat reinvented the formula and focused on producing a strong narrative driven story mode, I couldn’t help but fall in love completely with the series. I still suck at it, don’t get me wrong, but this campaign is still more than enough to grab my attention.
That’s why I was excited for Mortal Kombat 1. 11 was a really good outing, and the Switch port was also surprisingly competent at providing a great performing game albeit with some visual sacrifices. If this game can go an equally good job, I will be a very happy man.
As it turns out, I guess I’m only a slightly happy man.
Before diving into this review, I need to insert a disclaimer for anyone who wants to read my thoughts on Mortal Kombat 1. I am not in any way an expert on fighting games. I can’t talk about net-code, advanced combat techniques, or literally anything that a serious fighting game fanatic cares about. When I play a fighting game, I try my best to incorporate combos to the best of my ability, I occasionally try and block (usually with little success), but my main intention is just to have fun. I certainly do not play online matches as I would be severely humiliated, and as such I have only tested the mode briefly in order to see how it performs.
So, anyone who is more than a casual fighting game player should probably go elsewhere for more detailed thoughts. If you’re more of a kasual kombatant like me, then feel free to read on. Regardless, I can pretty confidently say that anyone who is looking for more of a hardcore fighting experience should not grab the Switch version of the game. If that doesn’t apply to you, then feel free to read on!
Mortal Kombat 1 has a rather unusual narrative in that it both acts as a sequel to Mortal Kombat 11 whilst also serving as a reboot of sorts. Some may argue it was a necessity after the messy events of the previous game, with all its toying around with time travel and alternate realities, but the game’s far more grounded plotline feels extremely refreshing and accessible to newcomers whilst still following on from what came before.
After the defeat of the time-meddling Titan, Kronika, Liu Kang takes on the mantel of Fire God and creator of the universe. Things are kept largely the same as they were prior, albeit with some small changes to hopefully keep certain troublemakers out of harm’s way. With everything seemingly turning out well, Liu Kang passes the control of the hourglass of time to Geras as he becomes Earthrealm’s new protector, recruiting champions to take part in the traditional tournament between their realm and that of Outworld.
Unfortunately, plans are scuppered after an unknown benefactor reaches out to help Shang Tsung and Quan Chi break free from their meaningless lives. With them regaining the power they once had, the peace between the realms looks set to end and Liu Kang needs to try his best to prevent it. So begins a new tale of Mortal Kombat that re-contextualises many of the characters and adds a whole new layer of depth to them. Many long-forgotten characters make a return alongside more familiar faces, and their stories are just as compelling as the fan-favourites. It’s a really great cast of characters, and the excellent writing and voice acting makes the story mode an absolute delight for fans of the franchise.
For the most part, Story Mode makes up the core experience of Mortal Kombat 1. it contains 15 acts, each with its own playable character, and fights are smoothly transitioned into between the lengthy pre-rendered videos. Of course, on the Switch there is quite a jump in visual quality between the cutscenes and the in-game character models that makes it slightly jarring (and occasionally there’s a loading screen too when the game needs a little extra time to think), but it still works rather well and is fluid enough to not affect immersion all that much.
The one on one fighting feels largely reminiscent of the previous game, for those who are familiar with it, although NetherRealm have taken some liberties when it comes to the standard movesets. Certain iconic moves are kept, but others have been tweaked slightly or replaced. Personally, I like the changes made as they all seem rather positive, although some of the finishing moves don’t seem quite as violent as before. Don’t get me wrong, they’re still extremely gory, but not quite as over-the-top as before. There’s also the addition of kameo fighters, who are secondary fighters that can be called up in a pinch. Whilst they don’t really do all that much, as they only really provide their own attack at the press of a button, it’s still pleasing to see some characters that weren’t able to make the primary roster.
As a non-fighting game expert, it’s hard to go into too much detail as to the quality of the fighting mechanics in themselves, but they feel pretty well balanced. There are various blocking moves, counters, and a one-time desperation attack to help you make a last minute comeback. It all flows rather well, and the game contains an extensive tutorial area to help teach you combos. There is a slight bug with the tutorial whereby some combos don’t match the demonstration video (which is annoying), but it’s still serviceable enough to help diversify your fighting. A bigger problem lies with the game’s move-list, which is viewable on the game’s pause menu. On the surface it seems fine, with a few key moves viewable immediately and the full list available on request, but that full list has a tendency to leave out valuable bits of information that can only be viewable by looking at the advanced details. Both I and several other people in my social media circle encountered issues where moves wouldn’t work, only to realise that we were missing important information – including sometimes additional button presses – that stopped the attack from working. It’s horribly designed and I have no doubt many more people will run into similar issues.
Outside of the excellent story mode, there’s the expected versus mode, the challenge tower (where you face a series of opponents), and a brand new Invasion mode that has you traversing a seasonal Mario Party style board as you overcome a series of challenges. This particular mode is a great new addition to the series, as there are places to uncover in addition to modified fights, a levelling up system, and equippable items to help shake up the format. The first map has you exploring Johnny Cage’s mansion, and really shows off how this mode could be a great way to help keep players invested for as long as they support it.
Whilst Invasion mode is a lot of fun, these extra game modes bring to light many of the issues present in the Switch version: specifically the plethora of bugs and performance issues. Whilst Story Mode is largely bereft of any major problems, aside from semi-frequent screen tearing during the cutscenes, everything else seems to be a bit of a mess. Visual bugs are the most common issue, with characters frequently having incorrect or missing hair, textures getting stretched during combat and finishers, fighters suddenly growing to screen-filling proportions, and many more. Whilst many don’t affect actual kombat, they still provide a rather unpleasant experience – especially considering the hefty price tag. Invasion also contains its own unique problems, due to requiring connection to their servers. If the servers aren’t playing ball, the game will refuse to give you rewards, allow you to change characters, or even give you essential progression items until it’s back to normal. Sure, once things are back to normal it will give you everything you are owed, it’s still a real pain in the arse, especially as it can force you to quit the game and wait until later
As for Versus mode, that also has its own problems too – particularly when it comes to performance. Menus are extremely slow, often making it difficult to select a character (they don’t even show up on selection for an awfully long time), and the loading before each fight takes forever. To make matters worse, the loading screen contains the worst versions of the character models zoomed up close, forcing you to look at how ugly they are for an extended amount of time before the match starts. During fights, performance fares better as fights were pretty smooth – even if many of the same visual bugs were still abundant – but online fights ended up being slightly hit or miss.
Mortal Kombat 1 really is a mixed bag. Anyone going into it solely for the Story Mode will probably end up being satisfied, as the visual sacrifices the game makes during the main game aren’t all that bad unless directly comparing to other versions on more modern hardware. It also helps that the campaign really is the best in the series to date, and it’s nice to see that the Switch just about manages to pull it off.
However, for anyone wanting anything more than that, the game becomes far less enticing. There are so many issues that plague every other mode, that it’s hard to recommend to anyone wanting anything more than the Story Mode – at least until they can offer some pretty major fixes. As for people looking for their next competitive fighter? Well, forget it. If you can’t get the game on any other platform, you’d probably be best off finding a different game altogether.
Mortal Kombat 1 is exactly why we stopped doing review scores. People like me who love the series for the story surrounding the characters, and the occasional local match will probably love the game. NetherRealm have really hit their peak with the narrative and have outdone themselves. However, for anyone wanting a proper fighting experience, the game is a bit of a mess. Whilst patches can sort out the worst of it, this is still clearly the worst version of the game and not worth the high price tag.