Mortal Kombat X is not a reboot but it sure does act like one. A direct continuation of 2011’s Mortal Kombat, Mortal Kombat X focuses on the younger relatives of several classic Kombat characters as they fight to save the realm from an evil necromancer. There is no tournament this time. Characters go from locale to locale, exchange some expository dialogue, and then fight. Every scene is like this. It’s the same model of storytelling that was in Injustice and the last Mortal Kombat. And most of the time that’s fine. Mortal Kombat knows that it’s Days Of Our Lives meets Kung Pow: Enter The Fist. However, Mortal Kombat X’s decision to focus on the new generation of Kombat fighters makes the story mode engaging as opposed to just a chore you have to do to unlock characters.
All the changes to Mortal Kombat X’s roster are smart. Character rosters for these games have always been a hit or miss affair. A lot of the time there’s just too many dull characters and not enough who are interesting both as people and as fighters that you can play as. Great care was clearly taken with Mortal Kombat X to make each character, especially the new ones, worthwhile. Cassie Cage, for example, is the daughter of Johnny Cage and Sonya Blade. Fittingly enough, her fighting style is a combination of her parents’. She’s swift and knows how to lay a beatdown on her opponent with her hands, but she can also use her pistols for long-range attacks. Jacqui Briggs, Jax’s daughter, fights like her father as well, using augmented robotic fists to slug her opponents, but she’s also quicker and has a smaller frame, making her harder to hit. These characters, as well as the other newcomers, are intriguing in the game’s story because they’re all dealing with the pain of living up to their predecessors’—and their own—expectations. It’s angsty in a John Hughes kind of way and, surprisingly, it works. The story gives these additions an appropriate bit of humanity, making them relatable and actually more interesting than any of the series’ classic characters. Don’t worry, though—most fan favorites return for Mortal Kombat X as well. Scorpion, Sonya, Jax, Johnny Cage, Sub-Zero, Kitana, and so on are all here, with their classic abilities (as well as some new ones).
The joys of Mortal Kombat remain practically the same as they’ve always been: spend time with a character, learn how to play as them effectively, and then kick some ass. There’s a bit of excitement that accompanies playing as a character for the first time, a constant pausing the game to learn their attacks and to understand how they move—what kind of attacks their frame opens them up to—and to understand their weaknesses and strengths. For example, if you’re playing a quick character (Cassie or Mileena) against a hulking powerhouse (Goro or Ferra), the practical, unimaginative strategy is to corner them in the level and hit them as many times as quickly as you can in order to stagger them. Of course, this is Mortal Kombat, so eventually you want to get to a skill level where you can just show off and dance around your opponents, pulling off special moves and basically being untouchable. Mortal Kombat X does a great job of getting you to that point and making you feel like you’ve earned it—if you’re willing to put in the time.
As fun as the new Kombat is to play, its narrative changes, as much as they elevate the series, put the game at odds with itself. One of the main features of Mortal Kombat has always been Fatalities, gruesome finishing moves you can perform on opponents at the end of a match. This is what brought the series its fame after all, igniting a firestorm of controversy in the early ‘90s and making Mortal Kombat the game to own when it came to consoles. Fatalities are inseparable from the legacy of the series but in Mortal Kombat X they create a tonal dissonance. It is deeply disturbing to play the story mode of Mortal Kombat X and see Johnny Cage hug his daughter only to boot up VS mode or Tower mode and watch him rip her in half. There seems to be an inclination among players and critics to give this dissonance a pass because, well, videogames are videogames and Mortal Kombat is Mortal Kombat but I strongly disagree with such a notion. Mortal Kombat, however silly it might be, is a world, a vision brought to life. And watching characters who deeply care for each other in the game’s story literally rip one another to shreds in other modes is distracting and wholly unnecessary. Why not just create a condition where the Cage or Briggs family can’t perform fatalities on each other, or at least an option for such a thing?
The infamous X-ray mechanic from the 2011 Mortal Kombat returns in Mortal Kombat X and it is also painfully distracting as well. These moves, which you can perform after a meter fills up in-match, are gruesome special attacks where the game slows down and allows you to see your character break your opponent’s bones and crush their organs. They’re fascinating, brutal displays but they don’t have a tangible effect on your foe outside of damaging their life bar. Basic biology dictates that if I break a person’s leg, shoot them in the face, or stomp their spine to dust, they should not be operating at 100% capacity. And yet, that’s exactly what happens in Mortal Kombat X: literally destroy a man’s gonads and he simply walks it off like it’s nothing. It’s a feature that pulls me out of the game and makes me roll my eyes, another case of world consistency being sacrificed at the altar of edginess.
Mortal Kombat X is fascinating in how parts of it seemingly want to get away from the nasty elements that made the series a household name and yet the gravitational pull of legacy and expectation is too strong. Mortal Kombat X is, in the end, no matter how much it wants to persuade you otherwise, just another Kombat game. It also happens to be one of the best ones in spite of itself but it’s difficult for me to shake the feeling that Mortal Kombat has plateaued and that there’s nowhere left to go without changing the fundamentals of the series in a radical way.
Mortal Kombat X was developed by NetherRealm Studios and published by Warner Brothers Interactive Entertainment. It’s available for Xbox 360, Xbox One, Playstation 3, Playstation 4 and PC.