With the full release of Mortal Kombat 1, NetherRealm Studios’ reboot/sequel of its klassic fighting game series, just around the corner, this weekend’s closed beta gave an exciting look at how it will iterate on the series’ established mechanics. With only a single tower in which to fight CPU opponents, an online versus mode, and a small roster of 6 main fighters and 4 Kameo fighters, the beta wasn’t as robust as it perhaps could have been, but it succeeded in giving a good sense of what to expect next month.
Mortal Kombat 1’s strange position as a timeline reset, which also acknowledges the events of Mortal Kombat 11, presents an interesting mix of old and new in its mechanics and roster. Despite what the title implies, this is not exactly a remake of the very first game in the series from 1992; while there are roster mainstays from that era, such as Liu Kang, Sonya Blade and Sub-Zero, some other fan-favourites and wildcards from subsequent games, like Li Mei and pre-robot arms Jax, have also been included. At least as far as the beta is concerned, much of the extensive character customisation and variant movesets for each character that Mortal Kombats X and 11 introduced have been stripped out, leading to a fighting game that harkens back to the simpler days of old in some respects.
Where Mortal Kombat 1 makes up for the lack of customisation is the implementation of the Kameo system. Kameos are assist fighters whom you pick alongside your main fighter. They function not unlike the tag system in the Marvel vs Capcom series, albeit without the full ability to tag out and swap which character you are playing as. Kameos can be summoned to augment your kombos and land extra hits, or tank a hit that was intended for you. They also play a part in the Fatal Blow system returning from MK11, where players on the brink of defeat can trigger a powerful super move that combines both your fighter and Kameo to damage your opponent. Kameo attacks operate on a fairly quick cooldown, which ensures their frequent use without allowing you to sit back and let them do all the work.
The Kameo system is a fun addition to the gameplay which I feel will only grow in depth once players have the game’s full roster to experiment with. Any Kameo can be paired with any fighter, leading to some intriguing combinations, such as freezing someone in place with Sub-Zero to tee them up for Jax’s powerful area-of-effect slam attack.
Having a second fighter to trigger attacks while your main fighter is mid-kombo or in a recovery animation also noticeably speeds up the game’s pace. I’m sure these mechanics will bring a tonne of depth to higher-level play if Mortal Kombat 1 makes an impression with that crowd.
The rest of the Mortal Kombat experience feels as polished as ever. The series’ trademark Fatalities and Brutalities are suitably graphic and over-the-top, whether it is Li Mei turning her opponent’s head into a firework or Johnny Cage smashing his foe’s face into the Hollywood Walk of Fame. What’s more, you can choose to pull off your Kameo fighter’s Fatality instead, which at least presents a bit more variety in the finishing moves. The Fatality moves aren’t terribly hard to pull off this time around, which may irritate series purists. However, considering how much the spectacular death animations are a core part of the Mortal Kombat trademark, I’m satisfied that more players of varying skill and experience levels will be able to regularly enjoy them.
Admittedly, the beta could have stood to be a bit more feature-rich in some areas. NetherRealm’s previous fighting games have been known for their detailed tutorials and training modes. These have been generally pretty excellent in easing players into 2D fighting games, a genre that can otherwise be fairly impenetrable for newcomers. There isn’t one here, despite how much the Kameo system overhauls the gameplay, which made the difference between fighting CPU fighters and more skilled online players feel even more stark than usual. Also, while a small roster for a beta is certainly forgivable, more than only two stages to fight in might have made my experience feel a bit more varied.
Overall, the Mortal Kombat 1 beta left me excited about where the game is headed. I was initially concerned that its back-to-basics approach to its roster and mechanics would strip out a lot of the depth and wealth of content found in Mortal Kombat 11, but I shouldn’t have worried. The Kameo system feels like just what the series needed to give Mortal Kombat 1 its own identity and a new spin on an established fighting game formula. While the beta only gave a small insight into how these new mechanics will really play out once the full roster and suite of mechanics is accessible, it has certainly given Mortal Kombat fans a lot to look forward to.
Mortal Kombat 1 will be released on September 19th, 2023 onto PC, PS5, Xbox Series X|S and Nintendo Switch.