Anyone who was alive and gaming in the ’90s, when Mortal Kombat was a legitimate cultural phenomenon, remembers how the franchise’s savage ultraviolence felt dangerous and defiant. But the harder these games try to push the violent envelope in the present, the more one realizes just how silly a world we lived in when blood spurts and Fatalities felt shocking.
With Mortal Kombat X, one gets the feeling NetherRealm Studios’ time fooling around with the DC Comics license rubbed off on them, as any pretenses the series had toward being anything but a big bloody graphic novel writ large are mostly dust here. The characters we know and love from previous iterations are older, self-serious dinosaurs wrestling with relevance (Johnny Cage’s never-ending stream of snark notwithstanding), joined by a slate of their self-aware, sardonic, gadget-abusing kids, and a smattering a newbies whose designs all had to have started at a NetherRealm boardroom with the phrase “Wouldn’t it be cool if…” It’s the only way to explain D’Vorah, an insect kingdom Playmate of the Year, or Kotal Khan, a giant, brooding Mayan God who shoots sunlight out of his hands. It’s character design straight out of a 14-year-old’s sketchbook, which is exactly the kind of freewheeling, adolescent imagination this series requires.
And so, Story mode is essentially comic-book playtime, finding far-flung, half-serious reasons to pit the characters in the game’s roster against one another. Any seriousness is undercut by plots, dialogue, and line delivery straight out of any number of Shaw brothers films, with growling warriors delivering pseudo-spiritual platitudes about honor, the magic of the universe, mystical artifacts, vengeance for one’s clan, and the power of the Shaolin temple. Ironically, it’s the moments where the writing rises above its station that seem out of place: a character is outed as gay a few chapters in; Sonya and Johnny Cage have simmering spats about their presence in daughter Cassie’s life; and Jax stresses about his daughter signing up for the military. These moments are handled with a modicum of weight, and all within the same story where an insect lady lets a swarm of maggots eat a woman’s face.
Despite the unexpected injections of character development, though, it’s still a Mortal Kombat game, albeit one unconstrained by technological limits. The stripped-down style of combos and specials is carried over from Mortal Kombat 9, with the addition of Variations, which essentially makes every character play three different ways depending on the moveset you give them. X-Ray moves are back and they’d be more gruesome than the fatalities if Mortal Kombat X didn’t introduce some of the most horrifyingly over-the-top finishers in the series’s storied history. It helps that there’s now a grotesque amount of detail, where internal organs and viscera have never looked, moved, or acted more real. But even compared to its limit-pushing predecessor, Mortal Kombat X reaches almost admirably for the outer limits of gore, ranging from the darkly hilarious (Cassie Cage taking a selfie with her victim, whose lower mandible she just whacked off with a baton) to the cartoonishly vicious (Goro pushing a victim’s head down into their torso), and occasionally to the genuinely terrifying (Ermac pulling his victim’s entire digestive system out through their mouth).
It’s all bolstered by a modern-day framework of multiplayer bric-a-brac, as paid DLC is advertised at every turn. Always-on Destiny-style Factions add some wild environmental hazards and surprise elements to fights, but fail to instill a sense of community. The Krypt is a rather well-executed first-person romp to unlock the game’s secrets, but that’s undermined by the fact that real-world money can unlock it all for you. It’s all optional, easily ignorable fat on the meat though. The part of the game that matters, the brash, bold fighting game that is Mortal Kombat X, is an impressive romp for anyone whose inner adolescent is looking for a cheap, satisfying, bloody thrill, and proof positive that Mortal Kombat’s particular brand of violent fun is virtually timeless.