Flashy, shallow and a lot of fun, Mortal Kombat X is a progressive sequel that will delight fans but won't convert newcomers.
Why would Sonya Blade fall in love with Johnny Cage? Mortal Kombat X does not even attempt to solve this riddle, choosing instead to lean into the sheer impossibility that their union would not only happen but result in a beautiful, bad-ass baby named Cassandra Cage. (Why would she take her dad's name? The unsolved mysteries abound.)
Mortal Kombat X introduces a new generation of kombatants in a story that falls a couple of decades after the 2011 Mortal Kombat reboot, during which time the development team has clearly undergone some soul-searching. The embarrassing jiggle physics of Mortal Kombat 9 have been replaced by practical sports bras; the cleavage-revealing "battle damage" mechanic has been axed as well.
Mortal Kombat 9's story, which depressingly concluded with the white-as-snow duo Johnny and Sonya getting saved by Raiden, has been followed up by a narrative that revolves around a much more diverse cast of four new characters, including Mortal Kombat's first canonical gay character, and also a black woman who survives all the way to the end of the campaign. There's more of a focus on the women, and - I can't emphasise this enough - they get to wear real bras this time. Real bras, people. Like, for fighting.
If only the campaign weren't chopped up into disorienting flashbacks and inexplicable quick-time events! I don't want to press "X" every few seconds just to prove that I'm still paying attention to expository dialogue. And as for the flashbacks, they only serve to remind me that NetherRealm is terrified of making its old characters look their age. General Blade, for example, looks the same age as her 20-something daughter. All of Mortal Kombat's old favourites must be pushing 50 by now, and Mortal Kombat X seems like the first attempt to let them go; I expect the four fresh fighters introduced in this game to become the face of future titles. I also expect fans to be irritated about Liu Kang, Sindel and the rest moving to the back burner in favour of lesser-known newcomers, but Mortal Kombat needed some fresh blood - and a fresh perspective.
The moves in Mortal Kombat X resemble their predecessor, except they're smoother, slicker and more customisable. Players can choose between three different fighting styles once they select their kombatant, which will alter some of the character's moves. Other optional variations are more cosmetic, such as the huge selection of alternate costumes and finishing moves on offer for "koins" in the Krypt. (Earning "koins" in battle takes time, but the lazy rich among us will be pleased to hear that real-world money can also open any in-game coffer.) The "X-ray" special attacks, first introduced in Mortal Kombat 9, have been replaced by a new selection of gruesome skull-shatterers; Raiden's and Cassie's became my personal favourites. The extensive Brutality and Fatality unlockables provide more than enough goofy, gory fodder for anyone who likes to scream "ew" at their television.
Mortal Kombat X uses a meter for "X-ray" attacks or enhanced specials, as well as a stamina meter underneath the health bar which controls how often dashes and combo breakers can be performed (a breaker will also take a couple chunks out of your special meter). Mortal Kombat 9's dash cancelling has been phased out in favour of this two-meter system.
It feels more slippery than its predecessor, but all of the move-sets can be seen on the surface in Mortal Kombat X. Each character's move list includes a secondary screen with every combo - er, kombo - not to mention frame data for each move. The inclusion of so much mechanical detail feels like a bid to be taken seriously, especially given Mortal Kombat's history; unlike Street Fighter 4 and Marvel vs Capcom 3, it's been a long time since I've seen Mortal Kombat 9 featured on the big screen at a fighting game tournament. Back in the 90s, MK started out as America's answer to the popularity of Street Fighter, but as Street Fighter games have grown and evolved, Mortal Kombat games have waffled. Mortal Kombat X's learning curve is still, in my opinion, more on par with Super Smash Brothers than Street Fighter, but its multi-meter system will add at least one more layer of complexity to competitive play.
Speaking of competitive play, online match-matching took forever for me to load, but once I managed to connect, I didn't see much lag in-game. The game works best with local play, as all fighting games do, and it also has a lot on offer for those afraid to battle strangers. In addition to the story mode, Mortal Kombat X includes its classic "tower" battles against endless AI fighters, plus a "Test Your Luck" mode that allows you to fight with modifiers like super-strength, extra-short matches, or finishing move prompts that appear throughout. The Practice mode is in the One-Player screen, but it does allow for a second player to hop in locally. Best of all, it'll display input chains for both human fighters - even Street Fighter doesn't do that.
In a long tradition of Mortal Kombat laziness, "Easy Fatality" tokens are available for unlocking in the Krypt (and also for real-world money). Mortal Kombat fans know that the original games had a cheat code for Easy Fatalities, so the miniature controversy surrounding their inclusion in Mortal Kombat X should hold no water. Fatalities aren't that hard to do, but if you don't want to learn any of them, you don't have to. You can still look just as cool, and no one will know the difference.
That's Mortal Kombat in a nutshell: looking cool, even if there's not that much going on behind the curtain. Mortal Kombat X has some new tricks on offer, but the fun of the game is in its blood-splattering finishers and cocky jokes. The flashiest moves in Mortal Kombat aren't hard to perform, and they never have been; there's a reason that the Finishers are reserved for characters who are already dead. It's the ultimate taunt: you kick your opponent while they're already down, and in the most performative way possible. It's literal overkill, and yet this attitude is the beating, bloody heart of the series. I guess I love this game for the same reason that Sonya still falls for Johnny Cage's bullshit: the fuzz guitars, the lightning bolts, the strawberry-jam blood stains, and the action movie hyperbole. If you don't know why anybody likes that stuff, then you're not going to like this game - but if you're ready to fall in love all over again, Mortal Kombat X awaits.