Six hours into my time with Mortal Kombat 1, I’ve barely scratched the surface — I haven’t battled against a human opponent yet, and I’ve only seen a fraction of its ambitious story mode. But it’s the new Invasions mode that’s stealing most of my time right now, and potentially making me miss my deadline for pre-launch impressions of NetherRealm’s new fighting game.
All of which is to say that Mortal Kombat 1’s single-player components are extravagant. The campaign — or “Kampaign” — is beefy, in part thanks to well-produced, very expensive-looking cutscenes that play between clusters of actual fights. Many of these storytelling cinematics can run up to 10 minutes, as heroes Raiden, Kung Lao, Johnny Cage, and others encounter new enemies and allies alike in Outworld. There’s an immense amount of exposition and dramatic justification for characters fighting, but little of it feels forced.
Even better: After more than a decade of games with a consistently cinematic storytelling style, the story of Mortal Kombat 1 feels fresh again. The game’s narrative is the latest reset of the Mortal Kombat timeline, this time with Liu Kang doing his best to chart the course for a more peaceful version of history. This means that previously well-established characters like Raiden (not a god!) and Sub-Zero and Scorpion (not mortal enemies!) have very different stories and motivations this time around. Some characters, like Johnny Cage, are experiencing the events of a Mortal Kombat tournament for the first time, often to hilarious effect.
According to my PlayStation 5 save, I’m about halfway through the game’s epic reimagining of Mortal Kombat lore, so I expect the campaign to run about eight to 10 hours. I’m genuinely excited to see where NetherRealm leaves the state of the universe at MK1’s conclusion.
Thanks to single-player Towers, I’ve already seen a second slice of Johnny Cage’s new storyline. These stacks of fights are mainstays of Mortal Kombat, throwing a character against a set number (or even an infinite number) of foes. Defeating a Tower’s worth of opponents gives you an arcade game-style ending; I picked Johnny Cage’s and it does not disappoint. (Spoiler alert: He takes part in Mortal Kombat not just to fulfill his destiny, as impressed upon him by Liu Kang, but to use Outworld as inspiration for a new cinematic universe he’s pitching. NetherRealm is, as always, having a ton of fun with Johnny as its main source of comic relief.)
Mortal Kombat 1’s Invasions mode tells a different type of story altogether: seasonal, multiversal yarns where players, again at the direction of Liu Kang, must defeat a major threat through a series of fights. There’s little exposition here beyond an initial animated intro: The first season is about a very angry and jealous alternate-reality Scorpion who plans to destroy an entire timeline because his dead wife got married to someone else.
We’ve already previewed Invasions, a mode that sends players on a board game-like dungeon-crawler, but I’m surprised at how quickly it’s hooked me. It helps that Johnny Cage is your very funny guide through how it works, and that NetherRealm showers you with rewards after fights. I’ve unlocked a decent amount of in-game currency, skins, weapon variants, fighter color palettes, and other perks in just a few hours with Invasions. The mode has a strong “OK, just one more battle” gravitational pull, and it already seems like the perfect place for players who are shy about playing Mortal Kombat 1 online but still want to get years’ worth of playtime out of the game. (It’s worth noting that there’s no battle pass in Mortal Kombat 1, and everything you earn is purely cosmetic.)
There’s a ton of content to unlock through a variety of means. There are Koins, which you can earn in multiple modes and spend at the Shrine, where you basically pull a slot machine handle to unlock in-game stuff. My first pull gave me concept art of a royal Edenian carriage and my second unlocked artwork of a guy who works in Madame Bo’s restaurant. Later, I was rewarded with in-game currencies and a palette swap for Rain. In other words: Expect highs and lows at the Shrine.
Other unlockables come from Mastery progression, on a per-fighter (and per-Kameo fighter) basis. I’m currently in the process of leveling up my Sub-Zero, unlocking color palettes, name cards, brutalities, and more as I earn XP in various modes. Thankfully, the content you do unlock through Mortal Kombat 1’s Mastery levels applies to the character you’re playing as — you won’t unlock stuff for Li Mei while playing as Scorpion, for example. There are premium, paid unlocks too. Through an in-game store, players can spend Dragon Krystals on fancier character and weapon skins. Dragon Krystals can be earned in-game as well, but expect them to be fewer and further between than the other currencies.
For lapsed Mortal Kombat players or newcomers, there’s also plenty of tutorial and training content to dig through. NetherRealm has refined its onboarding with Mortal Kombat 1, with quick lessons that explain the basics, like blocking and enhanced special moves, as well as more advanced techniques, including how to understand frame data and positioning. (And guess what? Completing tutorials unlocks currency, too, paying out thousands of Koins to spend on stuff at the Shrine.)
If you just prefer the single-player side of Mortal Kombat, there’s a deep well of content for non-competitive fans of the franchise to dive into. The story is already shaping up to be one of NetherRealm’s best, with months’ and potentially years’ worth of seasonal content to keep you coming back, unlocking goodies, and maybe even improving at fighting games writ large along the way.
Mortal Kombat 1 will be released on Sept. 19 on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, and Xbox Series X. The game was reviewed on PS5 using a pre-release download code provided by Warner Bros. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.