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Kitana and Liu Kang face each other head to head before a fight in Mortal Kombat 1.

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Mortal Kombat 1 crams a multiverse of pain into one game

It’s so pretty, but so bloody

Image: NetherRealm Studios/Warner Bros. Games
Ana Diaz (she/her) is a culture writer at Polygon, covering internet culture, fandom, and video games. Her work has previously appeared at NPR, Wired, and The Verge.

Mortal Kombat 1 is the Super Smash Bros. of Mortal Kombat games and the Mario Kart: Double Dash of fighting games.

Comparing the latest entry of the fighting game series known for obscene levels of gore and violence to squeaky-clean Nintendo games might seem strange, but hear me out. Mortal Kombat 1 — not to be confused with the original Mortal Kombat released in 1992 — encompasses a bloody regurgitation of all things Mortal Kombat. The game brings back classic characters and stuffs the game to the brim with references to other Mortal Kombat games. It, like Super Smash Bros., is a universe-uniting game — but there’s a twist.

This time around, developer NetherRealm Studios will expand the game’s overall roster by utilizing what the developers are calling a Kameo system. This new way of fighting will allow players to choose a primary fighter and a secondary Kameo fighter, a character who can be called in for the special tag-team attacks, combo breakers, and assists. (Thus the Mario Kart: Double Dash comparison.) Polygon got to experience the new system in action as part of a hands-on preview hosted by publisher Warner Bros. at Summer Game Fest last week. Although the Kameo system allows developers to bring in more characters, satisfying fans who long for the return of forgotten MK fighters, what stood out during the preview were the absolutely stunning visuals and animations implemented in the new game.

Kenshi attacks Liu Kang in Johnny Cage’s house stage in a screenshot from Mortal Kombat 1 Image: NetherRealm Studios/Warner Bros. Games

Mortal Kombat 1 even boots up beautifully; the game’s starting screen depicts a serene forest and lake landscape with two stone dragons in the center. It’s a peaceful scene, but it’s short-lived. From there, I can choose either local multiplayer versus or the Kampaign mode, and move directly to the character select screen. Preview players had the option to choose between four primary fighters — Kenshi, Sub-Zero, Kitana, and Liu Kang — and three Kameo fighters: Jax, Kano, and Sonya. (At launch, the game will come with a base roster of 24 fighters and at least 16 Kameo fighters).

Once my opponent (one of the developers) and I picked our characters, the camera zoomed up close and showed the two primary fighters pushing against each other arm-to-arm as we selected a stage. We decided to fight in a teahouse, and the game seamlessly transitioned into a cutscene of our two characters talking to and taunting each other pre-fight, not unlike the pre-fight interactions from Mortal Kombat 11. This fight was between Liu Kang and Sub-Zero, so Kang said, “Your actions cost lives, Bi-Han!” who responds, “They were in the Lin Kuei’s best interests.”

The Kameo characters layer on another level of complexity in the thick of the action. If you happen to launch a character in the air as Sub-Zero and you haven’t jumped yet, for example, you can call in Sonya with a special move that will quickly hit them midair and leave Sub-Zero available for another follow-up. Kameo characters essentially expand the combo potential of the base fighter. Each Kameo fighter’s moves are limited, and they’ll behave the same no matter which primary fighter you pick. Unlike the primary roster, Kameo characters are oddly quiet given how much we hear from the main characters in fights and in between scenes.

Sub-Zero using and ice attack that leaves an icey shadow of where he flipped and jumped in Mortal Kombat 1. Image: NetherRealm Studios/Warner Bros. Games

If you aren’t used to playing Mortal Kombat or other gory games, be prepared to wince more than a few times. The game bears its traditional over-the-top gore-filled style, and it looks all the more overwhelming in Mortal Kombat 1, with its hyper-realistic art style. If pulled off, Kitana can blend the flesh of her opponent with her steel fans, and Liu Kang can hold an enemy between two fiery dragons and then split their body by pushing their head down through it, cleaving them in half. If you want something a bit more toned down, the game also has classic Fatalities Kameo fighters can perform that are slightly tamer. Kano’s classic heart rip is included, as is Sonya’s burning kiss of death.

Playing Mortal Kombat 1, as someone who is gore-averse, is like juggling constant back-and-forth thoughts that bristle at the blood and guts, but are absolutely in awe of the mastery of animation and level of polish evident in this game. Take Sonya, for example. You can see her slightly shiny spandex bend and flex with her WWE-like move set, reflecting the light of every move. She’s not a primary fighter, but we can still see details like the dirt stuck in the wrinkles of her worn, off-brand Reebok sneakers.

Sub-Zero and Sonya pose with the flaming skeleton aftermath of a Fatality in Mortal Kombat 1 Image: NetherRealm Studios/Warner Bros. Games

Additionally, the game at times seems to bring a healthy sense of humor that makes the gore just a bit more bearable. In the daytime version of the Fengjian Teahouse stage, you can play in a rambunctious bar, and as you fight, people in the background will have scared reactions — save for one man who straight-up vibes and fist pumps in response to the grotesque violence happening right in front of his face. And some Fatalities, like Jax’s, where he inexplicably becomes a giant and stomps his opponent with a huge boot in a throwback to Mortal Kombat 3, inject some humor and (slightly) less gore.

If you can stomach it, Mortal Kombat 1 is coming to Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, and Xbox Series X on Sept. 19.