As fighting games go, Mortal Kombat has always held a distinct place in the history of the genre, shunning the often cartoonlike style of its contemporaries in favour of gore and guts. Its latest incarnation on the Vita is no different, pushing the boundaries of taste to the extreme with ludicrously over-the-top attacks that see you ripping your opponents in half and impaling them on spikes, while also building upon the console versions with new content and challenges that make great use of the Vita's multitude of inputs. Subtlety and sophistication are not Mortal Kombat's strong points, but beneath its bloody exterior lies an engrossing 2D fighting game that manages to capture the feel of its forebears, while also offering new experiences for longtime fans.
Abracadabra! Now beat yourself with this skull.
Most fighting games have some kind of narrative backing up the action, but few do more with it than bookend their arcade modes with a few cutscenes. Not so in Mortal Kombat's Story mode. Each fight you have is punctuated by in-engine cinematics, taking you on a journey that reboots the narrative from the first three Mortal Kombat games. The story picks up where left off, with Thunder God Raiden under attack from Shao Kahn, an evil emperor hell-bent on merging Outworld with Earth Realm--a process that threatens to end all life on the planet.
Raiden sends a message to his past self in order to prevent that outcome, which manifests itself as a series of visions. Though he's not entirely sure what the visions mean, Raiden proceeds to help the people of Earth Realm compete in the Mortal Kombat tournament, which decides the fate of the two worlds. By using the time travel mechanic, the story does a great job of introducing new players to the series, while also giving long time fans a new perspective on events. Be warned if you're not a fan of cut scenes, though. You can't skip them, even if you've already watched them when you resume a game. You also can't choose to replay specific sections of Story mode, even after you've conquered it; you either resume from your last save or start all the way from the beginning.
You initially take on the role of the actor Johnny Cage, whose arrogant personality and inordinate sexism make him something of a chore to listen to. Fortunately, you play as different fighters as you progress, most of which made an appearance in the first three games. They include classics such as Scorpion, Sub Zero, and Liu Kang, through to later additions such as Kabal, Smoke, and Sindel, who are unlocked from the start. You're also taken through a range of different environments, which look great. They're full of detail, re-creating some of the classic environments from previous games. One moment you're fighting beside a river of blood or in the fiery depths of the underworld, and the next you're being transported to an arena filled with giant monsters and chained-up slave girls.
Since the Vita version contains all of the previously released DLC, you also have the option of playing as Skarlet, Rain, Kenshi, and the infamous Freddy Krueger, as well Kratos from the PlayStation 3 version. Plus, you get a bunch of new costumes and fatalities for characters like Reptile, Jade and Kitana. Each time you switch characters in Story mode you learn about their origins and motivations for joining the tournament, whether that's revenge, bravery, or simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Though it would be inaccurate to say the story is particularly deep, it is entertaining, with tongue-in-cheek dialogue and a number of twists that keep you guessing--even if it gets a little absurd at times. Each character is well voiced, and because there's some motivation for the fighters' actions, there's more than just gameplay to keep you invested through until the end of the five-hour-plus narrative.
Reptile is no match for the smarmy arrogance of Cage.
That's not to say the gameplay isn't enough to keep you entertained--far from it. Mortal Kombat makes a return to the single-plane 2D fighting that the series is known for, albeit with 3D models in place of digitised sprites. Your goal is to knock out your opponent using a range of kicks, punches, and special moves, such as knife throws, acid spit, and fireballs. You can chain moves together to perform combos, and also juggle your opponents by knocking them into the air and following up with additional attacks. Pulling off such moves is tricky, but things are made a little easier with a stripped back control scheme that harks back to the simple controls of the arcade originals, albeit with some tweaks.
There are still four primary attack buttons, but rather than launching high and low attacks, each button now corresponds to a limb--similar to the control scheme from the Tekken series. Separate buttons perform blocks, while another performs throws. Though longtime fans may lament these changes, they actually make things a little easier, particularly if you're new to the series, as it's much more intuitive to perform low attacks by pushing down on the D pad or analogue stick. The new controls are pleasingly responsive, with a feel that's very much reminiscent of --that is, very fast. You need quick reflexes to dodge your opponent's attacks, as well as for finding those small openings in fights where you can squeeze in a punch and follow up with a devastating combo.
Many of the button combinations for moves have been simplified. You still need speedy thumbs to enter in the button commands at the right time, but with less to remember it's easier than ever to pull off some impressive looking attacks. If you're used to playing the likes of , then the feel of Mortal Kombat will take some getting used to because the animation is less fluid. Moves don't string together as smoothly, so if you try to perform a combo that isn't in your character's repertoire, there's a delay between each attack, which feels jarring if you're not used to it. This doesn't make the game any less fun, though; it's just a different approach.
It's a cheap shot, but boy does it work.
While the basic controls have been stripped back, a super meter has been introduced that gives you a few more options during a fight. As you receive and land hits, the meter builds up through three levels. The lowest level gives you access to enhanced moves. By holding down the block button while performing one of your character's special moves, that move becomes faster and more powerful, making it much trickier for your opponent to dodge. Fill the meter up to the second stage, and you can perform breakers--a type of counterattack. Tapping a directional button while holding down the block button breaks up an opponent's combo, letting you unleash a satisfying counterattack of your own, though getting the timing right does take some practice. Max out the meter, and you can perform devastating super combos called X-ray moves. These vary depending on your chosen character, but all are performed the same way, by holding down the block and grab buttons.