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Video Game Review: ‘Mortal Kombat 11’

Director:
Ed Boon
With:
Matthew Yang King, Richard Epcar, Ronda Rousey, and Mary Elizabeth McGlynn  

Played 15 hours on Xbox One.

Mortal Kombat 11” is like a slasher film, a bloody mess that evokes emotion in the same ways that the horror genre does—specifically, the more campy horror flicks. Developed by NetherRealm Studios, “Mortal Kombat 11” doesn’t try to scare players with jump scares or psychological horror, but is instead blatant in its unrestrained gore. NetherRealm is playing off very real human, primal fear of blood and guts as a way to force a sort of terror on its players.

In “Splatter Movies: Breaking the Last Taboo,” horror expert John McCarty wrote that splatter movies, a term he coined to describe gory films, “aim not to scare their audiences, necessarily, nor to drive them to the edge of their seats in suspense, but to mortify them with scenes of explicit gore.”

“In splatter movies, mutilation is indeed the message—many times the only one,” McCarty wrote. “Mortal Kombat 11,” of course, isn’t a film, though the story mode certainly feels like one. Instead, NetherRealm is perfecting its own genre, the splatter game, with its latest installment in the series, improving upon a formula that’s been decades in the making.

To play “Mortal Kombat 11,” which is available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, and Nintendo Switch,  it’s necessary to remove any sort of humanity from the game. It’s not only because the game requires a suspension of belief in how characters survive, despite otherwise unsurvivable circumstances. Plenty of times, Johnny Cage will get sawed in half just to jump right up to continue fighting. (The characters do show some damage in “Mortal Kombat 11”, with increasing blood stains or gouged out body parts—even so far as just sweat building on characters’ faces.) But the dissociation is essential in simply being able to watch the gruesome “crushing blows” or “fatalities” over and over again. It’s a different experience than with a film; the horror of a murder scene will pass, but “Mortal Kombat 11” is about experiencing that over and over again. If you think too hard about your own teeth being crushed by a fist’s impact, you’re not going to want to play this game for too long.

There’s so much in “Mortal Kombat 11’s” fighting, with plenty of complexity to focus on. New abilities are exciting to learn, and perfecting old moves is rewarding. Like the game before it, “Mortal Kombat 11” fighting centers on focus, control, and timing; nailing all three without being distracted by the gruesome nature of the game is a challenge. The challenge it presents is frustrating but rewarding; when you’re unable to land a combo or counter a nasty move, you know it’s on you—not janky controls. An expanded tutorial section, which is impressively robust, makes it a bit easier for newcomers, allowing players to adjust to “Mortal Kombat 11’s” peculiarities and learn different tactics. It’s still not a newcomer-friendly game, but the tutorial system is thorough enough to be, at least, more welcoming. (Some of the online, timed challenges in the tower modes will be frustrating for new players who don’t have move sets and blocks memorized, as difficulty there can’t be adjusted.) As welcoming as a “Mortal Kombat” game can get, at least.

But it’s that excessive, over-the-top violence is expected of a “Mortal Kombat” game. Players come to the game in anticipation of all the ways a body can be skewered or a spine can be ripped from a human body. (One of the more ridiculous ways, as demonstrated by “Mortal Kombat 11,” is a mega crotch-kick that forces the spinal cord to eject straight up through body.) The premise of such violence is so excessive as to be ridiculous—silly, even.

And it makes sense. Comedy and horror are often both about excess, pushing things a little too far. In “Mortal Kombat 11’s” case, forget a little bit, though; it’s pushing things straight off the edge. For every body torn apart, “Mortal Kombat 11” has an equally ridiculous storyline to follow. And that’s not surprising for the notoriously campy series, each game outdoing itself with guts and chaos. You need the bad jokes and obnoxious narcissism of a character like Johnny Cage to break the tension of violence, a reminder of what the experience is. That splatter horror thrives in excess. And that’s why it works.

“Mortal Kombat 11” picks up after the last game in the series, “Mortal Kombat X,” with Raiden contending with the power of Shinnok’s amulet. Much of the story centers on balance between light and dark in the world, through each of “Mortal Kombat 11’s” worlds. A time-wielding character, Kronika, bends time into itself, which causes characters long-gone—or dead and “alive” as the zombie-esque versions of themselves—to fold into present day, meaning Johnny Cage gets to meet the younger version of himself.

And that is just the beginning. It’s a level of absurdity that’s expected out of a “Mortal Kombat 11″—of course, Johnny Cage can fight himself, and it’s now lore. McCarty wrote in “Splatter Movies” that plot “is only a method of getting from one gory episode to the next,” but that’s much too simple of a premise for “Mortal Kombat 11.” The game’s lore is tangled up in decades of games and movies. With such a large cast of characters—ones that are dead, then alive, then dead-alive again—it’s impressive that NetherRealm is able to untangle such a complex mess into something understandable and intriguing. Yes, it’s ridiculous. No, it doesn’t always make sense. But there’s a self-awareness there that’s more clever than others in the genre. It wouldn’t be right to call its absurdity just a way to move from fight to fight, but it’s not necessarily wrong to say that, either—there are options to skip through cutscenes and right into ripping off Sonya Blade’s face.

There are plenty of people who will ignore any semblance of a story and revel only in “Mortal Kombat 11’s” fighting. “Mortal Kombat 11” is fairly similar in that regard to the “Mortal Kombat” games that came before it, bringing a fan-favorite cast of characters and a few new ones, too. Beyond the story mode, players can fight online or locally against other human players or against AI in a few different modes, including a new tower system that sets players up against a series of challenges. Each of these brings different rewards and motivations. Online or with friends, it’s about the glory of the fight—putting on display your prowess with any number of the game’s 25 characters, or how you’ve perfected your combos and memorized frame rate data. Elsewhere, fighting against AI is rewarding, building up a player inventory of customization options. This is a game after all, and so there’s skins, plenty of them, with a number of different taunts, introductions, and gear to swap out.

Ultimately, “Mortal Kombat 11” is more of “Mortal Kombat,” continuing in the trend of outdoing itself even when it doesn’t seem possible. Some will come to the came for its campy humor, others for the skull-crushing drama. We’ll continue to ask ourselves why we’re drawn to the overindulgence of it all—why can’t we look away from blood, guts, and gore? The violence in “Mortal Kombat 11” is gratuitous, but it’s also self-aware. In both comedy and horror, we like to make ourselves feel uncomfortable. “Mortal Kombat 11” is uncomfortable. Outlandish. Campy. Combined with the game’s complex, precise gameplay, it’s a damn good fighting game.

Popular on Variety

Video Game Review: 'Mortal Kombat 11'

Cast: Matthew Yang King, Richard Epcar, Ronda Rousey, and Mary Elizabeth McGlynn  

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