Let’s get the obvious out of the way before we start. Mortal Kombat X (Free), the mobile take on the latest in the long-running Mortal Kombat series, is not a port of the game that is about to hit consoles. It uses some scaled-down assets and draws its roster from that game, but you should not expect this game to play like a traditional Mortal Kombat game. Instead, Mortal Kombat X should be seen as sort of a follow-up to the popular mobile version of Injustice: Gods Among Us (Free), with simple tap-based combat and a focus on collecting and building your stable of characters. Like it or lump it, the masses have spoken on what they want to see in a mobile fighting game, and fumbling around with virtual buttons and combos never meant for touch controls didn’t make the list. Likewise, the heavy story elements found in the console versions of the game are nowhere to be found here.
I’m fairly sure that most people reading this review know that already, though, so let’s get on to the more important stuff. After Injustice proved to be far and away the most successful fighting game on iOS, imitations and follow-ups were certain to follow. The big problem, of course, is that when you’re making a game that eschews complexity in favor of collection, you need to have things that people actually want to collect. At the same time, you also need to invest a fair bit into the production values if you want to compete with Injustice. That’s probably why we’ve only seen a couple of riffs on the game so far. Kabam offered up their Marvel-flavored take with Marvel Contest Of Champions (Free), a game that had a bit more meat in its battle system but a somewhat unpleasant monetization model. WB Games itself has released two games that seemed inspired by Injustice’s success. Batman: Arkham Origins (Free) built on the combat at the expense of fun collectibles, feeling a bit like a version of Injustice where every card was a Batman instead of only every fifth. It also had some issues with its monetization, changing things up a few times in a futile effort to stave off its inevitable fade into near-irrelevance.
Perhaps a little shy after the experimentation of Arkham Origins went awry, WB Games teamed up with Phosphor Games to produce WWE Immortals (Free), a game that can be almost entirely summed up as “Injustice with WWE Superstars". It’s fun, and if you like the WWE gang it scratches the same sort of itch that Injustice does for DC characters, but it’s extremely safe. Apart from a few minor tweaks, it’s an effective re-skin with a much smaller roster. The developers of Injustice, NetherRealm Studios, would have to do more than that for a proper sequel. And what better characters to bring their advancements to than their very own Mortal Kombat cast? While they don’t have quite the widespread appeal of Superman and Batman, the Mortal Kombat characters are massive stars in their own right. Even in leaner times for the fighting genre, Mortal Kombat found a great deal of success, and a lot of that comes down to the compelling universe its creators put together. The characters, story, and unusual atmosphere of each Mortal Kombat game set them apart from their peers. Those aspects do a great deal to make up for what are, in my opinion, fairly perfunctory combat mechanics. Throw in a little of the old ultra-violence, and you have the fighting genre’s finest guilty pleasure.
I’m a pretty big fan of the mobile version of Injustice. I was skeptical at first, and like many, I was quite put off by the extremely simple combat. It took me a while to realize that the fighting wasn’t the main point of the game. Rather, the joy of Injustice is in collecting a bunch of characters, unlocking their moves, and collecting their various support cards. It helps that for a free-to-play game, it’s extremely generous. While it makes use of stamina meters, the way they’re set up means that once you have a decent assortment of characters, you can play for a pretty long time without recharging. Almost every character can be had for free through its various card packs that you can purchase with in-game cash, and the vast majority of them are even available a la carte if you don’t feel like testing your luck. The consistent influx of new challenges and the characters that come with them make it a game that’s worth firing up fairly regularly. The game does fairly well in the Top Grossing charts, so it must be monetizing somehow, but it certainly doesn’t seem properly geared towards that sort of thing.
Unfortunately, I think WB Games agrees, because one of the biggest changes in Mortal Kombat X when compared to Injustice is in how its economy is set up. The latter game mainly relied on Power Credits as currency. They could be used to buy almost anything, and were easily earned by playing. You could grind away to your heart’s content if you wanted to buy something expensive. Alliance credits, a misguided attempt at social connectivity, were added later along with a small assortment of cards you could exclusively buy with them, but they never really caught on. Mortal Kombat X, by comparison, is a far more modern stab at free-to-play. There are three currencies in the game. The lowest-value are Alliance Points, earned with every battle when you bring in another player’s character for support. You can use these to pull a single random card that could be anything from a silver character to a special move boost. Next up are Koins, also earned with every battle but in a relatively smaller quantity. You can use these to buy silver card packs that contain a silver character and two other random cards. They can also be used to power up special moves and to buy bronze and silver cards a la carte.
Finally, there are souls, the game’s premium kurrency. These are the only way to get access to almost the entirety of the game’s selection of gold characters. Souls can be earned in a variety of ways, but you can’t grind them, so your progress is going to be a lot slower in Mortal Kombat X than in Injustice or Immortals if you’re trying to play without spending too much cash. One thing that hasn’t changed from those games is the unappealing IAP selection. You can spend $9.99 and still not have quite enough souls to buy a gold pack. Souls are earned the first time you clear any given set of battles. You can also earn them by leveling your main account up, which occurs after a certain number of victories in battle, and by completing daily missions. When you’re only earning a few souls for any of those things and the gold pack sits there with a 150 soul price tag, it’s hard to stay chipper about it all. Simply refilling a single character’s stamina meter carries the stiff cost of three souls, which seems very out of line with how tough it is to earn them.
There are lots of changes outside of the IAP setup, of course. I’m kind of mixed on them. I like that the character tiers are fairly logical now. Bronze characters are no-names who base their move sets on one of the proper kombatants, such as a nameless Lin Kuei clan member or a random Special Forces fighter. Silver characters are vanilla versions of the main cast. They’re more powerful than the lower tier, but that’s how it should be. Gold characters are special versions of the named characters, and they’re the only ones who have access to Fatalities and X-Ray moves. Yes, you’ll have to work for the gore if you want to see it. Rather than have a card for every special move in the game, you’ll instead earn generic cards that can be applied to any character in a particular tier. For example, you might get a card that lets you add a level to any Silver character’s first special move. That’s sensible, and it greatly cuts back on some of the useless pulls that could happen in Injustice.
There are also some new match conditions that help mix things up. You might be allowed to borrow a gold character for a set of matches, for example, but if they are knocked out at any time, you lose the match automatically. Each tower of battles also includes a Test Your Might stage, where you have to hammer away at your screen to try to break increasingly tough materials with a single blow. Well, that part is pretty authentic to the original games at least. Generally, you’ll be doing the same sort of things you did in other WB brawlers. Three-on-three tag-team battles against computer controlled teams composed of increasingly powerful characters, with the odd stipulation here and there to keep things interesting. Powerful boss characters wait at the end of many of the towers, and as usual, if you’re not keeping your characters at the cutting edge, you’ll eventually hit a wall.
Disappointingly, the actual fighting system has been simplified even further. Gone are the heavy swipe attacks. Instead, you just tap and your character apparently decides which of the two combos they’re going to bust out. You can still block by using a two-finger touch, and you also have access to a selection of special moves that require you to fill up a meter at the bottom of the screen. Tap the move you want to use and perform the QTE to do extra damage, just like in the other games. There are a couple of new QTEs here at least, even if only in how they’re presented. If you’re using a character who has a Fatality, you’ll also need to perform a simple QTE here to watch the move play out. The Fatalities are drawn from the console versions of the game and they look as gory as you would expect. One positive new aspect to the fighting is the presence of an extra helper. Before you enter a match, you can choose another player’s character to bring in with you. Once the match starts, you’ll see their portrait at the bottom with a meter slowly filling up. Once it’s finished, you can tap the portrait to have them jump in and use their special attack. That’s a fun addition, I think.
The title screen promises a multiplayer faction mode and a challenge mode, likely quite similar to those found in Injustice and Immortals, but they’re not ready to go yet, so I can’t say much about them. They’ll likely provide an extra avenue to earn souls, if nothing else. For now, there are just the single-player stages, but the fairly huge starting line-up of characters at least ensures you’ll be busy with filling out your collection. Although it’s single-player, the game does online check-ins fairly often, akin to a social RPG. It’s hardly surprising after how excessively Injustice was hacked and gamed, but it’s something those of you without consistent connections will probably want to know about. You can play offline, but you have to use a special offline profile that cuts you off from certain aspects of the game, including the social elements and cloud saving.
While I’m hot and cold on some of the gameplay changes, one thing I can’t say anything bad about is the presentation. Mortal Kombat X looks and sounds fantastic. The character models are detailed and well-animated, the user interface is slick and easy to navigate, and the sound design is top-notch. Sure, most of that is owing to a big brother version that it can borrow from, but the end result is still outstanding. The developers have even included Game Center achievements, which are just as fun here as they were in Injustice. It’s a better mouse trap than its predecessors from top to bottom, and the smart production values are a big part of that. I think people are going to like this better than Injustice, even though it is in some ways a step back from what that game did best.
In the end, I think I’m just a bit disappointed that for how much Mortal Kombat X is a better-designed experience, very little of that improvement includes the actual gameplay. I realize why they don’t want to go whole hog, but this not only lacks things like Contest Of Champions‘s distance control, it even removes the choice of light or heavy attacks from Injustice. That game was already riding a line precariously in terms of not offering enough tactical choices. Mortal Kombat X plants a foot firmly on the side of mindless tapping, with even stopping to block presenting a risky proposition thanks to new unblockable throw moves. The game puts most of its eggs in the preparation basket, and I don’t feel like that side of things is strong enough to support the game on its own. I’m sure I’ll still be playing this for a long time to come, but I can’t help but feel the developer put too little focus on making it a better game than Injustice as opposed to making it a more profitable one.