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May 11, 2015

Let's discuss Mortal Kombat X (Part 2).

Credit where credit’s due -- MKX deserves some props for being the first game to have an item-unlocking shop where a virtual wolf can attack you.

The Krypt could have been a simple menu, but apparently the guys at NetherRealm went the extra mile and created a faux-dungeon crawler for you to move around in.  It’s not what I’d call amazing, and it’s probably an annoyance to anyone who just wants a menu to buy costumes/concept art/Fatalities, but it has its purpose.  Seeing as how you have to get in-game currency to unlock stuff, it incentivizes players to get in deep with the other game modes -- which is good, because it makes them practice without necessarily “wasting time” in training mode.

There are multiple “towers” for players to tackle at their leisure, each with their own unique conditions (the Test Your Might tower being the place to button-mash your way to glory).  Okay, sure, playing against CPUs isn’t exactly the best way to train, but it’s something; it lets the player get used to the game before they take the fight online or against friends.  Or, alternatively, it gets them ready for MKX’s Faction War, wherein you choose a clan at the start and complete challenges (online or off) to boost your Faction’s rank and gain rewards.  As far as I know, that’s a bust -- because surprise, surprise, everyone wanted to be part of the ninja team and there’s no point in even trying to fight back.

So forget it.  Let’s move on to the story. 

Spoilers are about to GET OVER HERE, so watch out.  Also, I thought about replacing all the Cs in this post with Ks, but that would’ve been stupid and annoying, so screw it.


Here’s the setup, then: Earth (or Earthrealm) is on the brink of total annihilation thanks to the rise of the evil Elder God Shinnok.  The Special Forces -- a group that includes Johnny Cage, Sonya Blade, and Kenshi, to name a few -- heads in to try and sort things out, even if it means punching and kicking their way through the enemy hordes.  Ultimately, the good guys do manage to win (thanks to perennial asshat Johnny Cage tapping into…uh…the “I Win Force”), and Shinnok gets sealed away inside an amulet.  Cut to twenty-five years later, though, and it’s obvious the fight isn’t over yet; malcontents from the other realms are out to seize Shinnok’s amulet and use it for evil and such.  Now it’s up to a new generation of heroes to sort things out before more total annihilation.

The eagle-eyed among you may have noticed that this game is called Mortal Kombat X -- or, more appropriately, Mortal Kombat 10.  It’s hard to believe that there have been so many (what with several titles completely dropping the numbers), but it’s worth noting that even if the franchise doesn’t have the best reputation, it DOES have a canon.  There’s a story that’s gone on, long before the likes of BlazBlue and Guilty Gear.  It’s because of that canon that MKX tries not only to play to it, but also pays tribute.  It wants people to get a good look at the rich history and lore behind the hyper-violence and meme-tastic lines.

It’s just too bad that it absolutely cripples the story.


There’s just no way around it, because it’s the story’s most glaring flaw.  Okay, sure, for long-time MK fans who have followed the story since the beginning (I’m assuming there was a story in the beginning), it’s got to be a treat to see a new tale unfold in eighth-gen HD while also paying homage to games of the past.  But even for them, there has to be a limit -- and I’d bet for the layman, that threshold is a lot lower.

So let’s just go ahead and get the big issue out of the way: if I had to guess, I’d say a good 60-70% of the dialogue is just characters spouting their wiki entries at each other.  Or just for the audience’s “benefit”.  No matter the case, the characters stop being characters and just become fountains of exposition too many times for comfort, as if the devs were afraid that people would freak out if they didn’t know every last detail about the games/story prior.  Want to know every detail about who Mileena is and why she’s got a beef with every person under the sun?  Too bad!  Take it anyway!  Want to know who Rain is, even though the game makes him look less like a threat and more like a simple henchman?  It’s your lucky day!


And the game doubles down on this -- not just with the dialogue, but with the most sacred and hallowed of writing tools, the flashback.  So many flashbacks.  Off the top of my head (in no particular order), Sonya Blade, Takeda, Kung Jin, D’Vorah, Raiden, and Scorpion all get flashbacks to periods well before the main story.  And guess what?  Because each chapter is devoted to playing as a single character, and there are only twelve chapters total, that means half of the game has flashbacks.  It doesn’t mean half of the game is flashbacks, mind you, but it’s constant enough to pull focus away from the main story and the main characters so that we can do something with some relevance to the plot…in some cases, at least.  Other times it feels like these flashbacks are just for the sake of filling those wiki entries.

It makes me think back to Injustice: Gods Among Us -- a story that I have no problems admitting that I enjoyed.  It wasn’t exactly high art, nor was it anywhere near flawless (The Flash could have resolved everything in a matter of seconds), but I thought it was good.  I thought that it would be a signal of more to come from NetherRealm, while making a steady climb in quality.  But one chapter in Injustice sticks out to this day: the plot essentially grinds to a halt so that Batman can have time to blather on about all his relationships to his Bat-family and Bat-forbidden love.  It was as distracting as it was dumb.  And that’s practically every other conversation in this game. 

“I know you, character!  And to prove it, here is your wiki entry!”
“Yes, and my wiki entry is at odds with your wiki entry!  This displeases me!”
“Aha!  Then now we must do battle!”
“Indeed!  Witty line!”
“Retort!”


It’s just an exposition overload, and a good chunk of it doesn’t even go anywhere.  There’s a scene where Scorpion and Sub-Zero have tea and talk about ninjas getting turned into cyborgs -- and while that’s probably a treat to fans of the canon, a guy like me has to ask: what the hell does that have to do with anything?  I ask this because Scorpion himself says he’s not interested in Sub-Zero’s mention of cyborg politics…so why is it in the game?  How about instead of explaining the backstories of these characters at length, you take time out to let them be characters?  Why not let them define themselves through their words, mannerisms, and actions?  If you have a quartet of main characters, why not let them be the main characters and NOT jump around across the timeline just ‘cause?

This is why, by default, I like Injustice more.  NetherRealm didn’t have to take time out to explain who Batman and Superman were, because we already know who Batman and Superman are.  And even if that was a happy coincidence, it worked for them; we got to see the heroes and villains act like heroes and villains on their own terms.  The exposition stayed under control.  The flashbacks stayed on the sidelines.  MKX completely ignores the groundwork laid by its predecessor and swerves in the opposite direction.

Though I guess you can’t blame them.  Because, as we all know, the things in the past are always more important than things in the present.


That’s obvious just by looking at the four new characters that take the center stage in the story mode -- who my brother and I lovingly dubbed “the Kombat Kids”.  Cassie Cage is the daughter of Johnny Cage and Sonya Blade.  Jacqui Briggs is Jax’s daughter.  Kung Jin is a cousin of Kung Lao.  Takeda is Kenshi’s son (with training from Scorpion at some point, I guess).  It’s a shame we couldn’t get new heroes that put some distance between the old guard, but it’s not exactly a deal-breaker, especially since -- to some extent -- their gameplay makes them different from the MK standbys.  The problem is that story-wise, they’re not exciting enough to earn their place as main characters.  They’re not terrible, but there’s just too much going on to give them the time they need to develop and show their stuff.

Taken as-is in the story, I wouldn’t blame anyone for thinking that the Kombat Kids are a bunch of bumblers and rejects.  Thanks to Kung Jin’s recklessness, the entire team gets pulverized and surrounded by Sub-Zero and his ninja forces -- and probably would have died of Johnny Cage hadn’t stepped in to reveal it was just a training exercise.  So you’d think that he’d learn his lesson, but he ends up causing a fiasco in Outworld that jeopardizes their first real mission and threatens to cause an interdimensional dispute.  And then later in the story, for no reason, he’s suddenly the most diplomatic member of the whole team.  Because…he used to be a thief?


An unfortunate quirk of the NetherRealm stories is that if there are more than two people fighting in any given scene, the game will find ways to narrow the playing field (via jobbers) so that things can break down into a one-on-one fight.  As a side effect, Cassie Cage -- who you can only play as in the last chapter -- spends most of the story getting smacked around both in fight scenes and out of them.  Nobody gives her the respect she deserves, most of her plans end up failing, other characters resolve problems for her, and she can just barely get any sympathy from mommy dearest Sonya. 

This is despite her being ostensibly the leader of the Kombat Kids; honestly, she’s only able to deal the final blow to a powered-up Shinnok because she taps into the same I Win Force as Johnny did years prior…so basically, she wins not thanks to her skill and cunning, but by having the right bloodline.  Maybe they should have called this game Mortal Kombat: Nepotism.


Cassie’s pretty much just the Leonardo of the group (which is at odds with her personality and dialogue in fights, but whatever), but that’s still more than I can say about Takeda and Jacqui.  Takeda’s a nice guy, and he actually benefits the most from having a flashback chapter -- in the sense that he sorts out his daddy issues before going off on a mission to save the world -- but he’s more of a background character than anything.  That’s kind of at odds with his nature, seeing as how he’s a psychic ninja with dual whips, swords, and teleports.

Unfortunately, Jacqui fares even worse.  Again, it’s not like she’s a bad character, and she’s got a cool enough fighting style (as expected from the daughter of Jax), but the story does her no favors.  She doesn’t even get a flashback in her (very late) chapter; instead, she just gets to have romantic subtext supertext with Takeda…even though the hours beforehand didn’t really establish that, but whatever.  I can’t say I’m mad about how they handled the character, but I can’t say that I’m in love with what they did with her.  Or any of the Kombat Kids.  Or anyone in this game, really.  At best.


“Voltech, you miserable wretch!” you call out from your skull-wreathed throne.  “Open your eyes, you fool!  This is a Mortal Kombat game -- the epitome of schlock and cheese!  To expect quality from them is to expect a song and dance from the sun!”  Okay, first of all?  Let’s not use the excuse of “it’s supposed to be bad” to excuse poor quality, because then we get bullshit like Dinosaur Island.  Second, I would actually buy into the idea of Mortal Kombat being schlock and cheese if it actually delivered on that.  But it doesn’t.  It’s not even remotely cheesy enough.  And while it has plenty of issues, it isn’t nearly bad enough to devolve into pure schlock.

So let me ask a question: does anyone here remember God Hand?  I sure do -- and thinking back to it, THAT was the level of cheese that MKX should have aspired towards.  God Hand’s plot basically boiled down to “beat ALL of the demons!”, but it had leading man Gene fighting fat chain smokers, wrestling gorillas, and a bunch of Super Sentai knockoffs called the Mad Midget Five -- and yes, they look exactly as you expect them to.  That game swerved straight into cheese (and/or camp, and/or schlock; let’s not get bogged down by semantics) and was stronger for it.


MKX is in this weird place where it acts like it wants to be taken seriously, but not too seriously.  And it wants to be funny, but not that funny (and it succeeds at that, what with most of the humor being sarcasm and snark).  It wants to be mature, with all of this talk of loyalty and betrayal and trust and legacies, but it’s also a game that lets you slap around Quan Chi in a QTE cutscene and finish him off with a stomp to the balls.  There are all of these elements, but they don’t mesh as well as I would have hoped.  That’s kind of a problem; if this game is supposed to be Cornballs on a Disc, then it needs to offer up more than just a hint of corniness.  It needs to go full tilt, and it didn’t.

But you know what the weirdest thing is?  For all my complaints about the game’s story, I actually don’t hate it.  It’s not better than Injustice’s story, but coming off of Final Fantasy Type-0, it’s leagues better.  At least it has characters I can follow -- or characters in general.  At least things happen at a consistent clip. At least there’s agency all around.  At least motivations are explained (if over-explained).  I don’t agree with every event that goes down -- because Christ, some of these fights are sparked over arbitrary reasons and conflicts -- but shit actually happens. 

And despite my calls for more humor and more cheese, there’s a counter-argument to that.  Because to be honest?  I still get MKX -- because it’s actually at its best when it’s being serious.


The question that immediately came to mind when I first heard about Cassie Cage was “Wait, someone actually willingly married Johnny Cage?”  Johnny’s the high priest of assholes, and his wife Sonya -- in the context of MKX, at least -- is as straight-laced as it gets.  They seem pretty incompatible…and as it turns out, they ARE incompatible; the game pretty much paints their relationship as a mistake, and something that at least one of them (Sonya) resents with great gusto.  In a way, it’s kind of a shot at action movies that have a hero and heroine getting together just ‘cause; when the heat wears off and reality comes into play, the “lovers” are forced to realize that just because they fight well together doesn’t mean they’ll live well together.

There’s a story in there that just follows the circumstances of the fragmented Cage family.  Cassie’s attempts to try and win Sonya’s favor make her seem desperate for love as much as respect for her superior officer.  Sonya’s coldness goes beyond just being a general, to the point where you could make a solid argument that she hates the embodiment of a decision made in the throes of passion (my headcanon is that Cassie is a bastard child, and that Sonya became “Mrs. Cage”, however temporarily, to save face).  And Johnny actually manages to turn down his teeth-grinding jerkassery to try and bring his girls together…and fails every time.

Side note: can you tell I don’t care for Johnny Cage?  Because I don’t.


Believe it or not, MKX actually has an interesting undercurrent of thought -- even if it’s behind a titanium wall of action movie clichés.  (Oh no, Quan Chi actually wanted to get captured as part of his master plan!  How very unprecedented.)  As much as it tries to shove the canon and tomes of exposition in your face, it’s all going towards a certain end -- that end being the theme of “laying the past to rest”.  In that sense, it’s almost as if NetherRealm actually is self-aware about the amount of gibberish baked into the game, and they’re using the story to try and handle it.  Are there lots of flashbacks?  Yes.  Are they inelegant in execution?  It sure feels that way.  But I can understand why they’re there.  I get the purpose.

Consider this: the flashbacks (and a lot of the game in general) are about burying those hatchets.  Kung Jin’s flashback shows that his past as a thief and a closeted homosexual don’t matter in the long run, because he’s got the skills and the will to do something more with himself.  Takeda’s flashback shows that he can and should embrace his lineage, and set aside past grudges so he can get even stronger.  Same goes for Scorpion; he learns firsthand that raging impotently won’t solve anything, and he needs to focus on the right target.  Even in Sonya’s flashback, it’s arguable that she learns to look past her justified hatred of Johnny and see the good in him.  Granted it didn’t work out, but still.


So while it’s weird for me to think this, and it’s absurd to say as much about Mortal Kombat, of all things, I have to say that this game is trying to get across a message.  And the message it’s trying to get across is this: “Fighting is dumb, so let’s all try and get along.”  I’m not even joking.   The game built on over-the-top violence and a canon it pushes with po-faced seriousness is actually doing its best to espouse peace, unity, and cooperation.  And even if it’s a bumpy road to the ending…well, yeah.  It actually works.

Just look at the stuff going on in Outworld.  On one hand, you’ve got the fuchsia-clad monster woman Mileena, who blabs on and on about past slights to her and her wiki entry -- to the point where she tries to use the power of the past (Shinnok) to ruin everything.  She dies.  On the other hand, you’ve got Kotal Kahn --a dead ringer for Ancient Ogre -- who’s actively trying to instill law and order, or something like that, under his rule.  He doesn’t make some of the best decisions in-game (like assuming almost on a whim that Earthrealm has betrayed him), but it’s something.  He lives.  Why?  Because he’s working for peace.  As are the Special Forces.  As are the Kombat Kids.  As is Elder God Raiden -- who you’d think could resolve everything on his own, but is apparently just a stronger-than-average dude.  Makes…sense?


Whatever the case, there’s something weirdly admirable about what happens in the story.  Yes, it’s the past that makes us.  Yes, conflict is sometimes necessary to enact change.  But the former doesn’t have to be all that defines us, and the latter doesn’t have to be all that matters.  And on top of that, loyalty is fine as long as it’s toward the right people and ideas.  Traditions are important to a lot of these characters (Scorpion is a good example), but they’re tapestries to be admired, not chains to be used as bindings.  Hell, just look at the cast; the Kombat Kids are trying to take the canon into a new generation, and that’s on top of plenty of other new fighters that want to make themselves known -- and, you know, get what they want.  That’s always a clincher.

It’s worth noting that this (MKX, at least) is one of the few fighting games out there that doesn’t bank solely on some big tournament by a mysterious benefactor.  That’s fine, really, if not ideal; setting aside the fact that there’s no place for a big dumb tournament in this story, kombat in-universe is supposed to end in death -- and that’s setting aside the sheer danger of any regular fight.  So in a way, the fact that MKX is trying to step away from that actually amounts to something, both in the story and meta-conceptually.  Well, it would amount to a lot more if cutscene after cutscene didn’t have everyone breaking into kung fu fights and big brawls, but I guess you have to have some spectacle.


I’ll be the first to admit that this interpretation is my own, and I don’t expect anyone to buy into it 100%.  But even so, there’s enough in MKX to convince me that even if NetherRealm still has a way to go, and even if it looks like they’ve taken a step backwards, they shouldn’t be counted out yet.  Maybe this game is just a transitional phase -- like they want to take things to a new level, but aren’t quite sure how to do that just yet.  And you know what?  I think they’ll get there eventually.  Maybe for MKXI.  Maybe for Injustice 2.  Maybe for whatever pops up on the PS5.  And whatever they call the next Xbox.

I had my doubts going in about MKX -- about its quality, and its overall lasting appeal.  I’m still concerned about the latter, but there’s still plenty of stuff to like in terms of the former.  It’s not the best fighting game, but it’s plenty serviceable.  It’s not the best story, but it’s hard to heap too much hate on it.  At the end of the day, this game is just junk food to munch on, and you can toss away the wrapper when you’re done.  But it’s just good enough to make you want to grab the next bit of junk food, and do it all again.



So maybe I’ll be back for the next MK game.  Maybe not.  But I like the franchise more now than I did even a few months ago -- and if that’s not a win, I don’t know what is.


But seriously, screw Johnny Cage.


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