Mortal Kombat 11 sees the return of the nearly 27-year-old franchise, and likely for its last hurrah on this generation of consoles. NetherRealm’s latest is a solid kontender for the best PlayStation 4 beat-em-up, but its heart has been korrupted by a baffling progression system.

Picking up after the events of 2015’s Mortal Kombat X, Raiden is now acting as judge, jury, and executioner of all threats to Earthrealm – including the undead versions of his former comrades. After he executes Shinnok, new antagonist Kronika appears to attempt to rewrite the history of the Universe.

Kronika’s time manipulation powers allow the campaign (or should that be kampaign?) to bring together fighters from across the storied franchise’s history. While seeing young Johnny Cage meet his older self may sound like it borders on fan-fiction, the smart writing and excellent voice acting throughout make for some surprisingly effective moments. There’s comedy, tragedy, and drama throughout, and these characters have never felt more believable – no mean feat considering the series’ history of jumping between dimensions, worlds, and alien races with plenty of hamminess.

The idea of timelines colliding leads to pure fan-service, and each cutscene is more bombastic than the last. Heads roll, castles are stormed, and there are twists and turns galore across the story’s six to eight hour runtime. It’s easily up there with NetherRealm’s work on the Injustice franchise, and shows how it's been honing its craft for so long.

There are some foibles, of course. Watching Cassie Cage spar with her mother Sonya Blade seems neat until she shoots her in the kneecaps or cracks her skull with a handgun. These instances of ludonarrative dissonance are surprisingly funny, like a game so irreversibly set on violence trying to reconcile with the more human elements of its own storyline only to remember that it is, first and foremost, a beat-'em-up.

Thankfully, it’s a (very) bloody good one at that. For a franchise that built its reputation on over-the-top violence, it’s easy to forget how well the series has controlled. Mortal Kombat 11 is weightier than its predecessors, and will feel glacial for those accustomed to Street Fighter and other contemporaries. Fights feel more tense thanks to a 'Perfect Block' mechanic, which paired with the larger window of counter-attacking left after an errant flurry can cause all sorts of problems for players reliant on spacing special moves.

If a fighter’s health drops, players can execute a 'Final Blow' attack. These replace the previous X-Ray moves, and can turn the tide of battle – dealing huge amounts of damage. Of course, they aren’t guaranteed to hit, so working them into a combo can be the best course of action. Simply put, every fighter feels dangerous – and an excellent suite of tutorials help onboard newcomers and veterans alike.

This slower pace does nothing to stem the viscera – Mortal Kombat’s violence has always walked the line between the ridiculous and the wince-inducing, and Mortal Kombat 11 feels like the purest form of this. As always, fatalities are the big draw, but environmental attacks and special moves have a chance to trigger the X-Ray vision of bones breaking and organs puncturing.

These details are bought to life through impeccable presentation. Mortal Kombat 11 is one of PlayStation 4’s prettiest titles, be that in-game or in cutscenes. On PlayStation 4 Pro, frame rate is solid, too – even with detailed backgrounds often filled with moving parts and characters.

Mortal Kombat 11 is stuffed with content (kontent?), too. There are 25 characters included at launch, including newcomers Geras, Cetrion, and Kollector. Unfortunately, there are significant omissions, too; with no Smoke, Ermac, Kenshi, or Reptile on the roster, we’ll hope for some robust DLC. It’s a shame for die-hard fans of those characters, and there’s a lack of diversity in characters, too – without Goro, there’s no hulking brute of a character such as Bane in Injustice.

What Mortal Kombat 11 has gained from its superhero sister-franchise is the addition of customisable gear pieces. While they serve no gameplay purpose, the central time-shifting conceit means you can recreate classic costumes throughout the roster.

It’s in the unlocking of these items that Mortal Kombat 11 fumbles, however. Currency can be earned throughout all modes, but it comes in various forms. These can be spent in the Krypt, a third-person area located on Shang Tsung’s island.

This sounds simple enough, but unlockable content is found within crates which act essentially as loot boxes. Some contain specific rewards and require alternative currency, but the sheer number of insignificant items (player banners for online play, for example) dilutes the pool cosmetics to the point where skins, taunts, and fatalities feel all too rare.

This can be negated somewhat by the inclusion of Towers, themed gauntlets of encounters. By unlocking character-specific towers, gear can be unlocked for that fighter – but this requires grinding against difficulty spikes.

These spikes can be lessened with the use of augments, items that can be socketed into gear to give an advantage (only in towers, mind) – but these sockets are randomly decided and it costs currency to re-roll a piece of gear in the search for a more useful setup.

At the time of writing, microtransactions aren’t live on the PlayStation Store, so it will be interesting to see if they remove the need to grind for some of the higher-tiered cosmetic gear in the game.

Conclusion

Structural foibles detract from the fact that Mortal Kombat 11 is an excellent fighter with lots to offer. Those yearning for the gore-soaked days of old will find plenty to love, and newcomers will be enthralled by its excellent story and deep fighting system.