The Best Mode in Mortal Kombat 11 is The Krypt

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No preamble, no sugarcoating: NetherRealm Studios hid an entire alternate game within the crunchy punch-bangs of Mortal Kombat 11, and no one is talking about it.

It starts out like any other good introduction to a series of brutal deaths, with an ancient, surprisingly good-looking sorcerer welcoming you to his island and insisting that nothing bad is about to happen at all.

oh no

Mortal Kombat 11 is the latest entry in the long-running fighting game series about colorful, vibrantly-designed people wrecking each other in the most violent ways possible. Spines get ripped out of bodies, skulls explode on a disturbingly regular basis, blood spurts into the sky like confetti…You get the idea. The wrapper for your fighting has become increasingly elaborate, with Mortal Kombat 11 sporting a nuanced, cinematic campaign, endlessly replayable timeline-spanning Tower of Time missions, photorealistic graphics, and so on, but the Kore Kombat remains the focus. Or, so I thought. One of the pieces of this elaborate punch-wrapper is a sprawling tangle of unlocks set in a mode called the “Krypt” — a mode that quickly reveals itself to be more complex than it initially appears.

The Krypt isn’t a new concept. Mortal Kombat games have used the name to contextualize their unlockables and secrets for years now. Mortal Kombat X, the previous Mortal Kombat game, went so far as to create a pseudo dungeon-crawler for the mode. You unlock chests with the ‘Koins’ you earn throughout the game’s modes, slay creatures in quick-time events, and find items that allow you to traverse and unlock more of the titular catacomb. It’s a fun concept, but the grid-based first-person exploration can become tedious. The Krypt ultimately felt secondary to the ‘real’ game, its packaging around the unlocks just that — packaging. An interactive layer to add further perceived value to the product as a whole.

Playing in the Krypt of Mortal Kombat 11, I expected to find a similar experience. Its introduction did nothing to dissuade this expectation. Shang Tsung, an iconic sorcerer in a franchise filled with sorcerers, welcomed me to his island and invited me to open up as many chests as I wanted — and I was surrounded by them. My third-person camera was consumed by atmospheric lighting, dead bodies swaying in the wind, beautifully dilapidated surfaces, and rows upon rows of chests. Each chest has one of a few appearances (wooden, metal, etc.), and reveals a different Koin cost to open it when you pass by. Picking up a glowing hammer further down the open corridor gave me the ability to break environmental objects for random single-digit Koin rewards, and knock down ruined material. I used it to bust through a rotten gate into an open courtyard, and felt a sense of smug satisfaction. This was it. This was all the Krypt had to offer. An endless expanse of objects to grind for, hidden behind obvious paths and weakened structures.

I kept playing, though, following a breadcrumb trail that lead me to realize just how out of my depth I truly was.

I think it started with Goro’s Lair.

I discover I can also ring gongs with my giant spiked hammer, as one does. This reveals new paths in the Krypt. A forge I can use to combine the crafting materials I find in the chests I open, and make new items for my favorite fighters. Locked doors, strange monuments, levers set just out of reach…Secrets in plain sight. So far, so good. The artifacts become more strange. A shrine I can sacrifice Koins to in an attempt to curry favor with unseen gods. Items I can activate to invoke spirits like a ‘Kollector’, or ward off enemies that I haven’t actually seen, but now begin to fear. I start passing avenues that have other, more esoteric requirements listed as I pass by them. Needs that can’t be addressed with a hammer or lever or chain-and-pulley system. Things like a “Dragon Amulet,” and a horn to complete what appears to be a demonic gate. I keep shuffling around, opening chests and learning the geography of this place, but when I find the horn, my approach changes. My conception of this place is breaking. I turn off the game and wait to stream it the next day.

Everything goes into overdrive.

Do you know who Goro is? Yes, he’s a villain in the Mortal Kombat games, and a horrific four-armed puppet in the 90s movie with the really good theme song, but do you know him? Walking through this place with “Goro’s Lair” etched into the bottom-left corner of my screen, I think I’m beginning to. Goro isn’t just a self-proclaimed god. His statues hold up the ceiling. They flex in the hallways. Heads even larger than his own dominate quiet rooms filled with trophies, several which actually aren’t among his conquests. Goro is the object of veneration, the shrine, and a servant, all at the same time. Shang Tsung whispers in my ears of days gone by, of the pain I would have endured had his favorite champion, the four-armed demon I see decayed before me, still lived.

I find a blindfold that lets me see into other worlds. After Shang Tsung locks me in a room filled with gore-streaked warriors, panic filling the chat of my Twitch stream, I pluck it from dead hero Kenshi Takeda’s dried skull.

As a game developer, the resources clearly poured into Mortal Kombat 11’s Krypt don’t make sense. It’s a legitimate third-person adventure game, that’s Mortal Kombat themed, but doesn’t have you fight anything per se. The vast majority of your interactions and applied thought in the world is non-violent in nature, even if it involves pulling a hanged prisoner from the sky to rip their heart out and open a cursed chest with it. The most frequently-occurring death in this mode may very well be your own, as traps and denizens of the Krypt find ways to surprise, challenge, or murder you. The lavish attention to detail, texturing, and overall design polish is in keeping with the rest of the game, but it’s buried in a mode many seem to dismiss as simply being an expensive loot box menu.

Sometimes I enter the Krypt, and chests appear to have reduced in price (you can’t spend real-world money in the mode, by the by). Sometimes I hit a blocker and do something else for a while, to find I’ve somehow acquired an item that lets me progress. When I ask what’s happening in this space, or when and how my activity in other modes contributes to it, I don’t have answers. This experience of the ever-deepening unknown is magical — among the best I’ve had with a game in the past year — and I certainly didn’t expect to find it in a side-mode for a AAA fighting game. Effortlessly, the Krypt became the reason I play Mortal Kombat 11.

I enter its Towers of Time missions, have an AI fighter do my grinding for me (occasionally pressing ‘continue’ every few minutes so it can continue doing its thing), and take the resources gained to continue delving into this place I can barely comprehend.

I don’t want to sound like an explorer driven insane by the void, but I know the Krypt is changing around me, now. When I finally managed to get out of Goro’s Lair after finding an artifact that let me manipulate the souls of the dead (in the process meaning I could open an entire other set of ‘chests’ going forward), there was a scaffold in the open courtyard I found earlier. Lonely bodies swung from the impromptu execution platform, and when I put on my blindfold to examine the scaffold further, I found darker things had emerged, too. I can’t fight the creatures, but I can hide. I can run. And every time I run, I know I’ll encounter something new and strange elsewhere.

Mortal Kombat 11 created a dense open-world adventure game built around surprise, puzzle-solving, and an impressive moderation of violence. They just happened to stick it within one of the most unintentionally controversial games of the year. As a result, no one is really talking about this side of the Krypt, or what it can mean for genuinely mysterious AAA game design in an environment typically swarming with leaks, datamining, and the omnipresent need for #content.

I think that deserves to change.