By now, the formula for making a PSP game should be pretty clear: Take a PS2 game, put it on a UMD and...um, yeah. That's it. So rather than let that code for ultraviolent one-on-one fighter Mortal Kombat: Deception go to waste, the violent elves at Midway picked it up, dusted it off, spruced it up, and set it loose as Unchained, the MK series' PSP debut. They couldn’t have picked a better candidate for porting to a portable (the latest in the series, Mortal Kombat: Armageddon, has more characters, but fewer cool mini-modes), but something’s not quite right with the fight.
The core gameplay is basically Deception with six extra characters - Goro and Shao Kahn (who showed up in the GameCube version) plus Jax, Kitana, Frost, and the suddenly-important-after-Armageddon Blaze. Your reward for slow loading times on the PSP is fast fighting action; we were surprised at how briskly the beatings were handed down.
Then again, we were also surprised at how uncomfortable it was to jump diagonally; the d-pad simply didn't want to let us leap, though the analog stick came through more often. Pulling off special moves was kind of tricky with either one, and after tasting freedom with Armageddon, we didn't like returning to the "Deception -era" switch between three different fighting styles' mechanic at all. We're also disappointed at how dark some of the stages look, and how that same fast action tends to make the graphics blur.
Funny thing is, the bonus mini-modes pretty much steal the thunder from Unchained's big fights anyway. Fans of Capcom's Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo will instantly recognize the falling-block gameplay of Puzzle Kombat; now with some extra brutal fatalities. Chess Kombat takes a similar approach: drench a brainy game in blood and make it even better. It’s not strictly chess as you know it, as when you want to take a square from an opponent, you'll do so by force, in "Kombat". If you even remember the moldy-oldie strategy game Archon, wherein strategic board-game design gave way to fast action whenever two pieces challenged for the same square, Chess Kombat will make you very happy indeed.
The single-player, action/adventure-y Konquest mode, however, isn't as much fun to revisit. Controlling hero Shujinko as he roams the realms is still a twitchy affair, and its slow pace (filled with forced tutorial sequences) seems designed for people who have never played a Kombat game before.
Then again, if you're porting Deception, you might as well port everything the game had to offer and give the PSP players full value. All the characters, all the moves, even the Hari-Kiri self-fatality moves, plus wireless play to replace the original's online modes. If corners were cut, we can't find 'em.
Frankly, for MK’s PSP debut, we would have preferred just a handheld collection of the 2D arcade games, but we can't complain too loudly about Unchained. Midway took the one title with the most variety and replay value in the entire MK stable and shined it up nice. We’ll take it.