Roguelikes are increasingly becoming all too familiar. There’s an overabundance of them releasing on a pretty consistent basis, and the unimagined feel identical to one another way too often. However, there are a few shining examples that keep the genre ticking and fresh for fans. Last year, Dead Cells received much praise from us here at Level Down Games for being one of the best things to release in 2018. Now this year, the team over at Dead Mage looks to try and capture the magic Motion Twin did one year ago with a family-orientated take on the genre in Children of Morta. And you know what? This is precisely what was missing from roguelikes up to this point.
Title: Children of Morta
Publisher: 11Bit Studios
Developer: Dead Mage
Available On: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch
Reviewed On: PC
Release Date: September 3, 2019 (PC) / October 15, 2019 (Console)
Game Provided By 11Bit Studios for the Purpose of This Review
Developed by Dead Mage and published by 11Bit Studios, Children of Morta is a 2D action roleplaying game that fuses together elements of many roguelikes we’ve seen before, with a hint of Diablo gameplay thrown in for good measure. I wanna get back to that final point we made in the opening paragraph. This is a family-orientated, story driven game with a heavy emphasis on the narration to keep the game moving forward. You’re going to really start to feel connected to each one of the Bergson family members, who themselves are the guardians of Mount Morta, keeping the evil away from their homeland. They themselves have deep connections to one another and it shows during the dialogue and way they interact with one another during the story missions, but you as the player are going to develop a deep bond with them due to the nature of the gameplay loop and the runs you’ll be undertaking to complete dungeons. The family style mechanic works really well, and I always secretly hoped it would after the initial reveal showcased this unique take on the genre.
Besides that, the first thing you’re going to notice about Children of Morta is how freaking beautiful this game truly is. Gorgeous pixelated art styles and backgrounds that ooze with style and finesse with many different moving parts dot the landscape and paint the picture for a memorable experience. Seriously. Pay attention to the backgrounds as you move about the dungeons, and especially in the Bergson Family Home. There aren’t many games that utilize this art style that put so much time and effort into the smallest of details in the background. Dead Mage took their time here, and it paid off wonderfully.
So what does the gameplay loop look like in Children of Morta? You start off each dungeon run by selecting one of six playable Bergson family members. These characters do unlock over time, so not everyone is going to be able to select from right out of the gate. There’s John, the father of the family, is a Warrior who uses a sword and shield combo and is your fairly basic hack-n-slash gameplay style. Linda, his daughter and first-born child, is an Archer who prefers ranged combat with a bow. Kevin, his youngest son, is a fast-paced Rogue that attacks faster and faster depending on how high the combo meter is built. Mark, his eldest son, is a Monk that attacks via hand-to-hand combat. Lucy, his daughter and youngest child, is a Mage that cannot attack while moving.. she must be standing still in order to do anything. Finally, there’s Joey, son to Uncle Ben and cousin to all of the Bergson family children, he’s a Brawler that attacks with giant hammers and is a powerhouse of a character.
Once you select your desired character, you enter into the next available dungeon, which will be procedurally generated. This ensures that no two runs are ever the same, and each new dungeon experience will hold different items and secrets of their own. Mowing down hordes of enemies in the dungeons is the name of the game, and you’ll want to defeat as many as possible to keep leveling up and earn skill points to invest in your characters. Each family member has their own personal skills that make them individually stronger, but at certain levels throughout the skill tree, you unlock passive abilities that are applied to each of the Bergson clan. Every character has several passive abilities to unlock, and each one will make everyone stronger in the end. After you die or if you’re lucky and complete the dungeon all the way through to the boss of the area, you’ll be transported back to the Bergson Family Home, which serves as your base of operations, to watch the next story related cutscene, upgrade your gear, skills, and get ready for the next mission. All in all, the gameplay loop is quite addicting and extremely satisfying, so much so that I literally finished the game in 3 sittings because I just couldn’t put the controller down once I picked it up to play.
Children of Morta plays up to the family-orientated nature of the gameplay perfectly, and you as the player are going to need to get comfortable with all six of the characters. You cannot finish the game by just playing as one character. It is physically impossible, as the more time an individual Bergson family member spends in the dungeons, the more they will take a hit on their stats over time, losing things like stamina, health, and speed. They need to be rotated in and out on a regular schedule in order to avoid fatigue and losing them for longer periods of time. This ensures that you have a nice variety of gameplay experiences throughout the campaign, which took me about 14 hours to complete from start to finish, with many deaths in between and having to learn the patterns of the bosses once or twice before getting them down.
The combat is fast and fluid, and thanks to the mechanic where you won’t be able to approach the same situation the exact same each time due to the procedural generation of the dungeons and the fact that you’ll be rotating characters, nothing ever truly feels dull. The speed of the runs drastically increase the further into the game you get, with the first initial hours being much slower paced than the rest of the game. New skills, ability upgrades, and the luck of the draw when it comes to the loot spread out throughout the dungeons all dictate how fast you’ll be able to move through a specific section of a dungeon. You can also select Kevin or Mark for incredibly fast-paced gameplay, as those are the two Bergson members I gravitated toward for the quickest routes possible when pressed for time.
Unfortunately, the combat does begin to feel repetitive after a while, and by the later half of the game, you’ll start to feel as if you’re just doing the same thing over and over again. When I started out, I was exploring every inch of every dungeon, looking for every possible secret I could fine. A little more than halfway through, I was taking the exits immediately upon finding them because I didn’t feel any real reason to keep looking around and just wanted to get to the bosses and progress. The various side missions and extra stuff to do, such as mini-games like a giant game of pong with a robot were much needed distractions, and had their been more of these experiences, it may have made things feel less repetitive overall.
Earlier, I mentioned the loot that is spread out throughout the dungeon runs. There are five different types of them, and each type has a great impact on that specific run. Runes can enhance certain skills, giving them entirely new effects or making them stronger when used. Obelisks are these shrines that will empower your chosen character with different attribute increasing skills, like speed, health, or damage for a small amount of time. Charms are consumables that when activated, provide the player with a unique effect that can really change the tune of battle. Divine Relics enhance your character and apply passive buffs that will last until you die or defeat the area boss. Finally, Divine Graces are strong abilities that can be used to change up how your skills behave in combat. Each dungeon run will contain a mix of all of the above, and it’s up to RNG on what will spawn and what doesn’t.
Musically, Children of Morta is sort of a mixed bag. There’s quite a few tracks on the soundtrack which made me smile whilst playing through the game, and ones that I wanted to hear again. But oftentimes, a lot of the music was getting lost in my head and just didn’t feel as memorable as I felt like it should for a game as strong as this one is. The voice acting of the narrator is a huge positive though, and shouldn’t be taken lightly, as it really does drive the story forward and makes you want to keep learning about what is going to happen next.
Anyone looking for the biggest roguelike of 2019 should probably look no further than Children of Morta. This is an excellent release that just works on so many different levels, with very few minor annoyances in the end. There’s practically something for everyone to enjoy with the many different gameplay styles and ways you can tackle a problem in the dungeons. I didn’t want the game to end when it did, and I’m truly holding out hope that Dead Mage will expand upon the story with some DLC releases in the future, as I feel like my time with the Bergson family just hasn’t fully concluded yet. Should you choose to play Children of Morta, I have zero doubts that by the end of the game, you’ll feel the exact same way.