Game: Children of Morta
Genre: Action, Roguelite
System: PC/Steam (also available on Nintendo Switch, PS4, and Xbox One)
Developer | Publisher: Dead Mage| 11 bit studios
Age Rating: EU 12+ | USA T
Price: EU €21,99 | USD $21.99 | UK £19.79
Release Date: November 20th, 2019
No review code used; I purchased the game.
I was drawn to Children of Morta (CoM) by three things: its beautiful pixel art, the idea of playing a family of fighters, and a promise that this roguelite would be narrative-driven.
None of these hopes were disappointed. But in the game’s opening hours, I wondered if I’d chosen the right game for my next co-op journey. Now that my husband and I are close to the end of the game, having played for over 25 hours, we’re enjoying it more. It’s tough and grindy by design, but we got used to it and reaped the rewards over time.
The Local Co-op Experience
If you’d like to play local co-op on the Switch, you’ll need two pairs of Joy-Cons. Currently, online co-op isn’t available but developer Dead Mage plans to implement it.
I’ve been playing local co-op on the PC, using PS4 controllers hooked up via USB. (I was going to buy the Switch version of CoM but ran into a Steam sale.) A technical note: Initially, the game didn’t detect my PS4 controllers. The problem would occur if I clicked a mouse button after the game booted up. This can be avoided by pressing a controller button when the main menu first appears.
In CoM, you don’t have to work closely with your partner as in Overcooked or other games requiring good coordination. You can be doing your own thing during combat and survive just fine.
However, your characters cannot move further than a screen’s length apart. This isn’t a problem until one of you dies and the survivor can’t flee a mob of enemies they can’t handle alone. You’re not supposed to ditch family! You can revive a dead partner by standing close to their body and holding a button. This takes several seconds, during which you’re vulnerable to enemy attacks. This adds a good challenge and dramatic tension to combat.
Tough as it is, CoM is simple enough to play with an older child. You could let them make decisions like where to explore next on the map. But you (the wise adult) may wish to strategically decide how to spend precious skill points and hard-earned morv (the game’s currency), which don’t come by easily.
Just be prepared to die a lot and restart dungeons often. You’re supposed to; it’s a roguelite. On the other hand, a roguelite (unlike a roguelike) means dying doesn’t rob you of all progress entirely. You keep much of what you earned: experience points, skill points, and lastly, morv for buying upgrades.
Family Time in the Dungeons
When the game starts, you only have access to one playable character, John, father of the Bergson family. But after the initial 10+ minutes, you’ll be joined by his daughter Linda. From then on, a second player may control Linda.
John and Linda’s moves are at first rudimentary. Daddy does sword-and-shield; daughter does bow-and-arrows. They’re a complementary pair, with John in the frontline and Linda covering from behind.
For half the game, my husband and I continued to play a melee-and-ranged team. I always played the ranged-attack role and thought I’d never enjoy playing a melee character. Not until I discovered Mark, the older son. He’s now my go-to melee guy and the character I find easiest to use. A martial artist, he excels at quick blows. Attacks build up his “armor,” so he’s far from weak. On top of that, Mark wields a whip which stuns enemies. The whip attack pulls enemies towards him, and can be followed up nicely a staff attack that knocks enemies back.
When “corruption fatigue” sets in—diminished health in a character you’ve been sending to the dungeons too often—I like switching to Lucy, the magically-inclined younger daughter. Her battle cries may be slightly annoying, but she has very useful support abilities: summoning a tornado that sucks in enemies and damages them; and creating a fake-Lucy decoy that distract enemies.
In total, there are seven playable characters. There are also non-playable Bergsons, who make up the supporting cast in cutscenes which take place in the family home. Each character has a unique fighting style and skill tree. There are also temporary abilities to pick up in dungeons. Some abilities are usable by any character, while some can only be used by a particular Bergson.
Unfortunately, I haven’t seen any real synergy between different characters’ abilities. Perhaps because CoM wasn’t designed primarily to be a co-op game? So far, it hasn’t mattered which two characters you pick for a dungeon run—so long as they aren’t both pushovers in melee combat. Character choice does matter, though, when fighting bosses. You’ll find that some Bergsons are too slow to deal with bosses.
This Is A Grindy One
In the opening hours, I did not have a glowing impression of the combat, which is the entirety of CoM’s gameplay. Combat felt neither interesting nor strategic, especially with limited abilities in the early game and the lack of variety in enemy types. I was also a little discouraged when we kept failing to clear the first dungeon, Silk Caverns. None of the later dungeons felt as difficult as Silk Caverns, so it was a rather tough entry into the game.
I don’t mind failing repeatedly—I’ve been hooked on roguelikes for the past two years—but I’d rather fail for lack of player knowledge/skill than due to weak character stats I have to improve by slow level-grinding. For this reason, I wouldn’t be keen on playing solo, without the social fun of co-op.
But even so, to be honest, CoM isn’t one of my favorite co-op games. Gameplay-wise, it’s not great but it’s not bad either. It’s okay. There are wonderful things about this game, as I’ll mention later, but combat isn’t one of them.
My enjoyment of combat did grow, however, as the Bergsons gained more abilities, especially to inflict negative status effects such as stunning and slowing. Coupled with temporary buffs and fun items, this made it possible for us to feel powerful at last. Though never overpowered. The game keeps us on our toes with relentless mobs and environmental hazards.
Lastly, I appreciate that this hack-and-slash isn’t a mindless button-masher. Proper timing and evasion matters. And I love that pushing the R-stick lets you auto-attack, so no worn-out fingers.
Not Just Another Roguelite
I must give credit to how well the roguelite elements were designed and how well they fit with the narrative. The general idea is that you make repeated trips into the dungeons to fight the Corruption, returning home periodically to recuperate and upgrade.
Dungeons are procedurally generated, and no map layout has ever felt the same. The maze-like appearance and branching paths keep dungeons from feeling linear. Occasionally there are special items, buffs, temporary powers, events, and even quests to encounter. These are randomized, keeping things fresh and providing strong motivation for fully exploring each map.
Most importantly, dungeon runs are often rewarded with a cutscene after you “die” and return to the Bergsons’ home.
Some cutscenes are part of the overarching plot—a tale of the Bergsons fighting the Corruption. Other cutscenes show what individual Bergsons are feeling and thinking. These narrative pieces are doled out in brief, tiny bits throughout the game. While some story bits may seem inconsequential (though they are told with great seriousness by the Narrator), overall they succeed in fleshing out the Bergson family and making you care about them. Meanwhile, the overall plot seems humdrum at first. But midgame, it gets engaging as interesting things happen.
Now, what really makes CoM stand out is its art. I’m not talking about the dungeon terrains, which are mostly very bland except for the final region. What’s impressive are the cutscenes, which take place in the Bergson home.
The home, sprawling and gorgeous, is my favorite element in the whole game. Dying doesn’t feel so bad, if it transports you to a house as beautiful as a painting. Catch your breath here and relax as you peek into what each Bergson is doing in their spare time. When you’re ready for another dive, visit Uncle Ben’s workshop to buy upgrades to family stats like speed, attack damage, health, and so on.
This may not be the most fun roguelite in my books. But it is visually the most striking so far, and its distinctive theme of family translates well into gameplay. There’s a diverse cast of Bergsons, so you won’t bore quickly of experimenting with different ones on different runs. What stands out most in this game is the Bergson home: It’s a fantastic work of pixel art, a refreshing oasis in between battles, and a clever medium for advancing the narrative.
Children of Morta may be tough and grindy, especially at the outset, but there’s enough to keep players engaged: randomized dungeon maps and goodies to pick up; no less than seven playable characters; an emotional tale that unfolds in beautiful cutscenes.
It’s not a party game, so I would only recommend it to players who can commit to ongoing co-op sessions—especially as progression is slow and the game feels more rewarding only after beating the initial dungeons.
Verdict: I like it