Indie games are wont to iterate upon established genres, but what happens when one of them shouldn’t be anything more than just another roguelite simply isn’t? That’s the case with Children of Morta, an otherwise standard dungeon crawler that developer Dead Mage managed elevate into something quite special, thanks to some beautiful pixel work, terrific writing and a sense of world-building previously unseen in a game of its kind.
Children of Morta tells the tale of the Bergson family and their quest to rid the world of the encroaching darkness that’s about to take over the world. They live on a mountain, and within it lies what they hope is the source of the evil they look to vanquish. Along their journey, the family’s story develops a member comes back from isolation, a few finally take up arms and join in the adventuring, and other dramatic events unfold as you dig in deeper and deeper within Morta.
There’s no discernible way in how Children of Morta develops its story. Since its structure is purely run-based, you could potentially start getting a lot of its beats by simply failing levels over and over. Every run or so, you come back to their home and get a little narrated cutscene with some sort of character development. It might end up just being a short scene showing off how well the husband and wife get along, or how their kid usually spends his time training. Other times, it’s a longer scene that plants seeds for events that you can further develop by completing extra quests.
Starting out, you only have access to a couple of the family members, the dad, who plays like a basic sword and shield combo character, and the older daughter, a ranged bow user. Children of Morta plays like your usual isometric hack n’ slasher. Think of it as a pixely Diablo. The further you get into it, more family members join up and more class archetypes become available, which are very welcome considering that the starting ones, particularly the father character, can be a little boring. I eventually found my favorite one, Mark, who is pretty much the monk from Diablo 3.
All the family members can level up and unlock new skills in their specific development trees. Every four levels, they get a special buff that applies to the entire group, such as faster movement speed or increased critical rate, helping power up characters you might not be as fond of playing, making it easier to get them up to speed. That comes in handy since can never rely too much on one particular class due to them getting a stat debuff that forces you to let them rest for a few turns. Even with that limitation in place, I never found myself being forced to play with a character I didn’t like, and by having them eventually power up to a suitable state, even the dad became feasible to use eventually.
Progression in Children of Morta can feel slow, because well, it is. It takes a lot of grinding in order to level up, and in the early going, you’ll be spending runs simply getting gold back home in order to power up your stats and not having much success getting through the dungeon layers. It’s a rewarding process though, since you don’t lose much when you die in a run. Every three or so floors you fight your way in, you come upon a boss fight that eventually unlocks a new section of the game to explore. Thanks to the random way the levels are generated and the amount of possible buffs you can find, each run is unique and thrilling, for as repetitive as the core gameplay can be. If you’re not in a hurry to beat it and take it slow, Children of Morta will provide you with a lot of game and a satisfying loop.
You’ll often find yourself completely outnumbered by the opposition in dungeons, but early skill unlocks for every character makes it all the more manageable to deal with, be it with crowd control powers, or simply making it easier to escape from getting torn to bits. Once you get a certain number of the temporary buffs in a run, it gets incredibly satisfying to tear through waves of enemies, with heaps of gold flying out all over the place. The action is well put together, and while it isn’t the main draw to playing Children of Morta, it’s done so as serviceably as it could be for a game in this genre.
Runs can last up to half an hour if you’re diligent about checking out every nook and cranny, or a minute if you hit a snag and get offed. It’s quick and painless to get back in, but be mindful that you’re never going to be able to get through the entirety of Children of Morta in a single go, as it forces you to warp back home after every slice, so don’t get to comfortable if you find yourself a really cool set of buffs… you’re not keeping it, buddy. That makes every attempt feel like a completely new go, and unloads any burden off of accidentally dying along the way.
It’s hard to imagine a game like this having much in the way of you caring about its characters and story, but Dead Mage has done an exemplary job in building an experience around playing this game. Even with its slow grind and standard action gameplay, Children of Morta’s deep and incredibly well pulled off narrative, with its solemn voiced narration and character development, along with its gorgeous pixel art that is simply a joy to look at, makes for an overall tremendous package.
Children of Morta is currently out on PC (Steam, GOG), PlayStation 4, and Xbox One. A Nintendo Switch port is scheduled to be released on November 20th.