Developer Dead Mage’s amazing roguelike fantasy hack-and-slash Children of Morta adds something I really didn’t know I needed from this genre: an emotional, family-oriented story. Sure, The Binding of Isaac sows a pretty dreary yarn rooted in trauma, but it never truly resonates in any realistic ways. Morta, on the other hand, allows you to rid the world of a terrible menace while getting to know the Bergsons, a normal family with normal family problems — minus that whole “save the world” thing. As the story progresses, you learn more about their struggle to bring peace back to the world, including the parental stress that comes with bringing children into the fray. Again, it’s not something I thought I’d ever want from a roguelike, but it definitely added some weight to this quest to exterminate an ancient merciless evil.
Storywise, Children of Morta doesn’t do anything too outside the norm for a game set in a fantasy world. In short, you select a hero, work your way through some dungeons, slay a colorful and diverse assortment of creatures and monsters, and eventually put an end to whatever hideous thing lurks at the center of this crisis. In Morta’s case, it’s the Corruption (with a capital “C”) that casts a dark shadow across the land. Thankfully, the Bergsons have taken it upon themselves to tackle this seemingly thankless challenge, starting with the family patriarch. Soon, however, more family members get in on the act, which is definitely a positive — the Corruption means business, and you’ll need all the help you can get along the way. It also lays the groundwork for some emotional, heart-tugging moments.
However, Morta shakes things up by letting you get to know the characters you’ll handle throughout your adventure. Every family member has a deep, involving story — even those you won’t directly control — and each of these micro-tales feels weighty and crucial to the overall arch. Even something as simple as rescuing a wolf cub from monsters and then nursing it back to health (via the game’s wonderful side quest system) seems vital to the narrative. Getting wrapped up in my emotions while playing a roguelike caught me by surprise — the ones I’ve spent time with essentially drop me into a world and say, “Who cares who you’re playing? Just kill something, will you?” And while there’s nothing wrong with that approach, having an emotional anchor only added to the weight of the Bergsons’ dilemma. I wanted to see them succeed, so I pushed myself harder to ensure they completed their mission, as corny as that probably sounds.
In true roguelike fashion, Children of Morta tosses you into its cruel world with very little in the way of power. Your primary attack doesn’t deal much damage, your defensive capabilities need improvement, and your “special moves” have yet to manifest. Upon defeat, your character will find themselves magically transported back to the homestead, where they can use the cash they’ve collected to improve attack power, defense, movement speed, and a host of other abilities and power-ups. Additionally, you’ll use the experience you gather to level up and unlock special abilities. And while each character has his or her own skill tree to explore, the improvements you purchase with money apply to everyone in the family. Long story short: The more you play, the stronger you become. And the stronger you become, the deeper into Children of Morta’s world you’ll venture, which, of course, doesn’t stray far from the type of experience most roguelikes offer.
Although you’ll begin Children of Morta with dear ol’ dad as a playable character, you’ll soon unlock other members of the family, each of whom uses a different method to dispatch justice. Linda, for example, excels at dealing damage with the bow, while Mark prefers to do some pretty nifty martial arts to crush, pummel, and pound his adversaries into oblivion. Of course, Mark and Linda sound more like people who insist on bringing “green salad” to every neighborhood function, but don’t let these uninspired names fool you — every character in the Bergson family brings something unique to the table. However, don’t expect them to break away from the archetypes defined by other fantasy games. While it doesn’t necessarily work against Children of Morta in terms of gameplay, the lack of originality does feel a bit uninspired when compared to the amount of thought and care that went into crafting the family’s many compelling backstories.
However, don’t think you can just grab one Bergson and use that person for the duration of your adventure. Sadly, as much I loved punching spiders in the face using Mark, he eventually grew fatigued, which meant I had to leave him behind to recoup for a few runs while I focused on Linda and her long-range attacks. This ultimately forced me to grow each character, as opposed to simply selecting my “main” and then pushing that individual through every trial and tribulation Children of Morta could throw my way. It adds a level of grinding that I hadn’t anticipated, but truthfully, it didn’t bother me too much. The game’s combat system is tight, easy to learn, and incredibly satisfying, so replaying the same procedurally generated spider den a few times to get Mark and Linda on the same level didn’t burn me out. In addition to making the more powerful, grinding also allowed me to explore the game’s numerous side quests — something else I really didn’t think I’d want from a roguelike — and take some time to learn more about the Bergsons and how their war against the Corruption affected the family.
Of course, Children of Morta suffers from a few issues that will ultimately hamper your enjoyment, though these problems don’t differ from other roguelikes and dungeons crawlers on the market. For instance, many of your runs will hinge on the buffs and power-ups you’ll receive in each dungeon, which appear at random. Sometimes, you’ll receive a companion who attacks nearby enemies with projectiles, or you’ll get a charm that restores your health at the beginning of each level. During other runs, you’ll get power-ups that don’t do much of anything, and when you’re up against the game’s admittedly difficult bosses (especially early on), your run could come to an abrupt in simply because you didn’t have a charm that would slowly regenerate your health for a set period of time. That’s just the nature of the beast, unfortunately.
However, if you’re a fan of roguelikes — which have enjoyed a huge surge in popularity over the past several years — none of this will come as a huge surprise. You’ll either love that aspect of the game or you’ll detest it; I don’t feel there’s very much of a gray area in this regard. Thankfully, when the random difficulty spikes and unwieldy nature of the RNG begin to frustrate you, you’ll quickly get pulled back into the flow thanks to the game’s crunchy combat and gorgeous pixel artwork. Sure, every other game sports pixel art these days, but Morta’s presentation is second to none. The environments sport incredible atmosphere, the creatures and monsters feel distinct and alive, and your characters move smoothly and gracefully, which is a sight to behold when you’re flipping and dodging projectiles, spider venom, and skeleton attacks while firing hip-shots at the bats that seem to show up at the worst possible moments. Seriously. Stupid bats.
Minus some difficult boss battles and the typical issues that procedural generation and RNG always tend to have, Children of Morta is a near-perfect experience. And unless something amazing and jaw-dropping arrives before the end of the year to completely knock me out of my Street Fighter II socks, it holds the spot of my best-of list for 2019. And while Morta doesn’t have the best end-game content right now, I don’t have a problem with wiping my save file and starting over from the beginning. By the time I’m “finished” with most roguelikes, I’m so exhausted that I want to put them on the shelf for a while to allow my batteries to recharge. With Children of Morta, I want to experience the Bergsons’ story over and over again. And if Dead Mage chooses to expand this experience with a little DLC in the near future, I will gladly take them up on the offer. Until then, however, I’ll take Mark and Linda out for another spin through this beautifully dangerous world.
This review is based on the PC version of the game. A review copy was provided to us by 11 Bit Studios.
Save for the issues with RNG and the procedurally generated environments, Children of Morta delivers an exceptional experience with superior gameplay and a surprising amount of heart.