Children of Morta is an action-adventure dungeon crawler with some roguelike elements that was developed by Dead Mage and published by 11 Bit Studios. It was released at the tail end of 2019, making me only a little late to the game, but late nonetheless.
It follows the trials and tribulations of the Bergson family as they try to contain the corruption that has spewed forth from Mount Morta. Unfortunately for them, the corruption is killing or converting everything around them, making their home more dangerous with each passing day. In order to stem the tide and cleanse the land, they will need to work together and free three spirits.
This was a game that I looked at for a long time, but never actually bought until recently. I kept making excuses as to why I was putting it off, even though I really wanted to give it a try. It’s what I like to refer to as…
There were two factors that eventually pushed me to purchase this title. The first was that it has couch co-op, which is always a plus in my book. The second was that it was story driven and rogue-lite, not unlike Hades, which I enjoyed a great deal.
So, without further ado, let’s dive into this game and see if it is worth your time, even if it did come out, like, three years ago.
The Family that Slays together
The main focus of the game is the Bergson family. They are led by Margaret, the family’s matriarch. She is the first to know of the corruption, and also the only one who seems to know what must be done about it.
The other family members include:
- John: A loving and level-headed father. He wields a sword and shield to protect his family
- Linda: John’s eldest daughter and a violinist. She wields a bow and arrow with ease
- Kevin: The youngest son of the Bergson family. He is swift and cunning with his two daggers
- Mark: John’s eldest son. He studied the martial ways with an order of monks, making his hands lethal weapons
- Lucy: The youngest of the Bergsons. Her carefree attitude belies the ferocity of her fire magics
- Joey: The estranged son of John’s brother Ben. He carries a mighty hammer into the frey
Unfortunately, when you start the game, you can only use two characters: John and Linda. They are the first chosen to seek out the gods and bring harmony back to the land. However, it soon becomes apparent that in order to defeat the corruption, the whole family will have to work together.
For example: Kevin starts off pumped to fight the corruption, especially after his uncle forges a pair of daggers for him. Unfortunately, John and his wife Mary ultimately decide that he is too young to help. It’s only after Kevin ventures out into the corrupted lands on his own and returns unscathed that they agree to let him help. This eventually leads to Lucy—who’s like seven years old—being allowed to help as well.
I know most families probably don’t let their children fight to the death with unholy abominations, but most of these decisions are predicated on the fact that the world is ending anyway, so it’s all hands on deck.
Gather Round and Hear the Tale
The story of Children of Morta walks a very fine line.
You see, the events of the game are actually being told by a narrator. So, instead of a character saying or thinking “that’s a bad Idea” the narrator, in his classically British voice, says “John thought it was a bad idea, but he was going to do it anyway.”
This can be an effective storytelling device, but it can backfire hard (looking at you Biomutant). Fortunately, the tale of the Bergsons is well told. In fact, the narrator brings a sense of calm and reflection to the story that lends it an air of dignity and heart, which it might have otherwise lacked.
This method of storytelling can also put a damper on climactic moments. Not too much of a damper, but it can certainly slow things down when they should be ramping up. It also makes certain parts of the story a little impersonal.
My main example of this is anything the narrator has to say in a dungeon. Basically, once your character sets foot outside of the house, the narrator starts to forget the names of characters he’s talking about.
So, it doesn’t matter if you were playing Lucy when you felled the giant monster boss, you don’t get to hear some commentary on how this pint sized sorceress incinerated her foe. What you get is “And so, the Bergson slew their foe, ensuring yada yada yada.”
So, it’s always either “The Bergson” or “The Hero,” and it’s always as non-descript as possible. This takes a lot away from the actual dungeon crawling bits of the game. Thankfully, the actual story beats are much more personal and well crafted.
A Level Playing Field
Where most Rogue-like and Rogue-lite games tend to have obtuse systems for increasing your characters stats, Children of Morta eschews this in favor of an actual leveling system… and an obtuse system for increasing their stats.
Each character that you can play as has abilities that they can learn at different levels, giving you a small skill tree to work with. These abilities can range from minor attacks to major passive bonuses. If these weren’t enough, you can also get some global passives that impact every family member, no matter who you’re playing as. This gives you incentive to play as every character, because if you do, you can stack those passives on top of each other, making even the smallest Bergson into a monstrous fighter.
What’s interesting about the levels that you earn is that they do not impact overall damage or health. They are simply there to convey abilities. You improve your character’s stats by spending money in Uncle Ben’s shop. With the money you bring him, he can upgrade the family’s gear, and thus increase their overall effectiveness.
This multi-tiered approach is helpful when you get a new character halfway through the game. Sure, they don’t yet have any abilities to speak of, but they do reap the benefits of the upgraded gear.
Deja Vu All Over Again
My absolute least favorite part of Children of Morta is the level design.
Its sameness is pretty oppressive.
The first level is broken up into three sections. Each section is between two to three areas long, and all of them are basically the exact same cave. There is very little variation, and going to a new area is never interesting in any way, shape, or form.
When I finished the cave area and it opened up a whole new set of three levels, I was pretty excited to look at something that wasn’t a bluish-gray cave. What I got instead was a lifeless beige desert.
I know this is exactly what this type of game is like. You endlessly go down similar corridors until you find the entrance to the next area, and so on and so forth. But, for some reason, this felt extra daunting in Children of Morta.
To add insult to boring dungeon design was the fact that I had to grind levels in a rogue-lite game. Usually, in rogue-lite games, playing the game is the grind. So, just by playing, you either get incrementally stronger, or you get incrementally better. This is where Morta gets it wrong on multiple levels.
Upon reaching the beige desert, I was met with enemies that were much stronger than the ones I left behind. I probably didn’t have to go back and get money fighting through places I’d already been, but when the first group of enemies in the desert almost killed me instantly, I felt the need to beef up a bit.
To sum up, I’ve seen a lot more of the starting area then I ever would have wanted.
Overall, Children of Morta was an alright game. It was fun to play—even more so with co-op—it had an engaging storyline, and the characters were relatable on a couple of different levels. There were some moments where some pretty dark, depressing things happened, but those moments were handled well, and never kept the tone of the game on a downswing. Sure, the level design could use some work, but game’s amazing and dynamic sprites picked up some of that slack.
I’m giving Children of Morta a relative 7/10. It was not an amazing game, but it had its moments. I loved the Bergson family and I hope to see more of them, or something of equal quality from Dead Mage.
Of course, I’ll probably buy that one several years after the fact as well.