America - Front
America - Back
By Evan Norris 05th Dec 2019 | 2,046 views
With so many rogue-lite games on the market these days, a unique hook or gimmick becomes all the more impactful. For Children of Morta, the latest from studio Dead Mage, that hook is family. Focused on a single family, the Bergsons, and populated with playable characters drawn from its ranks, it's both a winning rogue-lite action game and a thoughtful, moving commentary on the kind of spontaneous love that only family can inspire.
Children of Morta follows the Bergson family, which for generations has guarded Mount Morta. Now, they face their most dangerous task: to fight back against a spreading corruption that is slowly transforming a peaceful and balanced land into a toxic, monster-infested wasteland. Only six members of the clan are playable, but each Bergson has his or her part to play in the saga to unfold.
Although the stakes are high in Children of Morta, it remains an intimate, small-scale look at a family unit struggling to survive in the darkness. Character interactions, presented in short vignettes between dungeon dives, are consistently rewarding and emotionally-powerful. The player will see Mary worry about her unborn child, Ben stew in bitterness and anger, and Margaret, the Bergson matriarch, hold the tribe together. Each character and every relationship feels real and authentic, and the complicated feelings of family members are on full display. While Children of Morta has an enjoyable gameplay loop and spectacular pixel art, its setting, story, and sympathetic, relatable characters are probably its finest features.
When not watching the Bergson family grow—literally and figuratively—players will select characters from its ranks to fight through a series of randomly-generated dungeons. In typical rogue-lite fashion, enemies and perks appear at random, failure comes quickly to the unprepared, and gold and experience earned in a single run is retained upon death. Essentially, you'll pick a Bergson, explore as deeply as possible in a particular dungeon, die prematurely, and then use the resources you earned to improve individual character skills and global attributes back in the safety of the family homestead. Do this again and again until you're wise and powerful enough to beat the end-of-level boss and unlock the next stage.
This loop features all the pros and cons of the genre. Thanks to RNG loot, ever-changing dungeon layouts, and the prospect of progress-destroying death, each run is unpredictable and intense. At the same time, a few useless items and some bad luck at the wrong time could submarine 30 or 40 minutes' worth of progress. Repetition and frustration is simply part of the package. Luckily, Children of Morta is quick to provide Morv (gold) and experience points, which are used in a number of ways to improve your chances of success. From Ben's workshop players can improve armor, attack damage, speed, critical chance, etc. By channeling the Book of Rea, they can increase Morv dropped from enemies, enhance the efficiency of obelisk effects, or decrease the cooldown of Divine relics.
Experience points, meanwhile, convert into skill points for each hero. Play as John long enough, for example, and you'll earn the chance to unlock Heaven's Strike, which calls down swords from the heavens, or No Quarter, which deals additional damage to enemies who are near death.
Morv and skill points will set players up for success, but survival in the game's dungeons still relies partially on the random gifts therein. On that front, Dead Mage has provided an impressive array of perks, consumables, and items. There are obelisks, which grant temporary buffs like increased critical chance or faster-regenerating rage; divine relics, multi-use shields and totems with long cooldown periods; runes, which add different logic to your primary and AoE attacks; and, most important of all, divine graces, passive perks that often signal the difference between victory or defeat. Pro tip: after unlocking the shopkeeper, spend all your gemstones on divine graces.
Speaking of the shopkeeper, he is one of several non-playable characters you will encounter at random in dungeons. One of the many joys of Children of Morta is stumbling upon these in-need people and creatures, and completing their quest. Save the shopkeeper and he'll begin to appear at certain junctures in Caeldippo Caves, Barahut, and TerraLava. Rescue an orphaned wolf cub and it will become a fixture of the Bergson household. This makes the home feel more alive and dynamic, but Dead Mage could have gone even further, adding more interactivity and customization options to the hub area. Borrowing some home renovation mechanics from something like Animal Crossing would have elevated the game even further.
Children of Morta boasts an impressive roster of six playable characters, each of whom has a unique fighting style and skill tree. Moreover, in a brilliant stroke, Dead Mage added into every individual skill tree several family-wide passive skills. Reach level four as Kevin, and every member of the Bergson clan will enjoy higher critical damage. Attain level 20 as Linda, and the entire family's movement speed goes up. There are two issues, however, that make the large collection of characters a little less outstanding. The first is "corruption fatigue". When a single Bergson lingers too long in dungeons, he or she will contract this illness, which translates to a penalty to total health. You'll need to let them rest and play as someone else. In effect, the game punishes you for playing as your favorite character. It's exacerbated by the second issue: not every Bergson is as effective as the next. The projectile characters, particularly Lucy, are much more efficient, especially in later levels.
Children of Morta sports only three areas, with two or three stages apiece, and a final boss encounter, but due to multiple restarts and steep difficulty, it will probably take around 15 hours to complete. After the credits roll, you can revisit beaten areas to uncover new relics, graces, and NPCs, but there is no new game+ option at present. The entire game is playable with a friend in local co-op but it's not the ideal way to experience Mount Morta and the lands beyond. Difficulty scales with the additional Bergson, making survival all the trickier.
No matter how many times you trudge back into the dusty roads of Barahut or the dank caverns of Caeldippo Caves, beaten and broken, you'll never be fully discouraged, thanks to some of the crispest and most stunning pixel art of the year, courtesy of artists Soheil Zarghami and Arvin Garousi Nezhad. The animations, lighting, and special effects are spectacular. Technically, the game runs smoothly in both docked and handheld modes, although I experienced a few visual hiccups and a couple of glitches—becoming stuck in the periphery of a room or ending up in a locked area when a second wave of enemies failed to spawn.
Said Anthony Brandt, "Other things may change us, but we start and end with the family." Perhaps no game embodies this sentiment better than Children of Morta, a strong entry in the rogue-lite sub-genre that features a satisfying gameplay loop, a touching story about familial love, and some remarkable pixel art. Its roguish tendencies lead to some frustrating, premature losses, its "corruption fatigue" mechanic is unnecessarily punitive, and some members of the Bergson family are less useful than others, but in general the game represents a winning convergence of art, design, and narrative.