STAFF REVIEW of Children of Morta (Xbox One)

Sunday, December 1, 2019.
by Adam Dileva

Children of Morta Box art I sometimes find it hard to keep my interest in roguelikes for the long term, usually because there’s not much, or very difficult to progress overall. But that’s also the charm to roguelike titles; that you’re challenged with either completing games in a single sitting or having to make a certain amount of progress, but usually if you die, your progress is wiped and you need to begin all over again. Great roguelikes though usually have some form of constant progression, even with the numerous deaths. Children of Morta thankfully does a fantastic job at giving you purpose and progression, regardless of how great your runs are or not.

At its core, Children of Morta is a roguelike hack and slash RPG, akin to a Diablo dungeon dweller with some Binding of Isaac flavor mixed in. What makes Morta stand out amongst the competition is not only its delightful 8-bit visuals, great combat mechanics and character progression, but its lore, perfect narration and fantastic storytelling. While 8-bit roguelikes are nothing new, few have had all of the cohesive elements come together as wonderfully as Morta does, as I became hooked after just a handful of hours.

The narrative revolves around the Bergson family, a close knit clan that is attempting to stop the Corruption that is spreading across the land. Residing at the base of Mount Morta, the Bergson’s are the only ones that can stand up against this unknown evil. You begin as John, the father figure of the family, wielding a sword and shield. You’ll only have access to your basic attack and a dodge at first, but eventually you’ll learn new skills and abilities that will make each character unique in its own way.

While the narrative begins out with your typical ‘save the world' trope, it eventually evolves into something much more, sure to tug on your heartstrings when unfortunate events occur. There’s a narrator that is constantly adding to the story, not only explaining what’s going on, but done in such a fantastic way that he deserves a special mention, as it’s probably the most memorable aspect of my whole time with Children of Morta.

Procedurally generated dungeons means that every time you play is going to be a unique experience, for better or worse. As you explore each layer of a dungeon, you’ll delve deeper, eventually facing off against a powerful boss, though not after a handful of deaths and slowly becoming stronger as time goes on. Because every level is randomly generated, your experience may vary from run to run. Sometimes you’ll have a fantastic run where you feel super powerful and getting a ton of great bonuses to help you along the way, while other runs will feel the exact opposite, leaving you scrounging for every health pickup you can find before your untimely death.

While you simply begin with John, a typical sword and board type of melee based character, you’ll eventually unlock and be able to play as a number of different Bergson’s, each with their own unique playstyle, abilities and perks. Each Bergson plays different from one another, but there’s basically two types of play: ranged or melee. With six playable characters to unlock, you’ll choose from four that are melee based and two ranged.

While I vastly preferred my ranged characters, there’s a reason you’ll want to play as each family member, even if it’s not suited to your preferred playstyle. My favorite, Linda, is an archer that is best played by kiting enemies one by one and not becoming surrounded by monsters, whereas Joey, whom uses a sledge hammer, can take out a group of weaker enemies in a single swing. There’s a time and place that each Bergson will be best suited for, as Kevin is a very quick fighter that uses daggers, Mark is a martial arts fighter and Lucy is a fire mage.

Linda for example can move and shoot with her bow and arrow, but only for a short time. Lucy on the other hand has to be stationary to cast her fireballs, so it’s a completely different playstyle. The other melee’s generally play the same, but there are certain strategies you’ll need to use to avoid being hit, like dodging out of the way, or actually into enemies, if you’re Joey for example.

Even though I know I want to play Linda all of the time, the game forces you in a way to play the others. Play too many runs consecutively with one character and they’ll become ‘corrupted’ for a short time, usually lasting a handful of runs. This means that their maximum HP will be drastically lowered, making it near impossible to complete runs with them until they’ve rested and become better. This is when you’ll be ‘forced’ to play as other characters, so make sure to become accustomed to each Bergson.

The other reason you’re going to want to play as each is that every character has their own skill tree. Spend enough points to unlock bonuses and abilities and you’ll eventually unlock perks for the whole family at set spent goals. For example, 4 points spent in a skill tree will unlock the first Bergson perk, like extra dodge, damage and other bonuses, regardless of what character you’re currently playing. It’s honestly a clever way to promote trial and error with each character, as you’ll want the bonus perks for every character eventually.

Thankfully, all of your skills and gold carry over with each death. So while you will die a lot, there’s no real consequence other than having to attempt that dungeon again and again until you become powerful enough to make it through to the end and best the boss. This means that you’re always progressing, even if slowly at times, as I’m currently farming runs for gold to unlock bonus damage and experience points for the whole family.

Not only do you constantly progress as your characters grow in power, but the story also unfolds between runs as well, not only tied to overall dungeon progression. This way of continuing the narrative in small snippets, regardless of your skill, is very clever at keeping you interested in the lore as you repeat runs numerous times. If it wasn’t for the perfect voice acting of the narrator between each run, it wouldn’t feel as impactful; thankfully that’s not the case here.

Between runs you’ll be able to spend your gold to increase your damage, armor, speed, critical damage and much more, again, for the whole family, regardless of who you use. This means you’ll want to not only kill every enemy you see and explore every corner of each dungeon floor, but smash open every pot and vase as well for that sweet gold accumulation.

Local co-op is an option if you have someone alongside you to play with, adding for a much more entertaining experience, but the lack of online co-op was a serious let down. I know that I shouldn’t come to expect online co-op to be included with smaller studio titles like these, but man, such a missed opportunity, as a friend and I had to play separately on our own games in party chat, talking about what we were each experiencing and thought instead of doing so together. Here’s to hoping that online co-op can be added in the future, as it would turn this great game into something truly fantastic.

Visually, Children of Morta has some of the best 8-bit art and animation that I can recall in recent memory. Everything is done by hand, and even though it’s very old school, the animation is done so well, you’re never guessing what the characters are trying to express or convey simply by watching them. The world is colorful and looks as if it’s taken from a classic NES storybook.

Audio is just as impressive, again, mostly because of the masterful work of Ed Kelly as the narrator who describes the tales of the Bergson’s at every corner. The story is captivating, and because of the narrator, it’s as if you’re part of some fantastical fairytale. I actually didn’t mind dying so much because it usually meant I got a snippet of story between each run, almost as if that was the reward itself for even trying.

While at first glance Children of Morta may simply appear to be another typical roguelike RPG hack and slash, it all comes together in a wonderful and charming way, making you forget that you’re generally repeating dungeon runs back to back. While the lack of online co-op was really the only negative I have, the rest of the experience with the Bergson’s was a very memorable and entertaining one throughout.

Overall: 8.7 / 10
Gameplay: 8.5 / 10
Visuals: 9.0 / 10
Sound: 8.5 / 10


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