Children of Morta review

Children of Morta Review

The kids are alright.

Children of Morta review

The indie fascination with roguelikes and rogue-lites shows no sign of stopping any time soon. These procedurally generated, tough-as-nails games continue to pick up steam and hybridise with other genres to create new experiences. While Children of Morta does little to develop the genre or even differentiate itself within it, this dungeon-crawling adventure is a culmination of everything you’d expect from a rogue-lite, delivered to a highly-polished, well-oiled standard. 

The ‘children’ in Children of Morta’s title is a clue. You play as the Bergson family – one of them at a time, anyway (or two in co-op) – as they fight off the Corruption, a malevolent force spreading across the world of Mount Morta. High stakes for sure, but what I couldn’t get past is their hilariously ordinary names. Margaret. Joey. Linda. They sound more like the characters of a sitcom than the heroes of a faraway fantasy land. 

Thankfully, the Bergson family are a lot tougher than they sound. There’s a diverse range of playstyles between them, from the tanky John with his shield and ability to rain down swords; to the fireball-hurling, tornado-spawning savant Lucy; and the assassin-like Kevin who can turn invisible and throw knives. Each feels distinct, with their own level and skill tree to unlock.

There are some smart design decisions around this, too. You’re forced to vary the characters you play as, with them succumbing to the Corruption after a level or two, which means they need rest else their maximum health is significantly reduced. And while characters are levelled up independently, some runes unlocked on their skill trees buff every other character in the family. Likewise, the workshop in your family home which lets you upgrade stats like max health, speed and critical hits, applies to every hero you play as.

This underlying progression puts Children of Morta very much on the rogue-lite end of the spectrum, if you care for the distinction (as does the fact that the game is split into several acts of a few levels each, rather than one continuous run). The upshot is that it’s still hard, but more accessible – if you’re struggling, you just have to grind it out until you unlock enough upgrades to make the game easier. If you have the patience to do so, that is.

You see, levels are sizeable, lengthy affairs with hundreds of enemies. If you adopt a more cautious playstyle, each one could take you well over half an hour, should you make it to the end (or close to it). To make it so far and then die against the boss, which often bring a significant bump in difficulty versus the rest of the level, is a bitter pill. But such is the nature of the rogue-lite, and the promise of slightly increased stats next run for your efforts makes it easier to swallow.

The ‘rogue’ nature of Children of Morta manifests itself in several ways. First up, the maps are procedurally generated, though they still adhere to the style and types of enemies of its biome, and feature the same boss and number of floors each time. Secondly, there are different sub-stages within each area, gated off with barriers. These vary from pure looting or shopping opportunities to ambushes or battles against waves of spawning enemies. Sometimes these events award tidbits of story or quest items. 

The equipment obtainable in these sections is the most exciting part, however. A slew of bonuses, temporary buffs, deployable totems and companion drones, these divine graces, relics and charms vary from run to run and shape your playstyle as a result. Healing items and increases to your max health afford a more reckless approach, while equipment that bolsters your critical hits and sacrifices health for damage turns you into a glass cannon. 

Akin to items in The Binding of Isaac or Enter The Gungeon, you never know what you’re going to get. A lucky draw of strong, perfectly synergistic gear can make for an awesome run. But the range of stuff on offer feels more balanced than some of its peers, which means that while there aren’t many ‘god-tier’ items, most equipment is fairly useful. It’s a relief to not be held so much to the mercy of RNG.

A good job really, because monsters in Children of Morta are fierce and plentiful. Vanishing and re-appearing assassins. Towering ogres that pummel the ground with bone-smashing force. Packs of nimble demons that swarm you and lash out with unpredictable slashes. Dark mages that summon hordes of the undead. Special frenzied creatures with multiplied stats, that spawn pools of acid or extra enemies. 

This variety of attack patterns keeps combat interesting, not to mention dangerous. Run through a room and you can soon have dozens of assorted nasties on your tail. Health items aren’t particularly abundant, either. And while a slime monster isn’t going to leave much of a mark, some enemies pack quite the punch. Unless you’re seriously over-levelled or rocking a lucky haul of items, you can rarely let your guard down.

Enemies look great, too, animated in vivid and expressive pixel art. Children of Morta is a pretty gorgeous game in general, with some environments in particular breathtakingly intricate. Even the Bergson’s home that you return to after every quest is mesmerising, hardly a square inch not covered in stained glass or ornate tapestry. There’s something about the muted colour palette, too, that amplifies the somber nature of the game’s story. 

Said story is interesting content-wise, though the narration and writing leave something to be desired. It comes off a little hammy and overwrought, as fantasy is wont to do. Efforts to develop the characters and highlight the tightness of their family unit are similarly well-intentioned but can fall flat or feel cheesy in practice. But it’s far from a real mood-killer.

Children of Morta doesn’t set the genre ablaze, move it in any new directions or do much to widen its reach, beyond letting more casual players grind their way through impasses. In structure and presentation it’s reminiscent of last year’s Moonlighter, but without the unique shopkeeping mechanic which set that apart. That said, there’s nothing wrong with a well-accomplished genre archetype. Do you enjoy rogue-lites? You’re pretty much guaranteed to like this. 

[Reviewed on PC]