Children of Morta Review — Making Dungeon Crawling a Family Affair
Choose your favorite Bergson to take down into the dungeons in a roguelike that tells the story of the tight-knit family that form the Children of Morta.
The Bergsons are your average everyday family. Poppa Bergson is a hard worker who does what he needs to keep the family afloat. The eldest daughter Linda helps her father when she can. Kevin, one of her brothers, is a bit of wild card, with a rambunctious streak that’s cause for concern for his poor mother. Oh, and the youngest daughter is an expert fire mage who reigns destruction on the minions of corruption that are trying to drive the family from the mountaintop shrines they’ve protected for generations.
Okay, maybe the stars of Children of Morta aren’t exactly a typical family. After all, your typical suburban household isn’t often the only force standing between their world and a goopy demonic invasion. That said, the bonds built between the many-membered Bergson clan feel very familiar to me as a person who grew up as the oldest of seven.
Gameplay-wise, Children of Morta is very much in the style of a Diablo action-adventure RPG mixed with roguelike elements. You’re roaming a procedurally generated world, fighting off baddies with a combination of basic attacks and devastating special abilities. However, at the heart of the experience is the story of a family coming together to stop a great threat.
Now, the story isn’t anything to write home about. It’s a mostly boilerplate fantasy tale that isn’t interested in taking many risks. That said, the way the team at Dead Mage builds the story and even the gameplay around the Bergsons is pretty impressive.
Not only does the team do a great job of weaving the family’s story in-and-out of your gameplay sessions, but they also make your familial unit paramount to progressing through the game. As mentioned above, this game is very much in the style of a Diablo. Each of the six playable family members represents a different class. So, the dad is your basic sword-and-board warrior, while youngest brother Kevin is a stealthy rogue. Quickly, you’ll likely find your favorite character to play, and you’ll want to stick with them. By design, this is a mistake.
Dead Mage wants you to play as each character nearly equally. Mechanically, they do this by giving characters you use too much “corruption sickness”, which puts a big drain on your health if you continue to use them. Give them a rest by playing as another family member, and they’re quickly back up to fighting shape.
However, there is a strategic advantage to rotating through the different family members. The Bergsons are a tight-knit crew and that shows in every aspect of the game. Each character has their own skill tree that you’ll level up. You’ll get a few choices about which special attacks you want to focus on, but the skills aren’t really anything you haven’t seen before.
As you move up the tree, you’ll start to unlock side skills that carry over across the family. For instance, when Poppa Bergson hits level four, every character gets an armor boost. Every character has four family-wide abilities for you to unlock. So, to fully flesh out your character tree, you’ll need to play them all.
There are two other family members who aren’t playable but provide another way to level up the Bergson clan. The grandma lets you buy specific boons that do things like increase experience gain or improve rune durability. Whereas the uncle lets you purchase skills that improve things like your base armor or damage. These overall skills are the game’s way of letting you progress regardless of how your fight down in the dungeons is going.
Once you get in the dungeons, Children of Morta layers on even more ways to improve each character. There are runes, divine relics, and other random items that let you build up a loadout for taking down the boss at the bottom of each dungeon. These are all things you’ve seen before in the many roguelikes that have flooded the market in recent years. That doesn’t mean it’s bad, it’s just not worth talking about.
The combat is fun if a little mindless. Each character feels diverse, and the devs do a great job bringing out their personality in the animations. The karate brother does ninja flips and runs like Naruto. The fire mage sister has a short-distance teleport in place of her dodge. And it’s all wonderfully animated in beautiful pixel art. So, what’s the problem?
Here’s the thing with Children of Morta: for the first few hours, the game is great. The combat is fast and meaty. Most encounters are tough but doable. The bosses are interesting. The story isn’t amazing, but it’s delivered well. However, as I kept going, I quickly started to get bored.
See, while the characters are all fun to play, the two ranged characters (Linda the archer and Lucy the fire mage) have a massive advantage during dungeon delving. Throughout each floor of a dungeon, magical barriers wall off areas. Once you pass through, enemies can’t get you. And, if you happen to be a ranged character, your projectiles can still go through. So, an easy tactic to quickly build up the currency you need to level characters is to kite enemies to the barrier and then pick them off from complete safety. The tactic works with every character, but the battles go much faster with the two ranged characters.
Now, you could easily not do this and just fight your way through. But, for me, I’m always trying to find the most efficient way to play through games that have as much grinding as Children of Morta. Hiding behind a magical wall isn’t fun, but it is effective. And, the boss fights are so different from the dungeons that you don’t really lose anything by effectively skipping all the difficulty in the dungeons.
So, the combat quickly became a slog as I discovered the easiest way to make it through the game. And then I began to notice that, no matter what I did, the story kept moving forward. If I died over and over again, it almost felt like it didn’t matter. For some, this isn’t going to matter, but in a genre where unlocking new characters by completing challenges is half the fun, it felt odd for the game to just give them to me regardless of my performance.
Maybe it’s my personal history with great roguelikes like The Binding of Issac that’s clouding my judgment, but Children of Morta has a feeling of “baby’s first roguelike”. That isn’t meant as a slight, just everything (outside of the art and animation) feels like a watered-down version of better games. The combat is fun but easily made unnecessary. Character progression is interesting at first but lacks the depth seen in other, similar titles. The game suffers from long load times on PS4. Heck, even the story, while charmingly told, comes off as bland by the end.
None of this is to say that Children of Morta is a bad game. In some ways, it’s very good. The way it interweaves the familial unit throughout the story and the game’s mechanics is an awesome touch. In motion, the game is absolutely gorgeous. That said, I think there are better roguelikes in which to sink your teeth. The Bergsons were a great family to visit, but much like a crazy aunt, I wouldn’t want to live with them forever.