It seems like every indie game and their dog is a roguelike these days.
You’ve got roguelike space shoot-em-ups, roguelike first person shooters, even roguelike rhythm games. Perhaps it’s just because a lot of people like them, but I suspect it’s mainly because randomly generating your whole game is cheaper and easier than hiring a level designer.
Children of Morta is a roguelike top-down hack ‘n’ slash RPG, developed by Dead Mage and published by 11 Bit Studios. Though I’ve labelled it as a roguelike, I’m not sure how much you could claim Children of Morta has in common with the original Rogue, an ASCII game in which the protagonist was literally an ‘@’ symbol. For one thing, Children of Morta places a strong emphasis on its narrative, centred around the interpersonal relationships of a family of warriors who have stood guard over the mystical Mount Morta for generations. I mean, we never got any kind of backstory for Rogue‘s main character. Maybe he dreamed of one day becoming part of a fashion blogger’s twitter handle, who knows?
In Children of Morta you follow the Bergsons, an extraordinary family who all have comically average first names. I’m not kidding, I’m pretty sure this is the first epic high fantasy adventure in which I’ve played characters named Mark, Linda or Kevin. The Bergsons serve as the guardians of Mount Morta, but why the mountain actually needs guardians is left pretty vague.
There is some sort of evil corrupting entity spreading across the land, but nobody fully explains what the stakes are or what would happen if they fail to rescue the spirits of Rea and defeat it. They all talk about the thing as if it’s a desperately urgent matter, but then they seem quite content to sit around at home puffing on a pipe or playing the violin. Having said that, I will admit this works to the game’s advantage later on. It does such a good job of establishing the Bergson house as a safe and protective sanctuary, that when we hit the second act and the corruption begins to creep into their home, it’s that much more effective.
Gameplay is pretty standard top-down hack ‘n’ slash type business, reminding me of Diablo but a bit less boring. Each member of the Bergson family has their own distinct playstyle: John, the father of the family, uses a sword and shield; the youngest son Kevin dual-wields daggers – and so on. The characters level up as you play them, unlocking unique abilities as well as bonuses that apply across all members of the family. As you explore dungeons, you come across items that grant you temporary stat boosts, new attacks or buffs that last until you die or complete the level.
My first impressions were good; rather than the usual roguelike approach of immediately throwing you naked into the woods with a stick, Children of Morta presents you with a decently paced prologue/tutorial that takes you through the kinds of enemies, abilities and items you might come across in the levels. I also think it’s worth saying that this is up there with some of the best-looking pixel art graphics I’ve seen in a game. There are some truly stunning environments and the animations are highly detailed and buttery smooth.
Though it’s par for the course for procedurally generated dungeons to get a bit samey (and Children of Morta is no exception), there’s also real effort being taken to tell a story with the world. Occasionally you’ll follow a path in a dungeon that opens out onto a breathtaking vista, showing you the place you’ll eventually be fighting a boss or freeing a goddess. Sometimes you’ll come across a giant crowned skeleton in a coffin, or entwined in the roots of a tree. All these little details add up to help to bring across that Dark Souls-esque atmosphere of being a tiny creature exploring the ruins of a once great civilisation.
Children of Morta can be played solo or with a friend in local two player co-op mode. Luckily, top-down RPGs are totally my partner’s jam, so we had a lot of fun running around the dungeons, looting chests and breaking up meetings of the Scimitar Skeleton Society. Weirdly though, the game actually felt a lot more challenging when we were playing together. There were way more enemies, and they seemed to drop far fewer health potions too. I understand it makes sense to increase the threat level to compensate for the extra player, but it shouldn’t actually feel more difficult than going solo. I should never have to turn to my Player Two and say: “Can I try on my own? I’m never going to reach the boss with you here.”
Here’s a tip from me: use a ranged character. Enemies can swarm you pretty easily, so running in swinging a hammer is a fast track to a goblin gangbang. Use Linda’s arrows or Lucy’s fireballs to keep some distance between you and the bone brigade, and trust me, you’ll get a lot further. I’m assuming the melee characters get more powerful if you take the time to level them up, but that wasn’t time I was willing to put in when they felt so unplayable to begin with.
Overall I’d say Children of Morta isn’t as hardcore as other roguelikes, howeever. It’s more of a ‘diet sugar free rogue-lite with ice’. Some procedural games make you start from square one with every death, but Children of Morta takes it one boss at a time, which allows the narrative to keep moving forward. Instead of permadeath, your character teleports back to the family home when their health reaches zero, without ever losing any gold or XP. I actually liked this approach, because it never felt like an attempt was wasted. Each time you return home there’s always a new upgrade you can buy, or a new character to play as, or even just a nice moment between the family members. Though the game does get difficult, death was never too frustrating because each dungeon is only about half an hour long, and with each run you feel slightly better equipped for the challenge.
A lot of focus has been put on Children of Morta’s narrative in all of the game’s promotional material, and full disclosure, I didn’t reach the end. I tried, but I just didn’t have enough time, which is a real shame. It’s quite hard to judge a story before you’ve heard the ending, but I think it says a lot that I actually want to know how it ends. In a roguelike, that’s pretty unheard of. They’re meant to be all about addictive arcade gameplay, variety and replayability. Children of Morta has all that, yet manages to add an extra layer with its context and characters.
This is what it all comes down to in the end. Children of Morta would be a perfectly good linear dungeon crawler; it would also be a pretty good roguelike. But it genuinely manages to strike the perfect balance between the two, offering addictive, challenging and varied gameplay, as well as strong narrative, characters and world building. Besides some difficulty issues with the two-player mode and the melee characters, it’s a pretty great game. Plus the spirit you rescue at the end of the first area looks like a giant floating vagina, so what more could you want?