Children of Morta (Dead Mage/11-Bit Studios, MSRP $29.99) is a game that believes in that age-old, rogue-like proverb . . . die until you’re strong enough to stop dying. Developed by Dead Mage and published by 11 Bit Studios, the brilliant minds in charge of this game have taken all of the frustrating elements of rogue-likes and incorporated them into something new. Whether or not you would like to give a name or genre to it is up to you, but in the games, endless frustration is something beautiful that made it incredibly difficult to put the controller down.
The game opens up with a retro-style cinematic that gives you plenty of detail and backstory about the antagonist and family of heroes that move the narrative forward. You start the game out as the eldest son of a lineage of heroes called the Bergsons. They are the guardians of Mount Morta, tasked with keeping the peace in their lands. As a dark force called the Corruption spreads across their once peaceful world, you are tasked with bringing this plague to its knees and restoring the balance. As you stand against this ancient evil, you are not only saving the universe, you are standing together with your family, as the world around you is being consumed by darkness.
Following the game’s opening cinematic, you find yourself in an ever-changing world, where the environments react to everything you do. The music plays, and the game begins. You wander through a forest until you find yourself being attacked by a purple mist. From this purple mist, beings of varying levels of power are released, and it’s your job to take them out. Once you do this, you can open the path to the next part of the game. However, you can’t take these enemies lightly, because each one is different. Some come in the form of small purple bugs, while others wield swords and magic. Every enemy requires a different strategy, and this is where the frustrating parts of the game come into play.
How does the progression system work? This is the most asked question I get when talking about this game, because, let’s be honest, the progression system in both rogue-lites and rogue-likes have never exactly been fun . . . or even helpful, really. That being said, Children of Morta succeed were few other games of this style and genre do not. The entire point of the game is not to just play until you die, it’s to keep dying until you’re good enough to play. After every death, you get to keep both your experience points and the money you’ve accumulated during that playthrough. While each playthrough doesn’t result in the unlocking or purchasing of something new, with enough time spent in whatever dungeon you’re crawling through, you can level up certain aspects of whichever member of the Bergson family you happen to be using. Your skill “tree” consists of health, accuracy, defense, magic, and other things that you can customize, depending on your play style. You can also seek the ancestral wisdom of Uncle Ben, who runs the forge. While upgrades are costly, they’re more than just cosmetic and can make all of the difference when wandering through dungeons and fighting baddies. Every character you play as has a different set of skills, meaning that whether you’re good with brawling, weapons used from a distance, or spell-casting, there’s a character for everybody. However, you have to work for them.
While each playthrough in Children of Morta can yield something different, what this game does a magnificent job at is making your deaths mean something. Unlike most games in the genre, when you die, you don’t get a game over or lose your progress. Instead, you get taken back to the beginning of that dungeon (if you choose to play it again or go back into the main house). With each death comes a new piece of the story, keeping you engaged through every frustrating moment the game has to offer. For example, after finding your daughter in the woods, you crawl through a system of caves. With each death in the cave, you get a new piece of background on the Bergson family, which results in the development and eventual playability of a new character.
When it comes to negative aspects of this game, there aren’t many besides the games increasing difficulty. One thing I think I should mention is the fact that dodging is an annoyance. As this game is fairly linear, the dodging system only allows you to dodge up, down, right or left, meaning if the path you’re on breaks off diagonally, you’re out of luck. The amount of enemies is also rather annoying, as the game focuses heavily on the development of attacks that use splash damage as opposed to attacks that involve weapons or blocking.
Outside of the things I’ve already mentioned, the positive aspects of the game are plentiful. It’s quite nostalgic in the way you romp around dungeons. It even gives you the choice to play with a friend (locally or through online play), taking you back to the glory days of the Gauntlet games. The active environment is also something to take note of, as the enemies are ever-changing, so is the world in which the game takes place. There’s always something new to find off the beaten path, making no two playthroughs the same. The progression isn’t something that requires hours to make use of, only several deaths. And the story is both engaging and structured enough to hold together the world and properly develop the characters throughout the game.
While this review is being written from somebody who is only about 75% finished with the game (I do plan on finishing), the portions that I’ve played are enough to both captivate me and leave me with this longing to return. Though the amount of times you die is frustrating, every death seems to have a purpose, making each return to a life worth the time spent, whether for a new story beat, a new weapon, or a new upgrade. Children of Morta is a game that stands out amongst the many rogue-likes I’ve played, making the annoyance and frustration feel meaningful. The good folks over at Dead Mage have created a world worth visiting and characters worth developing. Set aside your pile of holiday gaming and move Children of Morta to the top. You won’t regret it.
Played On: Xbox One
(Please note that for this review, Pop Culture Cosmos/Game Source did receive a review code/model/sample from the company/developer/public relations firm responsible for distribution to the press.)