Some families squabble. Others vacation at the lake. Some pile into the family truckster and go road-tripping. For the Bergsons, fun is banding together to defeat an evil magical force called the Corruption, located conveniently in the always-changing dungeon-like levels below the family estate. The family that slays together, stays together.
Children of Morta is a kick-started pixel art style RPG/roguelike, a description that, for many gamers, has all the appeal of a long and painful root canal. That’s not entirely unfair. After all, the indie gaming scene is littered with “charming, pixel art roguelikes” that are often brutally difficult and/or lacking in imagination. Happily and with some relief we can report that Children of Morta is genuinely charming, quite robust in its mechanics, difficult without being ridiculous and full of wit, heart and a story that is worth paying attention to.
The family conceit that powers Children of Morta’s story also underpins the playable characters that you will take into battle and each is unlocked over time as part of the story. Some family members — like pregnant mother or an elderly grandparent — serve traditional RPG roles like vendors or trainers. The family members that you take into the dungeons — father, brothers, sisters — are essentially traditional, class-based characters like rangers, mages and rogues but the family story and dynamics helps make them feel less like archetypes and more like relatives with very specific talents and quirks. Hanging out in the family mansion serves as a pleasant respite between dungeon runs and, of course, unlocks more story, more playable characters and other game play mechanics. Taking the time to experience the story and getting to know the family members is much more rewarding than in many games in the genre.
Ultimately, though, most players will come to Children of Morta for the combat action and it isn’t disappointing. Each foray into the depths will basically be a run through three randomly-generated levels and an end boss, with a complex alchemy of luck, level design and smart character choices determining how successful any one attempt will be. In general, crowd control is important as enemies come in character-surrounding numbers and while there is an interesting and often surprising mix of traps, secrets and supernatural and more mundane foes, now and again the ability of these enemies to do damage seems weighted against the player. Bosses are a mix of frustratingly difficult — especially early ones or with the wrong party — and unexpectedly lactose intolerant and easy to cheese. Happily, experience and gold are not lost upon death and grinding or waiting to unlock the right character can tilt the outcome in the player’s favor.
Children of Morta has to be one of the most detailed and opulent pixel art games, which so often neglect the artistic potential in even very simple graphics. Characters are expressive and in particular above ground in the Bergson’s house there is an ornate, visual richness that almost makes you forget the pixel art aesthetic. Sound design, music and overall writing are very well done, though the stentorian narrator comes across — at least to me — as overdone, to some degree undercutting the otherwise sincere story and characters.
While Children of Morta stays pretty solidly in the tradition of recent RPG/roguelikes, its packaging — graphics, design, story and characters — elevate it above the pack and players who have grown weary of the genre will find it refreshing. It’s challenging without (usually) being unfair and while there is plenty of varied combat, there is a story with some heart and soul for any player looking for a break from constant hack and slash. It’s still a roguelike, so any player intolerant of the genre’s “die and try again” conceit will not suddenly become enlightened, but fans of the form will enjoy one of the more interesting and appealing examples in recent memory.