Think of the last few roguelike titles you’ve played. Now try to remember the names of the characters or anything significant about the story. Put simply, most of the time roguelike games are a forgettable experience, or their stories lack punch. Now imagine a roguelike that has a story so good that it could very well bring you to tears.
Children of Morta begins with an unknown force sweeping across the land. Grandma Bergson, the wizened elder of the Bergon family, gets the uneasy feeling that an ancient evil called “Corruption” has returned to their world. Gathering the family, they decide to investigate the nearby forest for clues. John, the patriarch of the family, sets out and quickly sees firsthand that this Corruption is attacking the local animals. Joined by his daughter Linda, they make their way through the forest, coming across a disturbing scene where animals are being slaughtered on the stump of a sacred tree. Vile creatures spawn forth, confirming Grandma’s worst suspicions — the Corruption has returned to Mount Morta, and only the Bergson family stands in its way.
As you can see in our first walkthrough, the only family members ready to tackle the threat are John and Linda. In the background stands silhouettes of other family members yet to join the fight. It all starts simple enough, with John’s powers centering around basic sword and shield attacks, and Linda focusing on her trusty bow. As they level up, they unlock new powers like a hail of arrows or a thorny response to anyone who dares to strike John’s shield. Eventually, as in all roguelikes, you’ll succumb to your wounds (there are no healing mechanics beyond discovered potions and the occasional special artifact). The moment before death, however, you are whisked back to the safety of the Bergson home, thanks to a special item provided by Grandma Bergson. It’s these moments that make Children of Morta unlike any game I’ve played.
In nearly every return trip home, the selected heroes take a moment to brief the others on what they’ve seen. Uncle Ben can improve on weapons and armor (more on that unique mechanic in a moment), Grandma can consult the Book of Rea (again, more on that in a few), and you can read up on your discoveries and enemies in the family library. But it’s the things that happen outside of these mechanical and backstory elements that makes Children of Morta special.
The game begins with some family members out on their own adventures, or otherwise occupied. I won’t ruin these as they are the game’s special sauce, but there are six family members that will ultimately join you in your ascent of Mount Morta. Each family member is completely unique in their combat, as well as their personal and familial upgrade path. For instance, John starts with a sword and shield and can block, slash, and stab with his shield up. Eventually he can put a point into a skill called Heavenly Swords which can rain a massive explosion from the sky on his foes, cooling off in just a few seconds. Once he’s put enough points into this first attack tier, a second tier opens up, but it also unlocks the trait he grants to all other family members — “Of the Same Blood” which increases the max health of all of the Bergsons. Similarly, Linda can use a bow, but after putting a few points into her skills like Exploding Shot, which drops an explosive arrow from a distance, she’ll unlock a familial trait called “Move as One” whereby all family members have increased movement speed. Each character’s skill tree has five tiers of family traits, meaning that over the course of the game you could unlock as many as 24 of them, shared between all of the Bergsons.
Beyond traits and individual skill trees that you gain as you level up, upgrading your character’s power comes in two forms — the Book of Rea, managed by Grandma Bergson, and the family workshop run by Uncle Ben. Early in your adventures, Ben will only be able to upgrade your max health and attack, but as you discover scrolls and lore in the catacombs below, more upgrades like critical hit damage, dodge, critical hit chance, swiftness, and more, will become available for upgrades. Similarly, the Book of Rea is more focused around traits like luck (how much Morv, the currency of the game, drops), XP gain, Relic Mastery (power cooldown reduction) and the like. What makes this unique, however, is that these are not individually upgraded for each character, but instead are shared across the entire family. This means that, while you will have to level up any new family members you unlock, they will be far from harmless when they step into battle.
Upgrading in the Book of Rea or Uncle Ben’s workshop requires “Morv” — the aforementioned currency in the game. In typical ARPG fashion, these gold coins are found in barrels, chests, and can be culled from dead enemies. Also in any of those locations you can also run across the next set of augments to help you succeed — Runes, Charms, Divine Relics, and Divine Graces. Once you get to the second section of the first dungeon you’ll start running across runes that provide short-lived augmentations to your weapons and secondary skills. This may cause your weapon to become enchanted, setting enemies on fire, or it could be that your arrow storm now covers a larger distance or fires in a straight line. These boons wear off after a certain amount of uses. Charms on the other hand are a single-use item that provides a temporary (or in some cases, permanent) improvement. These can raise your maximum health or movement speed, make you invulnerable for a time, or drop a random divine item at your feet. The last item types are Divine Graces. Some of these Divine Graces come at a cost, providing, as an example, a tremendous boost to attack power, but at the cost of the ability to dodge. Runes, on the other hand, do not wear off and will remain with you until you leave a dungeon, either by finishing it, or by being forcibly returned through near-death experiences. These can cause flames to orbit you that strike enemies, grants your primary attack a chance to stun foes, or can launch projectiles in all directions when your character is struck, to name a few. The last category, Divine Relics, are magical devices that provide incredible secondary powers, such as a giant dragon that will stun enemies and set them ablaze, a powerful shockwave that will repel enemies, or even companions that can shoot projectiles, engage in melee, or stun foes. These are set to a personal cooldown, allowing players to turn the tide when things get tough.
In the later portions of the game, as characters hit Tier 4 of their skills, you’ll begin to once again see familial connections in battle. Mark’s martial arts prowess is passed to the rest of the family, granting an additional agility pip to use for dodging or for agility-powered skills, or John stepping in to take an otherwise fatal hit for his family. These powers have a long cooldown, but they can be real game changers.
As the dungeons in Children of Morta are procedurally generated, I’m happy to report that I don’t know what your play experience will bring. During one run, I stumbled into a scene where a family was being harassed by a brute with a club, requiring my immediate intervention. Another run surprised me when I found that Grandma had somehow made her way down into the catacombs and was studying a nearby monolith. Many runs have these side stories and opportunities if you spend the time to search, adding that much more flavor to an already richly woven story.
Other than monsters, people in need of help, and the other mysteries of the dungeons, you’ll occasionally run across “Challenge Rooms”. These offer great rewards at an exceeding amount of risk, unleashing a massive wave of creatures for you to dispatch in hopes of opening a chest and getting a mixture of money, charms, runes, health, and other possibilities. These can be one massive wave, or multiple waves of foes. As this too is procedurally generated, I even had one instance where it was literally the same creature as the dungeon area boss!
Children of Morta’s unique pixel-art style comes from the minds of Dead Mage artists Soheil Zarghami and Arvin Garousi. Unlike other pixel-art games, the characters are incredibly emotive, and each family member moves with a hand-drawn fluidity I’ve not seen in a game like this. Using beautiful parallax scrolling to create layered backgrounds, coupled with gorgeous dynamic lighting, the game transcends its pixel-art roots and becomes something entirely unique. All of that said, if the art style is a 10, the music in Children of Morta is easily an 11.
Beyond the bright and colorful Bergsons, the other part that makes the Children of Morta’s world come together is the procedural nature of it. Every foray into the dungeons, forests, cities, and other locations is unique, comprised of procedurally generated layouts mixed with narrative elements. This means you may run an entire dungeon and never meet a soul other than monsters, or you might rescue a lost caravan, encounter a family member exploring, find an abandoned library with forgotten scrolls, or even play a game of something akin to Pong.
I’m happy to report that Children of Morta has very few bugs at launch, and most of them are simply cosmetic. When playing multiplayer, I would often get voice line repetition when leaving the shopkeep, and some of the bosses. When you find sub-bosses they are normally outlined in yellow, but on many occasions they had a large box around them instead. I also had one instance where I ended up stuck behind some scenery during a chase sequence. As all of the cutscenes are also procedurally placed when parameters behind the scenes are met, we also saw one sequence out of order that I can’t describe without a HUGE spoiler. Thankfully, other than the scenery issue, these are all non-impactful.
There is one thing I would put on my wish list for developer Dead Mage — drop-in / drop-out. While the second player can join at any time before entering the dungeon, they can’t drop from the game without exiting the session entirely. I’m not looking to have the second player join at any time as the runs are usually 40 minutes or less, I’m simply hoping to be able to drop the second player at the family home before another run.
Speaking of cooperative play, the game does scale difficulty nicely. Playing solo is challenging as the family members have complementary skills that you won’t carry with you on your own. When a second player joins the fray, monsters get tougher and more numerous, and sub-bosses appear a bit more frequently. The rewards are equally improved, with the commensurate risk to keep you honest.
Over the course of nearly 30 hours of gameplay, I’ve come to know the Bergson family — their hopes, their dreams, their fears, and most of all, their loss. I want Uncle Ben to be happy again, I want two brothers to mend their relationships, and I want to stop the Corruption to keep the Bergson children safe. I’ve never had this much connection with an indie game — there’s simply nothing else like it.
Children of Morta
With procedural worlds, fantastic cooperative combat, and a storyline that makes you care about the entire Bergson family, Children of Morta represents the best example of games as art. There are still a few months to go in 2019, but Children of Morta is looking like my Indie Game of the Year.