Children of Morta (Xbox One Review)

Dungeon crawlers tend to have a greater reverence towards gameplay over their story, often leaving important plot details at the wayside as to not bog down the player with exposition and menial dialogue. Children of Morta refuses to part with the players emotional investment by interconnecting the trial and error grind that most dungeon crawlers present with snippets of story every time the player starts a new run, continually ensuring that they are getting the best of both worlds. Children of Morta is still a by the numbers roguelike, but does it do enough to separate itself from the pack?

The Bergsons are a happy and humble family that live on the outskirts of a forest below the mountain of Morta. There’s more than meets the eye when it comes to this particular family. Generations of Bergsons have been called upon to defend their world from the “Corruption” through the ages; An oozing malice that uproots the likes of anything good and pure. And now the Corruption has returned again, forcing this new generation of Bergson into the frontlines. Throughout your time with Children of Morta you’ll see the Bergsons evolve through turmoil, bonding, and general camaraderie. They welcome new members to the family with open arms and just as rightfully cry when a dear family member passes away. Every scene is handled with such evocation that you’d often forget that the artstyle presented leaves little in the way for a character to convey emotions through animation. But each saddened bow and every gleaming eye is communicated through particular animation that really pays off.

The large country house that they reside in also helps to evoke a sense of happiness and dread as when the scene should need it. When the sun shines the multifaceted use of colours within the mansion’s walls makes it look like a painting come to life, almost psychedelic. Then, when light fades, the mood turns more sombre and life simmers down. And as the story progresses the overuse of the colour purple imbibes the Corruptions presence within the forest around them: a looming threat that’s getting ever closer. When you finally begin your adventure, you’ll realise that the duality of artistic tones extends beyond their idyllic country abode. Dungeons are ripe with undersaturated textures, dark browns and greys are all the eye can see and later stages don’t do much to mix that up. The contrast between both the dungeons and the family home are definitely present, letting players know that there are no comfy confines or warm beds to rest their weary heads. Considering that this is a dungeon crawler and the majority of your time will be spent surrounded by these four walls, it can become a bit dreary the longer you play. A constant reminder of the disparity between the dungeon and your family home.

The only palliative remedy to your overbearing and dim surroundings is in some comfort that Children of Morta is a roguelike, so at least the walls can rearrange themselves to look different. However, even the roguelike layouts of each dungeon are limited. Passages are usually just barren stretches of dirt going in all of the cardinal directions with very little in the way of scenery. There are no larger more enticing rooms with interesting geometry or set pieces. The only hold out to these are event specific rooms or challenge rooms that occur at the edge of each map’s boundaries; so you always know where to find them. Event rooms can further the plot or contain a journal entry for you to collect — expanding the lore of the game. Challenge rooms, on the other hand, can come in the form of a simple memory puzzle or an onslaught of monsters for a reward. These types of rooms are more than welcome but, unfortunately, have diminishing returns. Event rooms can only be present if a part of the story/quest needs to be unlocked. When this is no longer the case, they stop existing. The lack of diverse surroundings is very apparent after you’ve sunk an hour or so into Children of Morta and that stagnates all the way through to the end.

Combat is another ebb and flow entirely. Its frantic and very unwieldy at times but holds up throughout. There are a bevy of characters to choose from, most of which need to be unlocked. They follow two criteria “Melee” and “Ranged” fighters. As you’d imagine their roles are self-explanatory but their fighting styles differ based on their abilities. John, your starting character, has a long reaching sword and the ability to defend with his shield, and unlocking further abilities will see him rain down swords from the heavens. Lucy, your ranged starting character, has a bow and arrow and primarily fires from afar, and has the ability to rain down exploding arrows. The skills that each character possess can be upgraded through levelling up, which takes time and perseverance. However, levelling up only offers characters new abilities and does little for their base statistics, like health and damage. Players need to collect “Morv”, Children of Morta’s equivalent to gold, to level up. Morv Can be used at the family home to unlock a progressively more expensive set of attributes and buffs. Upgrades include more health, increased dodge chance, or faster skill cooldowns. Some of the more expensive upgrades take longer to grind but are wholly worth it for the increased experience gain, more keys for locked chests or in turn increased Morv drop chances. Children of Morta is a game that requires you to put in a lot of time. With each death the player returns to spend some of their hard earned Morv in hopes of beating the dungeon the next time over. But roguelikes are rarely solely based on player skill, there is a little bit of luck involved too.

Dungeons are filled to the brim with Relics for the player to employ but finding these items is down to pure luck though as they spawn at random. Relics can come in the form of both passive and active items, some simply imbue the player with greater damage while others can be activated manually granting temporary invulnerability. While Relics are a boon the player can take advantage of, it’s all done through the roll of the dice. Whether or not you’ll find the right Relic for the job is all down to your luck. Children of Morta is ruthless, battling enemies alone without the aid of these trinkets will see you dead, having a poor set of Relics is the equivalent to equipping low level gear for a high level area in any other RPG. This is all the more problematic because of Children of Morta’s design. Character geometry can often overlap and enemies can attack you from inside your player model while you can do little to defend yourself; Melee characters suffer the most from this. Ranged characters have a better chance at avoiding this mechanical flaw, but can generally only target one enemy at a time, resulting in them being overwhelmed. Sadly there are no in-betweens here, you have to deal with these scenarios or find a relic in hopes that aids your plight in some way. Health vials are scarce and completely random and checkpoints are non-existent. So when you die — and you will — you start from scratch in true roguelike fashion.

The best way of off-setting these severe difficulty spikes and mechanical issues is by playing with a friend in the local Co-op. Being able to thwart twice the amount of enemies and paying strategically will get you far without the requirements of any lucky loot drops and the like — with one playing as a defensive bulwark and the other popping heads from behind cover. It’s always good when a game encourages you to invite friends round for a quick adventure or two but Children of Morta almost requires multiple players to overcome its very grindy/luck based gameplay associated with this type of game.

Children of Morta is a very competent, albeit difficult, roguelike that  has a punctual artstyle and emotional story beats that keeps you playing longer than you’d think. Playing with a friend is almost a necessity to outweigh its sharp difficulty curves and over-reliance on luck based drops. Children of Morta is worth a look but only if you have a pal to fight alongside you and you have a panache for grindy roguelikes.

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