Children of Morta Review
Whoa, whoa, whoa. You take a little Diablo III, throw it in a pot, add some Dead Cells, Dungeon of the Endless, Binding of Issac, a potato. Baby, you’ve got a stew going. You’ve also got Children of Morta, the newest release from Polish based developer Dead Mage and publisher 11 Bit Studios.
Following a successful Kickstarter campaign back in 2015, the studio has been beavering away on the title. Plans to release in 2018 were scuppered after a decision was made to spend extra time adding a final spit and polish to the game. Fortunately, the studio has delivered on its new timelines and the full game will be available from September 3rd.
Children of Morta follows the story of the family Bergson. While sounding a bit like a 1970’s Swedish funk band, the family are in fact guardians of the magical mountain of Morta. Their united purpose is to protect the sanctity of the surrounding lands, and fight against the icky, sticky “corruption”, an evil purple gloop which corrupts and defiles anything and everything it can get its hand tentacle things around, on, or in.
First things first, this game is absolutely gorgeous. I’ve always loved the feel pixel art evokes in a game, but the artists here have dialled it up to eleven. Just like the aforementioned corruption, this game utterly oozes artistic style. Made with the Unity engine there’s dynamic lighting and specular maps coming out the wazoo. Having done some work on pixel art myself, I know just how time-consuming it can be to make even the most basic of animations. The level of detail in Children of Morta makes me vomit in my mouth a little. Countless hours must have gone into every aspect of the artwork, and even the smallest and least noticeable of animations are of impeccable quality. Hats off to the artists and animators. I hope you are giving your, no doubt, ruined eyeballs a well deserved holiday.
Next up is the story. This is definitely where the game shines – barring a few wobbles. Dead Mage stated in a number of dev diaries that the story was one of the most important parts of the game. In the fifteen hours I’ve played so far, I’ve really enjoyed it. There have even been a few twists I didn’t see coming, which have added to my enjoyment. They say great stories have three things: plot, action, and characters. In Children of Morta those characters are – unlike their art-style – actually three-dimensional. You have to tease out the backstory, and it’s genuinely interesting learning more about the Bergsons as you progress through the game. There’s stoic father figure John, dependable mother Mary, wise grandma Margaret, hulking but gentle giant Joey, hot-headed and nimble Kevin, ever optimistic Lucy… it’s truly a full ensemble.
The way the game mixes action and story is quite unique. In between hacking and slashing monsters in one of the game’s multiple areas, you spend downtime back at the Bergson family home. I actively looked forward to finishing or failing a mission, so that I could see what had been happening back at the ranch. Dead Mage has been very clever in how it weaved it all together, but sadly there was a hugely glaring plot hole where a baby appeared to be born, but then was back in mum’s stomach after the next mission… immaculate mis-conception? I’m not surprised some things have been missed when trying to blend an exploration-driven roguelike with a wider story, but it does seem a bit of an omission.
The story is also surprisingly dark and serious. I think I’m used to pixel art games having a lighter or more jokey feel, like Dead Cells, but Children of Morta is pretty bleak in some places. Amongst all of the animal cruelty associated with the corruption – and as a friend put it recently, “There’s nothing worse than someone who hurts animals” – there aren’t many punches pulled when it comes to the grim realities of fighting evil. While very easy to misstep here, and either oversimplify or overcomplicate the morality, I think the devs have done an excellent job.
Shout out also for what is usually my biggest problem with any game: the UI. It’s cracking. In Diablo III, rather than watching the amazing action onscreen, I’d be watching the cool-down clocks at the bottom of my screen. Not exactly the most riveting of heroic experiences. In Children of Morta the UI has been cleverly designed to make it really obvious when your skills have reset. I can finally put my full attention into smashing open that goblin’s head with my battle hammer.
At first I was a bit overawed with the graphics and artwork, but sadly the more I’ve played, the more I’ve found some areas to criticise. The Bergsons all play very differently in the game. While it makes sense that they all have different abilities, some verge on playing in easy mode. Linda, for example – the eldest daughter and archer of the group – makes me feel like a US military drone sniping targets from space. It removes almost all of the challenge from the game. Mark, on the other hand – the up close and personal battle monk – feels like I’ve ridden a bicycle into a Destruction Derby. He’s fun to play if you can get the rhythm right, but fighting as a melee character exposes some of the more cheesy elements of gameplay. Enemy attacks are often non-interruptible and undodgeable. But as a ranged character your attacks do interrupt the enemy. Fights often consist of simply dishing out the most damage you can as quickly as possible, before you get clawed and stabbed to death. It’s nowhere near as skill based as something like Dead Cells or Binding of Issac.
This can be even worse for the bosses in the game, who don’t feel particularly fun to play against. There’s the odd moment of heart-pumping tension as you balance attack and defence, but often fights simply result in you destroying the boss immediately or dying in a frustratingly uncontrollable manner.
While the music is great, the sound design is somewhat lacking. For example, the audio feedback when you hit an enemy is the same no matter what you hit them with. Mark’s fists, Linda’s arrows, or Joey’s gigantic sledgehammer – all sound a bit like I’ve patted an enemy gently on the head, as opposed to a presumably deadly and life-changing attack. Add in a couple of more meaningful meaty thwacks and combat would have been elevated greatly.
Taken as a whole though, this is a special game. Dead Mage has done something very interesting with its combination of frantic roguelike and story-driven exploration, and that deserves praise. I hope it continues to support and grow the world of Children of Morta.