Dungeon crawling in one form or another has been a part of the video game landscape since the beginning. Many spins have been taken on the concept, but Diablo in particular has been influential, its mixture of real-time combat featuring hordes of enemies and randomly generated levels showing up in a wide range of games. With each successive title following in Diablo’s footsteps, another layer of complexity has been added to the concept, resulting in fun but cluttered titles that are unfriendly to newcomers. Children of Morta, while also clearly influenced by the Diablo formula, takes a different approach. This isometric hack and slasher, created by developer Dead Mage, has tiny dungeons, little loot, and a focus on story above all else. Far from a pale imitator of the more complicated iterations of the idea, this pared-back approach creates an easy to learn, hard to master gameplay loop that feels rewarding at every turn.
The land of Rea has been tainted by a terrible corruption. The long-dormant volcano of Mount Morta has erupted with a purple seething mass of darkness, blanketing the world with shadowy monsters and twisting the minds of the weak. Only the Bergson family, who have trained as heroes for generations, can stop this threat. One by one they venture into dangerous territory to free the three gods trapped deep within the dungeons, who with their power combined can end the corruption once and for all.
Children of Morta is comprised of a fascinating mix of hack and slash and roguelike mechanics. Each run involves exploring a small randomly-generated dungeon, generally comprised of two or three floors and a boss. The player crushes wave upon wave of enemies, gaining gold and experience as they go. Divine relics found along the way add passive status buffs or new special moves to try, ensuring no two runs are the same. At the end of the run, be it by victoriously defeating the boss or an untimely death two screens in, the player returns to the family house with only the money they gained. Gold can be spent at the forge to upgrade the whole family’s combat abilities, or at the Book of Rea, which upgrades resource-gathering options such as money earned or experience gained.
Initially, most players will be dying a lot. Enemies are tough, and a low level character has few skills available to them. As is typical of an isometric hack and slasher, each character has a primary attack that can be used as often as the player desires, and several strong secondary attacks that have a cooldown timer, with more powerful moves taking longer to reset. Each character starts with their primary attack available, but the more powerful secondary attacks need to be unlocked in the skill tree. Experience is gained quickly, however, and soon a great deal of destructive power is at the player’s disposal. The skill tree is short and clear, with two or three options at each branch. Along with the experience points, upgrades purchased with money make each run a little bit easier too, hitting that nice roguelike curve where the combination of improvement of skill with the earned modifications makes a seemingly insurmountable challenge eventually beatable.
Every new area represents a significant jump in difficulty, sometimes requiring a retreat back to an easier section to grind experience. Developer Dead Mage is aware this could become repetitive, and keeps the gameplay engaging with constant little changes each run. Random side quest events occur in dungeons, such as defending a wolf puppy from demons or finding some herbs to treat an injured traveller. Puzzle rooms and mini bosses spawn randomly to keep the player on their toes. Back at the Bergson’s house, short cutscenes will happen in between dungeon runs. Sometimes these vignettes depict plot events, other times just day-to-day life of the family bonding. Every playthrough feels meaningful, even the ones that end abruptly.
Also keeping things fresh is the corruption system, wherein a character will get sick and take a temporary hit to their health points if they are used too many times in a row. This encourages the player to try out all six characters, who each play quite differently. John and Linda are unlocked from the start and are the most traditional of the bunch; John is a tank with his sword and shield, while Linda flits across the screen with her bow and arrow. Later on, the player gets access to Kevin, who sports twin blades and gets faster with each monster slain; Mark, a martial artist who locks on to nearby enemies and gains armour over time; Lucy, who shoots fireballs and can make decoy copies of herself; and Joey, who carries a large mallet and deals more damage the more he is injured. As each character levels up, they also gain perks for the family as a whole, a further incentive to try out every family member.
Controlling the characters feels smooth and responsive, uniquely allowing the player to hold down a button rather than the manic mashing that is common to the genre. While set up is a bit fiddly, gamepads are also supported well, mapping primary attacks to the right stick for a twin-stick shooter approach.
This ease of use is aided by the excellent user interface, which conveys everything the player needs to know without being cluttered. Visual flairs clearly indicate when a secondary ability is ready or if a character has gained a skill point, and the function of items picked up along the way can be checked with a button press. The mini-map is nice and clear, and the player can teleport back to the exit of a floor once it is discovered. This attention to detail is carried throughout the visual design, which boast incredibly fluid and detailed animation. While pretty in stills, this game is absolutely breathtaking in motion. Using a technique involving hand painted pixel art and frame by frame animation, the end result is incredibly smooth character movements that must be seen to be believed.
Story is a strong focus in Children of Morta, the little cutscenes bookending a run revealing a bit more about the world or the family. The world is a mysterious one, with gods that appear to be part computer co-existing with shadow monsters and hero archetypes. The narrator’s soothing voice over the beautiful animations create a storybook feel, a sense of a tale told many times over. The non-playable characters are highlighted in these moments along with the main cast, with Grandma Margaret researching through the Book of Rea, Mother Mary spending a peaceful moment with the native animals, and Uncle Ben pining for a lost love. The familial bond is strong, and their home is a little safe haven of peace between the horrors they have to face.
Couch co-op is available in Children of Morta, with two players able to traverse the dungeon depths together. No enemy scaling seems to be present, but the balance still feels quite good, as dividing up the divine relics between players makes each a little weaker. Using two players means less freedom of movement, with both Bergsons having to stay within a screen’s reach. This presents no problem for a slow moving character like Joey, but would severely inhibit Kevin’s darting around. Co-op also seems a touch buggy, with a great deal of effort involved to get two controllers working, and a few instances of one player being spawned on the wrong side of a locked door. The game is enjoyable either way, and it is nice to have the option of inviting a friend. Online multiplayer is also in the works to be added in a future update.
Children of Morta is strong in its apparent simplicity. By the end game the player is juggling multiple additional powers, temporary buffs, held items, and a vast array of enemy types, but since everything is introduced so smoothly and cleanly it never feels overwhelming. The game is brutal without being cruel, as each failure shows some granular hint of progress—it serves as a great introduction to the genre for newcomers, as everything is explained so well, and is also appealing for veteran players, showing a different approach to a well-known classic. A bit Rogue, a bit Diablo, and all class, Children of Morta will be remembered as the gold standard for years to come.
Reviewed on PC. Also coming to Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One on October 15.