Children of Morta review: Family is the heart of this story-driven roguelike

In the shadow of Mount Morta, in an old mansion made only more beautiful by the moss and ivy climbing its walls, live the Bergsons. They look the part of any typical family of relative hermits: three generations living together under one roof, working together to mind their home, hunting together, sharing stories and playing games in front of the fireplace together. They’re the perfect picture of familial love. 

But they also share a solemn destiny: to hold back the corruption that flows every few generations from Mount Morta to the lands below, threatening to engulf the land of Rea in darkness. The Bergsons are Rea’s Guardians, and they face their duty with quiet resolve and the love that ties them together. 

This makes Children of Morta a much more melancholic affair than your typical roguelike action RPG. This isn’t a game about bright lights and flashing colours, nor is it a game that tries to overwhelm you with its oppressive, uncompromising atmosphere. For the Bergsons, facing through the Caeldippo Caves or City of Thieves, staring death in the face, seems routine—almost mundane.

This seems appropriate, given the loops inherent in a game like this. You venture out into one of Children of Morta‘s handful of dungeons, procedurally generated for each new run, and try to make it to the end. If you’re lucky, you’ll get an abundance of useful loot and plenty of potions, seeing you to the boss in the final floor in good health and with plenty of perks. If you’re not, you’ll probably die to an unfortunately-placed trap or horde, a dumb mistake, or the sheer attrition of your health bar. 

But every “death”—you don’t actually die if you fall, but get magicked back to the Bergson home at the last moment—brings you a step closer to eventual success. Most of your loot is lost when you “die”, but two things you get to keep are experience and a gold-like metal called Morv. Experience earns you skill points, in turn letting you learn helpful new combat abilities that, once learnt, are never lost. Morv, meanwhile, can be spent on permanent stat boosts. 

And so Children of Morta quickly falls into a comfortable, familiar routine: head into a dungeon, do the best you can do with what you’ve got, then come back and power up your characters for the next attempt. This is typical of the genre, but it seems so much more fitting here, given the tone of the game—it’s just part of the daily life of a Bergson. 

Note that I say “a Bergson”. They’re all in this together, so fighting back the corruption is a family affair. In practice, this means you’ve got a choice of characters for each run—two initially, but a total of six when everyone else is unlocked. As you’d expect, they each have their own fighting style and unique quirks, but they’re also more closely intertwined than you might expect. They’re family, after all. 

At certain skill point milestones, each Bergson automatically learns a new passive ability that applies to the whole family. Some of these are simple stat buffs, like a movement speed increase from Linda, the resident archer; others will see characters dropping in to help their relatives when certain conditions are met, like Bergson father and warrior archtype John periodically shielding his children from what would otherwise be a fatal blow.

There’s an incentive, then, to play around with all characters rather than just picking your favourite and sticking with them. This is further encouraged by something called Corruption Sickness: when an individual Bergson undertakes too many runs back to back, they start to succumb to the corruption and take a hit to their max HP. Keep going, and they’ll only get weaker, but letting them sit out and rest for a few runs is a sure way to get better.

Luckily, the aforementioned stat upgrades are shared along the entire family, so you don’t have to worry about someone being severely underpowered when you pull them off the bench. They’ll still have fewer skill points available to them than their higher-levelled siblings, but you can generally take even a character that you’ve just unlocked into whatever dungeon the story has you tackling at the time. 

Family is at the heart of Children of Morta, and that’s apparent in how the story unfolds, too. For a large part of the game, the ultimate goal of stopping the corruption seems almost tangential—little more than a way of unlocking new dungeons and giving you something to fight against. (And even when it does ramp up towards the end of the game, it’s fairly forgettable). The far more interesting part is what happens in the plentiful little moments shared between the Bergsons, which we see play out in vignettes between runs. 

You’ll see Uncle Ben writing letters to a long-lost love, expressing his deep regret at how things ended. You’ll see Mark and Joey, each an accomplished martial artist, sparring in the backyard. You’ll see John and Mary, man and lady of the house, sharing a dance in front of the fireplace while everyone else is asleep. When they’re not venturing out into caves and forests to fight the spread of darkness, the Bergsons are just… a family, with all the good times and bad that comes with that. 

These little slices of life are how you unlock new characters, too. Lucy, the youngest Bergson, isn’t ready for the family’s bleak task at first, but you’ll periodically see snippets of her training in the arts of fire magic. When she finally gains control of her powers—with no small amount of showing off—that’s when she becomes an option to play. All the other unlockable characters similarly have narrative reasons for being unavailable at first, and knowing there’s a new character on the horizon makes those stories all the more satisfying to watch play out. 

The final piece of Children of Morta‘s melancholy puzzle is the beautiful presentation. Eschewing the usual low-fi appeal of pixel art, environments are intricate and detailed—the result of a combination of hand-painted assets and meticulous pixel work. Harsh as the atmosphere in even the most dangerous dungeon is, there’s a sense of beauty and hope beneath the corruption and destruction. There’s a hint of what the world once was, and could be again, and this art style brings that to the surface.

Character and enemy sprites are more minimalist, but they nonetheless overflow with personality, pulling you into the story of the Bergsons with every little idle animation. A haunting soundtrack rounds this all out; even in the most intense boss fights, the sombre score helps keep the tone in check and remind you of what it is that the Bergsons are fighting for.

You could be forgiven for looking at screenshots of Children of Morta, assuming it was just another game in the increasingly crowded room of pixel art roguelikes, and moving on without a second thought. But to do so would be to miss something rather special; Children of Morta takes those familiar ideas and grounds them in a heartfelt story that is, at its core, about the love shared by family: the sacrifices we make for our loved ones, and the moments with them that we cherish.

Recommended


The publisher provided a copy of Children of Morta to Shindig for review.

Matthew Codd

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.