Diablo III might have been a killer addition to the Nintendo Switch library by last year’s end, and several other well-known titles have shared their offering in the same space, but indie studio Dead Mage‘s stunning take on that formula with their successfully Kickstarted title Children of Morta left a bigger impact on me and offered more enjoyment than the top dog. Children of Morta’s hacking & slashing, shooting & blasting feels fantastic and is even more impressive when paired with its meticulously detailed visuals.
The roots extend with strong reach. Taking place on the surface of Mount Morta is the residence of the Bergson family. This house not only acts as your safe haven for preparation, it also allows the player to warm up to each member and feel coziness inside the house as well. This feeling also comes from the fireplace, which holds one family secret being a passageway to an underground chamber that hold portals to unique locations. Just before these early events unfold, players are immediately taking control of the first family member they meet, being a sword & shield warrior named John, in a guided tutorial area on Mount Morta which then leads to the Bergson Family Home to begin the real introduction.
A Corruption has seeped into the sacred and ancient Mount Morta and affecting the land, its fauna, and even more directly the Bergson family. Why is this and how it can be stopped is the family’s task, voluntarily. This is one family who not only refuses to give up, but all have a certain motivation in life and want to work toward fulfillment and accomplishment. Each one of these characters are quite adept in a certain field, which lends them to each play differently from one another. As one who usually gravitates toward specific archetypes, I found every character to be a joy to play and often switching between them.
In fact, you’ll even be encouraged to switch around characters as corruption fatigue does occur when a character has dungeon-crawled for so long and need some time to rest a number of turns. They are still accessible, albeit with a temporary stat reduction. In order to familiarize each one of the Bergson family they are unlocked individually as you make progress and complete more runs. There isn’t a long wait time just to have each Bergson available to choose from. You first need to do a natural healthy grind to settle in, get some loot along with gold, level up and upgrade both individual Bergson’s and the family as a whole.
Each Bergson uses a particular set of weapon(s) or lack thereof each sticking to their own style. Money won’t be spent on any additional gear, but instead upgrades that affect them overll. The currency to spend on permanent boosts to stats and buffs is Morv. These are found in chests and dropped by enemies. After each run, your collectings will be brought back to the residency and can be spent at quarters such as Ben’s Workshop, for example, leveling up movement speed, attack strength, and more.
Skills, or perks, are entirely exclusive to each and every Bergson. Upon leveling up by natural progression with experience points, characters are granted a skill point every level. Skills even have their own ranks and become more effective, but also increase in skill points for each rank. Special eggs that are found in dungeons can be used to reset your selection from a clean slate by returning the amount of skill points you’ve had accumulated. No matter your choice on how you spend them the accumulation of them fills a gauge which increases you skill level overall, thereby unlocking additional skills. Burn some to earn some.
Dungeon runs usually depend on how you wish to approach. A basic run can take about 20 minutes, while a more thorough and complete run could double that and upward. Each run has the chance to give you something new or make a new discovery. There’s the probability that you could miss out on specific side events and sequences if you just choose to reach the finish line. It’s these bits that make filling out the dungeon’s mini-map tempting.
Children of Morta finds ways to remix your runs and throw new opportunities at you to keep things fresh. The gist of runs is getting through either a couple to a several floors and meeting that end boss. The number of enemies and discoveries you encounter will depend entirely on you. You first have access to only one portal. Portals lead to specific locations we could think of as any game’s “World”. Within those, there are individual areas we could think of as “Levels”. These levels are your runs and the next level in that world can only be unlocked if the run was a success. Trying to do the same runs becomes less stale as dungeons are procedurally-generated and work within the template of each specific area.
Everything feels great, too. Pressing B will perform a dodge. Dodges have a very short cooldown period and a certain number of charges depending on the character. Pressing Y performs a basic attack. Once unlocked through the skill tree (available immediately with at least 1 skill point), Active Skills with a short cool down can be used by pressing X with another slot tied to L. On top of this, every character has a stamina meter that is used differently. Eventually a berserk mode will become available and also if unlocked through choosing that skill, a powerful version of that character will be active temporarily. For instance, the bard Linda is a marksman can shoot arrows standing still at no stamina cost, but moving and shooting at the same time will slowly drain the stamina meter. Her 1st active skill Explosive Crescendo shoots an arrow upward and causes an explosion AoE when it lands; her 2nd active skill Harmonic Slam stuns nearby enemies for a short period. Her berserk allows her to move faster and shoot arrows at a rapid pace. She is able to dodge twice. An example of a rune ability for Linda is she can even shoot 3 arrows at once.
Every character feels unique and fun to play as. Mark is an unarmed monk skilled in martial arts. He can only fight up close, but has very quick attacks and the ability to leap towards enemies. Kevin is a dual dagger-wielding assassin. He is able to stick to the shadows and chain fast combos. Unlike Linda and Mark, he has 3 dodge charges. Lucy is the youngest and is basically a real children of Morta, but her passion burns bright and her demeanor is fiery. She is a pyromancer who can only attack when standing still, but her sparkling magic is on rapid fire and can be shot from a distance. Her nimbly speed helps her get to any spot to cast her projectiles. While Y is used for attacking, the right analog can be used for twin-stick control as well. So Linda can aim her attacks while moving at ease.
Part of the success stems from being rewarded from discoveries and the various pickups that will aid you. In order to obtain the most helpful items to take on a boss that you might be under-leveled for, or to just more easily take on hoards and waves of enemies, going through each section is beneficial. Areas are color-coded to highlight what they mean. Going through a white barrier means you will see optional content, maybe a mini-game or sidequest, in order to earn something nice in return. Yellow barriers mean you’re headed toward the main path. One can easily find the gate to the next floor before another part of the map that might hide a worthy reward, but it’s a nice way of making it easy by having that color differentiation leaving that choice up to the player to go through if they want to. On top of Morv being dropped, they may also drop Gemstones, which are used to open locked chests that may hold better rewards. Gemstones can be saved for bartering with the merchant instead.
There’s plenty of traps and enemies to avoid. Grouped skeletal warriors will charge you all at once. Aerial enemies such as bats can be trickier to hit. Large ogres with clubs can cause a ground pound effect that needs to be dodged with timely precision. Spikes ejecting from the ground can sometimes sneak up on you. Magnets can draw you in on it making it more difficult to escape when surrounded by enemies. Totems shoot arrows and more. Sorcerers, especially in a group, can be harder to deal with as they conjure enemies, shoot blasts of magic and generally try to hide themselves from your sight.
Whether you had a successful or failed run, Children of Morta has a strong emphasis on telling you more of the Bergson family over time. Whenever returning back to the Bergson’s home, story events and cut-scenes are played. Depending on what discoveries you made in that run, you may get additional scenes as well. For instance, I found a white pup that was being ambushed in a cave and upon rescuing it we brought it back home. Several runs later and there are still endearing moments with the pup. Highlighting the family aspect of the Bergson’s goes a long way for Children of Morta. Every family member is going through something and there’s wholesome and touching events throughout. This is also all explained through one narrator who does a great job at giving a believable storybook tone to everything. One moment can be filled with laughter while another can be saddening.
There’s basically an encyclopedia of all that’s in the game for everything you’ve discovered up to that point. Each run grants you upgrades and powerups in various forms. Divine Graces are powerups that may be specifically timed or last the entire run. Acquiring a Divine Grace that continuously recovers your health a slow rate is helpful if there are no health pickups nearby. Best of all, Divine Graces can stack, making that same one increase the rate of which you are healed thus being more effective. Another one involves two orbs that spin around you damaging anything that touches it. Divine Graces even come in form of companions that follow you and fight by your side. You can carry as many of these pickups as you can find.
Divine Relics are a different beast, have a cooldown, and only 1 can be carried at a time (or additional with upgrade). These are powerful attacks that usually cause an area of effect that may buff you or inflict a certain negative status on enemies. They also look spectacular when used. Most effective when you find yourself surrounded by a lot of enemies.
Blessings are held until activated by pressing Down on the D-Pad. They can apply any number of effects. Eventually, players will unlock the ability to find Rune pickups. Runes are interesting effects that are applied to your character’s actions, such as fire or lighting elemental damage applied to your weapon, for example.
What makes Children of Morta a blast is its recipe. It feels great to play, but it’s the hand-crafted pixel graphics that accompany every action on screen that make you feel every movement and impact. It’s not just that the art is gorgeous, firstly. It’s also how everything animates. All of the particle effects and special moves and maneuvers are all very fluid and full of character. During cut-scenes the way every character animates looks smooths and never feels stiff. There’s so much personality in every bit of pixel you can see on-screen. Just the Bergson’s idle animations alone are very well done. When it comes to pixel graphics in the new age, Children of Morta is easily some of the best I’ve ever witnessed. There’s a wonderful atmospheric music score to accompany your adventure.
The optional co-op mode allows one another local person to help you take down the corruption as well. The way the roguelike features of each area gets created make it feel like a natural area to explore. While you’ll notice some similarities between them, there’s enough going for it. The only issue we’ve found was performance. It mostly can be dodged, fortunately. This happens when you put yourself into a situation when there are way too many enemies on-screen at once. You’ll notice the game will get stuttery. Even when you’ve defeated all the enemies and they’ve disappeared, that drop in frame will remain static until you play again.