Jamie Knight
Fri, 11/15/2019 - 10:56

Traditionally roguelikes forgo story for the sake of endless replayability, but Children of Morta bucks this trend by having a strong linear story as the main backbone behind it's more traditional explore, die & repeat gameplay loop.

The story focuses on the Bergson family, who must save the world from encroaching darkness by exploring ever deeper into it's procedurally generated dungeons, hacking and slashing whatever is in them until you find (and after many attempts) defeat the boss at the end.

As you would expect, the story will always progress the first time you complete each dungeon, but there are other more mysterious progression mechanisms at play. Often returning to the Bergson homestead after a failed run, may results in a cutscene revealing more character backstory, or making new characters and upgrades available to the player.

The story cutscenes are absolutely charming, and when they occur they genuinely feel like a reward. Even outside of the cutscenes, you can pan the camera around their home and see what each family member is doing and thinking about (via speech bubbles) in their day-to-day life. It's hard to go into any specific details without story spoilers, but there are definitely moments when your emotional investment in these characters pays off.

This constant sense of progression and reward regardless of success also permeates into the dungeon gameplay mechanics, where any gold or exp you gained is retained upon death. On the one hand, this does somewhat undermine the difficulty of the game, as on each subsequent attempt you'll always be slightly better prepared. But It also helps ensure the game and it's story continues to flow.

Gameplay

Initially, you can play as either the father or daughter (or both in co-op mode), then over the course of the story, other characters will be made available. Each character has their own unique combat style and skill tree, which stem from the usual archetypes such as the high defence warrior, long-range archer, or glass-cannon rogue.

When you gain enough exp with a character they level-up, which grants a skill point to invest in their skill tree. But in a clever twist, there are nodes on each characters skill-tree that apply a buff to all family members. This discourages just power-levelling one character and helps prevent the monotony from focusing on a single fighting style.

During each run, you'll discover various types of runes that provide you with new abilities, buffs or cute little AI companions, which in classic roguelike style are lost at the end of each run. These make each run unique, and also adds a bit of luck into the equation. Getting a good combination of these can make the difference between completely destroying a boss, or being killed within seconds.

Unfortunately, all of these systems are undermined by the games incredibly simple enemy AI. Monsters usually just run straight at you slightly faster than you can retreat. So gameplay often just boils down to a repetitive crowd control dance-off. Timing your attacks, ability cooldowns, and movement to try and maintain a safe distance away from these braindead enemies, whilst inflicting steady damage.

The game is also marred by a few technical problems which really started to hinder my enjoyment the longer I played.

The main issue I ran into whilst playing on a PS4 Pro was with the streaming of data, which appears to be done on the main CPU thread and causes the game to completely freeze-up when doing any kind of asset loading.

While this made the loading screen animations hilariously redundant, it also impacts gameplay with the framerate stuttering whenever new dungeon data is streamed in during exploration.

And then there are the load times themselves. Around ~20 seconds to load into a dungeon, then another ~20 seconds to load back to the home afterwards. So almost a full minute just to repeat a run, and considering when you start a new area, the difficulty spike can result in the runs themselves taking less time than the loading.

Visuals & Audio

Graphically the game is a mixed bag, the beautiful pixel art and animation is often tarnished by the games love of non-integer scaling as it zooms in and out during cutscenes.

Usually, sprite-based games implement some type of downsampling when performing any non-integer scaling, which would soften the imagine but avoid any floating-point accuracy issues. But unfortunately, here they just go with raw, old-school, sprite resizing. So you'll see a lot of pixel shimmering, and nasty white seam lines flickering between the graphic tiles that make up the game world.

The dungeons themselves thankfully don't zoom in/out very often, but the opening cutscene is really plagued by it.

In terms of audio, the overworld music is a lovely and relaxing tune that really compliments the warmth of the story. But there isn't anything particularly memorable about the dungeon audio, but it does provide enough audio cues to help make sense of the often chaotic gameplay.

Overall

Children of Morta offers a unique twist on roguelike formula and wraps it up in a warm and engrossing story that will have you genuinely caring for its family of characters. Unfortunately, whilst the gameplay starts off strong, the dungeon crawling eventually becomes a chore due to repetitive combat and long load times.

7