I have a complicated relationship with games that feature procedural generated content. Some utilize this framework to add a lot of enjoyable variety to a compelling gameplay loop. Others stack tedious progression systems over mundane busywork to hook players onto a treadmill of grinding. I prefer the former. Children of Morta is the latter.
Developer: Dead Mage
Publisher: 11 bit studios
Release Date: September 3rd, 2019
Reviewed on: PC
Available on: PC, Xbox One, Switch, PS4
Children of Morta is one of the latest in a long line of indies with procedural generated content. It’s an action RPG where you comb through dungeons killing mobs, collecting treasure, and occasionally solving puzzles. Join the Bergsons – a family that has stood as the guardians of Mt. Morta for several centuries – as they fend off the other-worldly corruption that has begun spilling forth from the mountain’s peak. Playing as a whole family of defenders offers some unique gameplay aspects to Morta, but it largely fails to differentiate itself from its contemporaries in a meaningful way.
Let’s begin with the aspect Morta prides itself most heavily on: story. For context, the game’s store page describes it as a, “story driven action RPG”, and a fair amount of time is dedicated to the plot. The issue I have is that the story ends up feeling disjointed from the whole experience. The main plot plays out after you return from dungeons creating a divide between the story and gameplay. Most of these scenes aim to raise the stakes of what’s happening, but regardless there is no tangible effect on the other half of the game. The result is a story that plays out independent of the player’s actions.
Morta tries to, and unsuccessfully, demonstrate the impact of the corruption through dungeon events. These are a handful of random events you can happen upon where you aid people affected by the corruption. Unfortunately they are static and limited in number. As such, playing more of Morta means you’ll see less and less of these until they disappear entirely being replaced by events with no narrative significance.
Things aren’t all bad as far as the story goes however, as it’s written and delivered well. A narrator with a delicious voice takes you through the whole journey and occasionally provides brief excerpts for the areas you’re exploring.
There is also a codex with detailed information about each area and the backgrounds of the Bergsons. I’m a big fan of stories being delivered without laborious exposition dumps, and I appreciated having the additional information tucked away to read at my leisure.
Taking a look at gameplay we see what is the biggest win for Morta: the Bergson family itself. There are a total of six different characters you’ll play as over the course of the game. Each fits a common archetype such as John the sword and shield wielding warrior, or Lucy a fireball slinging mage. They all have a unique mechanic and attacking style. For instance John can block attacks, but has reduced mobility. These different play-styles add much needed variety to each trek through the dungeons.
The Bergsons also work as a family unit when it comes to upgrades. Stat increases and a subset of passive skills can be purchased between dungeons. Every single upgrade is applied to all members of the family meaning each foray into a dungeon has value for everyone.
The leveling system works in a similar vein. As the Bergsons level up they gain skill points, which can be spent on permanent character specific upgrades. Upon investing a set number of points, a passive skill will be unlocked which benefits all the members of the family. These skills include small passive bonuses such as movement speed, or critical hit rate, but get progressively better at higher levels to include a variety of “block a fatal attack” skills and passive health regeneration. Morta wants to make sure that each run, even if it ends in failure, provides players with benefit to the Bergson brood.
While these systems heavily emphasize the family aspect of Morta it also accentuates repetitive dungeon design. Dungeons are split into three zones each featuring their own unique enemies and traps with a shared set of corrupted enemies. Almost all of these potential threats only have a single attack meaning they’re entirely brainless to dispatch. The handful of exceptions are those enemies which feature both a ranged and melee attack. This, combined with similar looking dungeon layouts, leads to a lot of Morta feeling like you’re repeating yourself in an effort to empower the Bergsons.
The shared upgrade and skill system also naturally lends itself to rewarding grinding. When you can empower everyone by leveling each member of the group individually you’d be foolish not to. To avoid repetition you’d have to go against Morta’s core loop enacting a self-imposed hard mode. This leads to the game becoming increasingly repetitive the longer you play it.
The last two areas I wanted to cover are related to art. Anyone who has read a handful of my stuff should know I really like pixel art. Look at this game. Look at it! That is some high quality pixel art. The backgrounds are incredibly detailed making Morta look fantastic. Characters and enemies have a more simplistic design to provide contrast against the heavily detailed backdrops. The art comes across as both stylish and functional. Magnificent.
The visuals are not without a very major flaw however. The entire game has some wicked motion blur, which can’t be disabled. This turns the detailed backdrops into a blur of colour every time you start to move around. It also gave me repeated headaches while playing. I’ve stated it before, but I have an acute motion sickness problem. As such this isn’t likely to bother the bulk of players, but did limit the amount of time I could put into Morta in a single session before I needed to lay down to rest.
Children of Morta is an alright game, but it’s not a game for me. It’s a shame as I really liked aspects of the writing, the family gameplay gimmicks, and the art. None of this could entirely make up for how disconnected the story ends up feeling from the rest of the game, and how the gameplay eventually devolves into a lot of repetitive grinding. It’s alright, and I can see why some like it, but these aspects hold Children of Morta back from really shining.