The elevator pitch for Children of Morta isn’t exactly encouraging. A pixel-art action RPG. From the creators of nothing you’ve played, because I’m pretty sure you didn’t play Shadow Blade or Garshasp. Hold on, let me make sure I spelled that right. Yep. Garshasp.
You can see a screenshot up there of Children of Morta in action. Like I said, not exactly encouraging. It doesn’t help that Steam is lousy with these things.
As far as action RPGs go, Children of Morta errs on the side of simplicity. It is only ever short dungeon runs, with temporary powerups along the way, ideally ending in a successful fight against that area’s boss so you can move on to the next area and its boss. There are no character builds, beyond the order you unlock stuff for any given character. My fire mage will eventually play exactly like your fire mage. Our archers, assassins, and warriors are identical. We will not use distinctive loadouts, because there isn’t an inventory. We don’t even get cosmetic options. Our fire mages not only play identically, they look identical.
But what the elevator pitch and basic description don’t convey is Children of Morta’s unique charm. I know, I know, “charm” can be a loaded term, especially alongside “pixel art” and “simple”. Any combination of these three terms usually means twee. There’s a touch of twee in Children of Morta, but with enough restraint and intentionality that it doesn’t have to be a criticism. Overall, this is a deft combination of the heft of immediate gratification and the lure of long-term progression, with a confident narrative wrapper. Twee? Perhaps. Efficient and vivid? Definitely.
Among its six characters, Children of Morta has no character classes per se. I mean, sure, one is a hardy melee fighter, one is a glass cannon, there’s a damage spiker and an even more glass cannon. You know these archetypes by their usual names: rogue, wizard, paladin, barbarian, and so on. But Children of Morta isn’t interested in these words, just as it’s not interested in detailed character builds or customization. Children of Morta has another idea.
In a normal action RPG, the list of characters is something you pass on your way to playing the game. But in a way, the list of characters in Children of Morta is the game. These characters are a family. Not in the Fast and Furious sense, but literally. Stoic dad, wise older brother, eager young brother, sensitive older sister, and sassy younger sister. The wise grandma and industrious uncle are the equivalent of vendors. Pregnant mother is pregnant, so she really shouldn’t be doing those dishes. Go sit in the rocking chair, let me take care of these.
The family conceit accomplishes a couple of things. First, it gives the oh-so-brief downtime between episodes of hack-and-slash a kind of domestic intimacy. The cutaway view of the family household has a picturebook quality. It rewards the roving eye. Here’s this character — a member of the Bergson family — saying something about the boss monster he hasn’t beat yet. There’s an item you found in a special room after saving someone from monsters and there’s another item you found that may or may not fit into a later story beat. What’s the little black cat doing now? Is anyone training in the backyard? What is Grandma Margaret looking for as she gazes out at the horizon? Feel free to ignore this stuff, but it’s there anyway, on the way to your next run. It reinforces the idea that Children of Morta’s characters aren’t a list of character classes, but a set of interrelated people.
The fact that this is a family also gives the character unlocks and progression a narrative framework. Not that you needed one. This is an action RPG, after all. And just as you can ignore the details of the Bergson house, you can also ignore the reason this character isn’t unlocked yet. Curious, though, if you think about it. But you don’t choose classes in Children of Morta; you play characters as they arrive, as they’re ready to be played, as the family decides. Character choice is gated, but not too narrowly and not for too long. Just enough to make sure each introduction is meaningful. By the time all six classes have arrived, you know them more by their names than their class archetypes. In any other game, Lucy would be a fire mage. In Children of Morta, she’s Lucy.
As you play, and as you inevitably die and return to the hub to spend your gold and try again, Children of Morta’s narrator deliberately doles out little story beats, his voice sonorous and serious. These are small enough to be unobtrusive, simple enough to be endearing, and relevant enough to be interesting. A new character or money sink or gameplay system is hinted at, introduced, and then incorporated, all in the context of the family dynamic. The Bergsons muse and converse and have dinner and play and hang out in the study or smoke a pipe on the stairs.
All of this would be pointless fluff without Children of Morta’s solid moment-to-moment hack-and-slash. As an action RPG, it’s hearty and even memorable. The muscularly animated pixel art and distinct sounds reveal diverse characters, creatures, and powers. The whoosh and slam of Joey’s hammer. Mark’s determined lunges stitching up the map into smaller spaces. The chortle of an offscreen goblin taking potshots at you. The thrum of an invisible thief about to uncloak and gank you. The decisive clang of John’s shield absorbing an attack. And my personal favorite, Lucy’s gleeful taunting as she slings fireballs with the soft paff-paff-paff of a Roman candle.
The characters’ differences matter a lot. There are a lot of situational strengths and weaknesses at play. For instance, if you’re having a hard time at the first boss — I sure was — sit tight until Kevin arrives. But a fundamental part of Children of Morta is trying and failing. You don’t stock up on health potions, Estus flasks, or Dragonstones to get as far as you can without dying. You make do with whatever health you have left and push toward the next boss with whichever character you feel like playing. Occasionally, you might fall back to grind, but I’m not sure Children of Morta expects you to do this. A long run on an earlier level will net less advancement than a short suicidal dash on the latest level you’re playing. The lower leveled characters will catch up in no time.
And true to the concept of an interdependent family, every character’s advancement helps every other character, with global bonuses and unlocks as they level up and even surprise appearances. It’s cutely thematic, but the numbers are there if you want to math it. The detailed narrative and gameplay latticework reminds me of a poster in my dining room for Wes Anderson’s Royal Tenenbaums. It’s a busy poster, with a lot going on, as befits one of Anderson’s quintessentially intricate storybook movies. The tagline is a bit twee, some marketing dude’s attempt at Wes Anderson, but I’ve stared at it long enough while eating that it feels like it makes sense. It’s appropriate even. And it applies to Children of Morta:
“Family isn’t a word…it’s a sentence.”
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