Successfully Kickstarted at the beginning of 2015, Children of Morta has been in development at Dead Mage ever since, with a playable pre-alpha demo recently released to backers of a certain level. This pre-alpha build offers a few levels set in one area, plus three characters to choose from in order to battle the various monsters. These monsters have come about thanks to the corruption of Mount Morta’s god, turning all the animals of the mountain into dark and twisted creatures. The Bergson family, guardians of the mountain, send their various family members out to purge the god of his corruption and restore balance to the wilderness.
On paper, Children of Morta is a great addition to the ever-growing roguelike genre. Its randomly generated levels and Souls-like difficulty, combined with hack and slash gameplay akin to Diablo, would stand it in good stead. In practice however, things aren’t quite so rosy. The game struggles right from the start, its intro chugging along at an almost slideshow-like pace, despite my PC easily besting the requirements. Being a pre-alpha though, some performance issues and bugs will be present and they’re forgiveable to a point. But when these framerate issues affect every hub world transition and even the introduction sequence of the demo’s boss encounter, it can drag out the experience somewhat.
Once you’ve stumbled into the game proper, as there are no tutorials aside from a very basic controls layout, you can choose your character from the three available and make your way into the demo area. Each character plays quite differently, with two melee classes and a ranged bow-wielder, and each comes with their own pros and cons. The warrior has a longer reach with his sword, his shield absorbing small amounts of damage, but is slower to move; the rogue moves quicker, his dual daggers dealing less damage but his agility helps him get out of danger more easily; and the ranger fighting from afar with her bow – though its accuracy leaves something to be desired. Some special abilities can be unlocked as you progress, either from levelling up after each run, or by picking up limited power-ups within the levels.
One of the first things you’ll notice about Children of Morta is its gorgeous art direction, with stunningly detailed pixel art and smooth animation. This impressive presentation continues into the sound design too, with atmospheric ambience permeating the caves in which you begin your quest, and music reminiscent of The Witcher series or Darksiders II helping to draw you into the world created by developer Dead Mage.
The controls are simple enough too, best played with a controller but not impossible when played with mouse and keyboard. You have a simple attack button and a couple of special ability buttons including a dodge, plus a context-sensitive action button for opening chests and activating shrines for bonuses. Viewed from an almost top-down perspective, you’ll move around the richly detailed cave system and fight the various creatures within, aiming to move through its three levels that increase in difficulty as you go.
And that’s the problem: the difficulty. It’s so unbalanced at this point that it’s bordering on unfair. Monster attacks suffer the same issue as Dark Souls II in that they track your movements, making dodging almost impossible sometimes. They also appear in large numbers seemingly at random, and will often throw overpowered creatures at you far too early, resulting in early deaths. Death will return you to the Bergson’s residence beside the mountain but will at least keep your experience, in order to level up before diving back in. Unfortunately, this results in a game of grinding, with very little reward for your efforts. The boss at the end of the demo just highlights how unbalanced Children of Morta is right now, as you can start the fight with almost no health, depending on your luck within the third level of the caves. And as healing only happens when enemies drop instant-use potions, it means you’ve no way to regain health during the boss battle. You’ll be very lucky if you manage to beat it within the first couple of hours’ gameplay.
Children of Morta has potential, and Dead Mage’s clever use of both a backer-only pre-alpha and an Early Access release on Steam in September, could ensure that that potential is realised before the full game eventually sees the light of day. Tightening up the aiming for ranged attacks, sorting out the various framerate issues and bugs, maybe add in the ability to hold a healing potion or two for later use, and certainly balancing the difficulty, will all add up to a more rewarding game. At present, however, it’s difficult to recommend Children of Morta to anyone other than the most hardcore of players.
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