If “Children of Morta” rings a distant bell, there’s a good reason for that. Dead Mage’s upcoming fantasy rogue-like was the subject of a successful Kickstarter campaign all the way back in January of 2015. Back then, Dead Mage speculated that the game might be finished in late 2015.
That obviously didn’t happen, and Dead Mage have been in active development on the game in the intervening three and a half years. It’s all been leading up to this week’s E3, where “Children of Morta” was reintroduced to the public at Microsoft’s 2018 Xbox E3 press conference during an extended montage for the platform holder’s ID@Xbox indie game initiative.
“Children of Morta” borrows heavily from established rogue-like conventions, in that the game is difficult, and there’s a certain degree of inescapable punishment in dying. But it shies away from a traditional sort of screw you for failure — if you die before finishing a level, you’ll return to your family’s home with the experience and levels that you earned there.
In addition to individual character progression, each adventurer has an escalating series of unique abilities that, once unlocked, apply to the entire family. It’s a meta-progression system that at this point seems set to add additional impetus to play through “Children of Morta” repeatedly, since the grind of early game character progression is lessened.
This all serves to build a game that, at least at this point, feels like it offers true risk to go along with its rewards, without resorting to the capricious difficulties of games like “Dark Souls” or even indie contemporaries like “Hyper Light Drifter.” The line between challenge and punishment is tough to walk, and at least with the characters I played, “Children of Morta” walks it well. Even in this pre-release state, it was fun, with a decent amount of enemy variety and traps and level hazards that served both as threats and as tools to turn the tide against large waves of enemies.
“Children of Mora’s” characters also promise quite a bit of variety. There were two in the E3 demo, an eldest sister who could fire her bow while on the run — the only character with that ability, apparently — and a younger brother who focuses on quick attacks with a dagger. Their most basic differences are obvious, but “Children of Morta’s” controls somehow make everything feel more pronounced. You move with the left stick and attack with the right. The “A” button dodges, and other defensive and offensive abilities are tied to the triggers and bumpers.
It’s actually quite a bit to take in — “Children of Morta” has a lot going on, and a lot of things to pay attention to, and I often had to remind myself to keep track of everything that was going on. The most critical element other than health is stamina, which dictates how often you can attack, and can also hinder other abilities. Players will have to figure out how best to manage those abilities and the limited power-ups and runes found in each procedurally generated dungeon.
During my time with the game, other game influences became apparent. “Children of Morta” owes more than a small amount to the arcade classic “Gauntlet” — there’s a real arcade vibe to the combat without the quarter-driven unfairness. But there’s also homages thrown to more narrative-driven games. More specifically, there are small bits of combat in specific scenarios that will unlock new bits of story outside of the dungeon.
For example, at one point I found a collection of enemies torturing a captive bear for their own entertainment. After I defeated them and freed the bear, he ran away, but later, after I failed to kill the dungeon’s boss, I returned home to a cutscene showing the rest of my family discovering a pile of fruit in front of the house, with bear pawprints leading away. It was a cute moment, one that suggests a level of narrativity that other games “Children of Morta” will get lumped in with fail to implement — and part of the laundry list of ways Dead Mage hopes to make it stand out when it arrives on PS4, Xbox One, and PC later this year.