One of my favorite parts of this generation of games — partly due to my own efforts and partly due to the health of the industry — is in how many new genres I’ve opened my eyes to over the past several years. As a writer, I’ve taken on a number of new assignments that stretch my comfort zone little by little and reveal to me something I was missing for a long time.

Few games embody this spirit of change better than Children of Morta. As a 16-bit, roguelite dungeon crawler, Morta offered very little of what I thought I enjoyed in video games. Today, I’m happy to have been so wrong.

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Children of Morta tells the story of the Bergson family, who have presided over Mount Morta for generations, sworn to not let evil cross the threshold. As corruption plagues the land, the family will be tested like never before.

The story quickly gets out of your way early, but don’t expect that to mean it’s not a story-focused game. In between procedurally generated levels, be they successes or failures, story beats will unfold that reveal more history to the fabled family, introduce new playable characters, and allow you to customize your heroes with deep skill trees that carry over across playthroughs, keeping the game’s rogue elements on the more forgiving side of the lite-like continuum.

These various Bergsons are each so unique that it’s impossible to not find a favorite, but it also feels ultra-satisfying to try out each of them, especially while you unlock some upgrades that improve every family member collectively, in addition to each hero’s personal skill tree.

Before the several hours and boss battles it takes to reunite the whole family, your trials will be met with more failures than successes — or at least that’s how it was for me. An early difficulty hump meant I replayed the first dungeon several times and leveled up my characters about 10 times in total across three heroes before I finally beat the first boss, a massive spider who shoots webs and attacks from above.

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This first rough period felt a bit too long for me, but if I’m honest it could be due to my genre inexperience. Combat in Morta is fast and tactical, demanding you watch your step at all times, and it took some great growing pains for me to finally feel adept enough to challenge the unforgiving monsters in each dungeon.

Even then, the game enjoys its stop-and-go progression where you repeat the same area several times, each time seeing it change due to procedural generation, acquiring gold and experience along the way, before you finally feel ready to take on the boss.

Making the whole experience much easier is the option to play in local co-op. This means dying is less severe as you can be revived by your ally, not to mention Morta follows the general rule that co-op makes everything better. Though the game was built with the Switch in mind first and foremost, the standard co-op controllers are unwieldy and unreliable for Children of Morta to really shine. But for anyone who has two pro controllers, it’s one of the year’s best co-op experiences.

Dungeons are better balanced in co-op, and it invites the ability to complement each other’s strengths and shield each other’s weaknesses. If one player is the small and agile Kevin, the other may choose to be Linda, who is deadly with a bow.

 

With well-defined enemies, you’ll quickly learn how to play each villain that comes your way, even as they typically arrive in hordes. Crowd control is key, and death is inevitable, but successes feel well-earned thanks to the way you learn to master a character, growing their abilities, and overcoming foes a few runs at a time.

Sometimes the game’s setting feels a bit too dreary for too long, and the run of dirty, dark colors can wear thin on my eyes, but even then this is certainly one of the most artful 16-bit games I’ve ever seen, and that’s honestly a style I usually don’t care for all that much. The moodiness is shattered each time you return to the Bergson’s manor, where the colors and layout are simply dazzling. As this home grows with the family during the game, it makes for the perfect hub space in between battles where stories are shared and the world is expanded.

Final Score: 8.5

Children of Morta gives genre fans nearly everything they could ask for. Though the game feels much better balanced in co-op, it’s still worth playing solo if you don’t mind more bumps in the road. With tough bosses, well-considered combat, and a satisfying progression loop, it’s one of the best pick-up-and-play experiences of the year — especially on Switch — while also possessing many reasons to return. You’ll get beat down on Mount Morta, but the Bergsons are a tough clan, and it’s hard not to emulate their willpower to push on for one more try, time after time.

 

 

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