Earlier this year I entered into an agreement with a group of friends where we would all make lists of our top 5 games that we played last year, and pick one game from each other person’s lists to play this year. Out of those games I managed to get my friends to play The Outer Worlds and Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers. The first game out of those I’ve agreed to play for my friends is one with a unique blend of gameplay styles, the likes of which I’ve never tried before. The first game I’m reviewing for this agreement made with very sophisticated men and women is Moonlighter.
Moonlighter is an indie title developed by Spanish studio Digital Sun, and published by the Poland-based indie company 11 Bit Studios in 2018 for PC, Mac, Linux, PS4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch. Moonlighter is an action RPG at heart, but it puts a very unique spin on things with flavours of business simulation. The main gameplay loop of Moonlighter involves owning and managing an item shop during the day, and being a dungeon explorer by night. I’m almost never opposed to playing RPGs of any size and shape, so Moonlighter was an easy choice for me to look at. I decided to play the Xbox One version through Game Pass since it was the easiest version for me to pick up, but from what I saw from trailers and screenshots I didn’t think performance would really vary across versions. Other than that, and the knowledge that this was recommended by a friend, I knew next to nothing about Moonlighter going into it. Is Moonlighter a successful venture, or has it gone bust?
In Moonlighter we play as Will, the young owner and operator of the shop the game’s named after: Moonlighter. Through a small bit of exposition at the beginning of the game we learn that outside the town of Rynoka lies 4 mysterious and enigmatic dungeons, with a larger 5th sealed door in the middle of it all, and all but one dungeon has been closed off to the public due to safety concerns. Will has been delving into the one dungeon still available in search of artifacts and materials to sell in his shop, but he dreams of doing more and of eventually becoming a hero who solves the mystery of the dungeons. Ignoring the pleas of old man Zenon he begins to delve deeper in search of both answers and riches. Any other story elements outside of the ending are presented through notes found in the dungeon written by the missing Crazy Pete and some other mysterious individual. Unfortunately, the answer to the mystery of the dungeons is somewhat between unsatisfactory and full-on stupid. While I doubt that story was really a main focus for this game, the game definitely jumps the shark at the end, and it left a poor taste in my mouth.
Moonlighter presents itself in a 2D pixel-art style that we’ve come to expect from most indie developed titles these days. I can’t blame games that use this style since I imagine it mitigates some of the challenges with art, and Moonlighter definitely gets the job done, but it’s not exactly fresh or unique. I’ll give props to the enemy designs as they’re all styled after each of the four different dungeons of Golem, Forest, Desert, and Tech while also maintaining the central style of the dungeons overall. My thoughts on the music are much the same as the visuals: it gets the job done but I wouldn’t give it any awards. Fortunately I don’t have any major complaints about the game’s performance. There were some pretty brutal frame drops in town when there’s a lot of foliage and townsfolk on the screen, but it held steady when it counted. There was one instance where the game crashed on me, but it only happened once.
The gameplay loop of Moonlighter is split up into two main segments: running the shop and dungeon crawling. The shop portion of the game is pure business management, as you have direct control over your shop’s inventory and prices, and you can purchase expansions to both your shop as well as the town of Rynoka. Some of the upgrades add to the business management part of the game too, like hiring an assistant for your shop, or purchasing space for a banker to move in so you can play around with short-term investments. Running the shop itself was actually much faster-paced than I expected from something like that. Once you open up shop after setting up your inventory and prices, the game turns into a bit of a mad dash of adjusting prices on the fly based on your customer’s reactions, making sure your shelves stay stocked, and keeping an eye out for shoplifters who will try to pocket your stuff. Not only do you have to pay attention to your customer’s reactions to prices and adjust accordingly, but you also have to pay attention to supply and demand. You’re able to see the popularity of any one item that you’ve acquired through your merchant’s notebook, where your prices are also noted, and you can price your items based on whether something is popular or not. Eventually you can also add a clearance rack to your shop, where you can sell items for a steep discount to entice customers and potentially affect the popularity of the item. The process is so engaging that I found myself enjoying running the shop more than anything else.
The dungeon crawling part of Moonlighter is fun in it’s own right. As you dive into a dungeon there’s a big emphasis on inventory management, as you have a very limited sized bag in which to carry the various artifacts you find. The bag doesn’t ever get bigger either, so you’re stuck with the same inventory size for the whole game. There’s also the various cursed artifacts you find, which have effects like changing whatever item is adjacent to it to copy that item or destroying an item in the same way. The game strongly encourages you to make multiple trips in and out of dungeons until you’ve managed to amass enough funds to equip yourself with strong enough gear to take on the dungeon’s boss. As a whole this is made easier by upgrades you find that allow you to teleport out of a dungeon for a small fee, and eventually allow you to create a portal out of a dungeon (for a slightly larger fee) that starts you back where you left off when you use it in town.
The combat and progression of Moonlighter is pretty simple and straightforward. You dive into a randomly generated dungeon that has three floors, with two mini-bosses and an end-boss waiting at the end of each floor. Will can use a number of different weapon types and can swap between two weapons on the fly, and you can also equip him with armor that increases his max HP, defense stat, and movement speed. The weapons and armor themselves can all be upgraded and enchanted to increase their effectiveness, but the upgrade paths for weapons are 100% linear in that you pick one out of two or three paths and stick with that one path until the very end. In combat Will fights with a basic attack combo, a charged power attack, a dodge roll, and a stock of health potions. That’s pretty much all there is to it; Will doesn’t get anything extra to evolve his repertoire and the only variety in combat comes from the new enemy types that get introduced as you get deeper into the four dungeons.
I have to be honest here. If you removed the business management aspect from Moonlighter completely and tried to sell me on just the combat and dungeon crawling, I’d probably call the game a snoozefest. However, the two styles of gameplay combine to create something quite unique and enjoyable. The loop between running the shop and diving into dungeons to get more stock for the shop was addicting, and it made me excited to swap over to each style so that I could see what new stuff I could find and how much of a haul I could take home from a single day of sales (my record was approximately 1.5 million gold in profits). The game took me just over 10 hours to finish, so if you’re looking for a bite-sized indie RPG with a unique twist on it I’d say you’re in luck.
I recommend Moonlighter.
Total time played: 12 hours, 28 minutes.