How many folks spend over 35 hours weekly confined to an office cubicle, dreaming of being anywhere but there? Imagine finally penning that book, discovering love, or embarking on an unforgettable journey. The monotony of our daily jobs can make it tough to find joy in the routine, as we often crave something deeper and more fulfilling, don’t we?
Enter the world of Moonlighter, where we meet Will, a shopkeeper who’s taken over his family’s store, known by the same name, nestled in the charming village of Rynoka. Yet, this young entrepreneur isn’t satisfied with just running the shop; he’s been venturing into enigmatic Dungeons nearby, driven by a desire to uncover their mysteries and perhaps earn a tidy sum along the way. Zenon, the wise old man and town elder, reprimands him upon learning about Will’s risky excursions but also bestows him a sword and shield. Equipped with these and a magical Pendant for emergency returns to town, our story unfolds.
Moonlighter is a captivating rogue-lite action RPG with a top-down perspective. If you’ve ever enjoyed a Legend of Zelda Game Boy game or The Binding of Isaac, you’ll instantly connect with the thrill of clearing rooms filled with foes in dynamic, real-time battles. Even if you’re new to the dungeon-crawl genre, you’ll quickly grasp the gameplay cycle: enter, defeat monsters, collect treasures, exit, gear up, and do it all over again.
The combat system is truly gratifying. You have a primary attack, a stronger secondary attack, and a dodge-roll that also serves as a leap over minor environmental obstacles. Your battle tactics can vary based on your weapon choice. Spears offer extended reach but lack the power of the hefty swords, which are slower in comparison. The classic sword-and-shield combo provides defensive capabilities… and yes, you can even opt for a bow for long-range, albeit weaker, attacks. Interestingly, you can simultaneously hold two weapons and switch between them on the fly, allowing for numerous strategic combinations for monster slaying. Enjoy discovering your preferred combo, as there’s a horde of adversaries standing between you and the unlocking of the legendary ‘Fifth Gate.’
Moonlighter introduces an intriguing twist to the gameplay, which could significantly influence a player’s perception of the game. Not only do you navigate your warrior through hostile territories, but you also manage Will’s shopkeeping duties, aiming to maximize profits. You literally step behind the counter to sell your loot, manually setting prices for each item, observing customer reactions to adjust pricing, and tackling challenges like thieves or market demand fluctuations.
We found joy in adjusting item prices until we hit the sweet spot where villagers would pay top dollar without getting upset, as indicated by their facial expressions when checking out items. After a successful sales day and clearing out stock, there’s a genuine sense of accomplishment. However, it does make one wonder: is there added value in managing this process compared to simply selling items quickly, as in traditional RPGs, and returning to action sooner?
You’ll need to grasp some basic shopkeeping skills because character progression relies entirely on the in-game economy. There are no automatic level-ups or inherent stat boosts. You increase your HP by buying better armor and enhance your defense by enchanting that armor. You boost your attack by acquiring new weapons and upgrading them. If you prefer stronger armor, you can get some at the cost of speed. If you want lighter armor, you’ll move faster but more damage-resistant. And you’re not just buying these items outright; you’ll need to provide the necessary crafting materials. Unlike other RPGs that require a balance of stats and skills, Moonlighter encourages careful inventory management to bring back the most valuable treasures and those needed for stronger items. Luckily, you can ‘wish list’ the weapons, armor, and potion types you want in the shop, highlighting the required crafting components in your inventory once you’re back in the dungeon.
Inventory management is crucial throughout the game, but Moonlighter assists players in several ways. For instance, you have a magical ‘mirror’ to dispose of extra items in exchange for gold. You only get a fraction of what you’d earn if you sold them in your shop, but it’s still a significant and helpful amount. Moreover, Moonlighter’s user interface design is excellent. Everything feels incredibly smooth and intuitive, from cursor movements to menu layouts and on-screen button tips. Managing your inventory becomes less of a task and more of an art form.
The game’s visuals are indeed a standout feature. Will’s journey from a humble shopkeeper to a legendary Hero-Merchant is beautifully depicted throughout. The pixel art isn’t just appealing; it’s creative and technically well-executed. Explosions are grand, liquids have a unique flow, enemy designs are memorable, and the tile art is meticulously crafted. While 16-bit “retro style” graphics might seem commonplace for indie titles, Moonlighter delivers a fresh and vibrant presentation.
The music is equally impressive, featuring rich layers of instruments over beautiful compositions. We can almost hear the shop melody playing in our heads, transporting us back to our quaint shop and the serene task of arranging items for sale. The tracks subtly change depending on the rooms and complement the themes perfectly. The Forest Dungeon, for instance, reminds us of the Forest Maze from Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars.
Ah, the dungeons! Will is determined to conquer them. There are four of them, each to be tackled in a specific sequence and increasing in difficulty: Golem, Forest, Desert, Tech. According to legend, each dungeon houses a Guardian, a boss-level adversary significantly larger than the rest. Defeating each Guardian rewards you with a Key. Collect all four Keys and the enigmatic Fifth Gate can be unlocked.
Once a new dungeon is accessible, you can either dive right in or revisit previous ones for less challenging loot. Each dungeon comprises three levels, with enemy types and room layouts becoming progressively tougher. Early on, Will can set up a teleportation gate within a dungeon, allowing him to return to the same spot after a trip back to town, perhaps for healing or gear upgrades. The gameplay pattern soon becomes clear: delve as deep into the dungeon as possible, use the Pendant to escape before death, sell your loot to upgrade your gear, and then venture deeper. If you’ve played Rogue Legacy, you’ll find a very similar rhythm and progression in Moonlighter.
In the end, the storyline might seem a tad sparse. The non-playable characters (NPCs) feel somewhat incidental, even within the town. While their dialogues do change as Will progresses through dungeons and gains fame, there are fewer scripts than NPCs, meaning you could converse with three or four individuals who all repeat the same lines. Even some named NPCs, who trigger larger dialogue boxes and portraits, don’t serve any unique function. Despite its charm, Will’s hometown of Rynoka doesn’t make much effort to hide that it primarily acts as a seamless conduit between the dungeons and the shop.
There are additional elements for players to consider. You can buy shop upgrades to sell more items per cycle or encourage customers to leave tips. Some special items offer glimpses into the game’s lore but can also fetch a high selling price. You can assist other businesses in setting up in town, supporting your endeavors in various ways. We could pen an entirely separate article detailing the intricacies of managing the shop, which turns out to be more complex than the combat. However, both require a patient approach to master their respective learning curves.
All things considered, the game comes together quite nicely. It’s a well-crafted product and a Kickstarter success story. However, during our gameplay, we did encounter a few bugs worth noting: we had to exercise caution while fighting near room edges, as shooting an arrow nudges Will backward, sometimes causing him to clip into the level geometry, even leading to a soft lock. Occasionally, a sudden frame rate drop would cause us to take damage. Using the mirror too hastily could result in an item getting “stuck,” meaning you lose it without receiving any gold. Once, we found ourselves trapped in our own shop at night, unable to leave or sleep. We’re still unclear about how the “percent exploited” stat on the map screen functions or why it wouldn’t have been more helpful to indicate which of the three dungeon levels we were currently exploring. We understand that Moonlighter has received patches on other platforms to fix many bugs and add new features. At the same time, the developer plans to patch the initial Switch release as well. They couldn’t confirm when such an update would be available at the time of writing.
Aside from these issues and some dialogue typos, our only minor gripe was the lack of impact in the sound effects (notably quiet enemies and combat sounds). Despite these hiccups, Moonlighter is a splendid blend of genres and an artful setting. We believe the final act is impressive, too, as the Fifth Gate finally opens, revealing how all the mysteries interconnect dramatically.
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