Where DO They Get all Those Swords?: Moonlighter Review
Have you, like me, dreamed of crawling through dungeons to defeat pixelated baddies, stuffing your oversized pack full of valuable loot and returning home triumphant … to relentlessly gouge the local population by selling it at a premium in your cute, well-appointed local shop?
If so, then Moonlighter is the game for you.
You play as Will, a young, ambitious shopkeeper whose secret desire to be a hero leads him to explore the mysterious dungeons outside of town, much to the chagrin of the local wise man (Kook? Wizard? Crackpot?) whose repeated attempts to forestall your hot-headed youthful impulses go unheeded.
The Basics (PS4 Version)
Billed as an “action RPG with rogue-lite elements”, Moonlighter combines some saturated pixel art with classic dungeon crawling, procedurally generated levels and a tongue-in-cheek sweetness that makes it an overall winner. Yes, you can die with an inventory full of items, scolding yourself for getting greedy and taking on a boss without using that expensive portal back to town. Or even just a roomful of especially difficult enemies.
Or fell off a ledge. Or got stuck on something while a cute forest creature demolished you with little more than a leaf and a gust of wind.
You’re not punished unduly, however (no permadeath!) and there is always more stuff to get. Always.
The game is Stardew Valley meets Binding of Isaac, with less farming and fewer demons, but more capitalism. The twist comes in seeing just how all those classic RPG shopkeepers get their hands on those rare weapons and magical texts, and it certainly works as a premise for a full venture.
Combat & Control
Caveat: while I am an avid gamer, I am by no means a highly skilled one. My particular kryptonite is dual-stick shooters. That said, I’m not a fan of an L2 dodge when the left stick is your primary movement control. I acclimated after an hour or so of dungeon jaunts but it did cause a few moments of frustration.
There’s a lot you can do with different kinds of weapons and different strategies in this game. You can prioritize things like movement speed and boosted defense for your armor, or specific elemental/dungeon-specific damage for your weaponry. I stuck to the basic spear & bow combo throughout most of it and it worked out great. I like a little range, especially in a crowded room, and that bow sure did come in handy for the final boss battle.
You can go deeper with the combat mechanics than I did for sure, but Moonlighter gently encouraged me to be a little bolder. I hung back less, dodged more artfully and took more chances. Some costly, some rewarding.
There’s a nice difficulty spike here or there (usually between the second and third floors of each dungeon) that makes you stop and consider your path – do you forge forward to find the soothing hot spring that’ll restore your HP and point you toward the boss, or do you take your chances on another room for some serious loot … and risk waking the giant hit-proof slime monster whose penchant for one-hit kills keep you on your toes? You decide.
Your Shop, Your Rules
Let me preface this by saying that I am a rapacious money hoarder in all games. My favorite thing to do in Witcher 3? Dicker with peasants over single pieces of gold.
If there is a currency that I can generate or earn, I will do it until the cows come home. Even if you can’t buy anything anymore (cough, Ubisoft). Even if it doesn’t have any bearing on the plot. Even if it’s actually detrimental to linear gameplay. So, when I ended up with six million dollars at the end of my run, did I sit back and think “That’s a little excessive there, buddy”? Nope. I earned that wealth, damn it!
Moonlighter does smart things with its commerce. In addition to adding enjoyable depth to the shop-keeping element by throwing in things like demand, thievery, buyer preferences and some exhilarating guesswork when it comes to pricing new items, there’s plenty to dig into beyond the visceral rush of a new market day.
The upgrade scale for both enchantments and weaponry isn’t harsh, but there aren’t any throwaway costs – you’ll find yourself carefully considering what upgrade tree you want to explore early on, and it’ll take a little doing to reverse course if you’re in the early stages of the game. Each enchantment boost you buy feels well-earned, and holding onto your little jelly blobs for potions crafting pays dividends the more effective, and expensive, they get.
There are multiple tiers of shop upgrades as well, from fancier layouts to a shop assistant who will sell for you while you’re trawling the dungeons for a cut of your profits. If you want to share your profits with approximately no one, she’ll act as a polite enforcer for you if she catches any thieves before you can get out from behind the counter.
Customers will eventually start offering you quests – collect x number of items in three days, or grab 10 notes on a particular kind of enemy for a cool chunk of change. Admittedly, I didn’t actually complete many of these, but there are no consequences for taking the quest and failing it, so why not go for it?
There are decorations that enhance various aspects (higher tips, more customers per day, less thievery, etc.). Externally, there are merchants you can unlock over time, including a banker whose investment strategy could use a little work. My favorite is Le Retalier, featuring Justin, the king of price gouging whose wares I perused with thinly veiled disgust and hidden admiration. I’m proud to say I was stubborn enough to never give him a dime, but if you’re in a bind and need that last item to level up your weapon, he’s there.
Endless greed not your thing? The thrill of buying and selling at that “just right” level delivers a ton of enjoyment and sense of accomplishment for dialing it in, and happy customers soften the entrepreneurial harshness that’s my bread and butter in even the cutest of games.
In addition to the complexities of running your shop and understanding Rynoka’s ever-changing market, you’re going to have to pay attention to your pack while you’re adventuring.
Moonlighter introduces a lot of items with special effects – like breaking whatever’s to the left of it when you return to town, or teleporting a sweet stack of valuable pots or transistors directly to your house. Items are equally split between beneficial and negative effects.
To up the stakes, your inventory size is set from the start of the game. No new slots, ever. Inventory management concerns and challenges scale with you as you go, meaning you can never take it easy. Or, on a positive bent, you always get to wander through a hazardous dungeon while selling individual sticks and blobs you can’t carry for 1 gold through your handy pocket mirror.
What else are you going to do? Leave it behind?!
In all seriousness, you can agonize over precision placement of your items, or you can just sit back and enjoy the combat and come home with whatever you can stuff in your pockets. There’s always more loot, just like there are always more chances to adventure, and Moonlighter cleverly offers several degrees of depth for a wide gamer base.
Design, Design, Design
This game is really pretty, and it’s got some killer music on par with a lot of smart indie releases these days. The enemy design is unique, the dungeons are cute and the bosses are imaginative. The story is a good balance of dungeon grind, snarky humor and cute set dressing.
What Moonlighter also has are some nicely rounded edges that show me the developers really care about their product, and a lot of these little bells and whistles pay dividends for user comfort and overall experience.
There are seamless music transitions that tee up not just when you speak to a character, but when you walk near them, like the fiddle-heavy variation on the daytime theme when the Hawker is out near his wagon, or the enhanced shop them when you open for business. The town gradually fills with more and more adventurers as your dungeon exploits spread beyond Rynoka. Most importantly, you don’t have to keep items in your inventory to craft with them.
Dungeon-side, there are a lot of small items you can break, including small bugs and snails that squish satisfyingly and a few things that’ll punish you if you decide to go on a vandalism spree (tech dungeon, anyone?). You’re often rewarded for breaking rocks, demolishing sand piles and rustling bushes with items, and some of them are on the rarer side. There are secret rooms, a fun little trophy involving Crazy Pete’s encampments, and even a horde mode that you can go the entire game without encountering if you’ve got your eyes on the prize.
Moonlighter is more than the sum of its parts because of these small details, and they’re what push the game beyond a modern twist on the good ol’ RPG we all know and love.
Pick this up for a fun romp that you can either blaze through in 10 hours or dip into again and again over the course of a few weeks, though I recommend the latter. Coming home from work knowing I saved a new dungeon or an especially lucrative shop day for my next session has been extremely rewarding, and a nice stress release. I’ll most likely come back for a second run, and maybe even a third.
All images courtesy of 11Bit Studios