Played on Windows
Also Available on Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Linux, and macOS.
Moonlighter takes the drudgery of running a store and finds a new and interesting way to invigorate the experience. This isn’t a new concept, but Moonlighter still finds ways to make it engaging. Moonlighter is actually much more of an adventure but with great theming, but is it worth playing?
Moonlighter is currently available as an Early Unlock for the Humble Monthly Bundle for July 2019. The other Early Unlock for July 2019 is Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice which I have previously reviewed.
The item shop “genre” really started with Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale, though that game hasn’t aged very well, it’s still a genre that’s quite interesting. The idea of running a shop and trying to make money can be done in many ways. Moonlighter brings in more than just one genre, but also a different look.
Moonlighter’s gameplay and look feels like a mixture of a top-down adventure game. It definitely has some pieces that look similar to Legend of Zelda, the main character heavily reminds me of Bastion’s main character in the design, even as it is quite different, and the different enemies in Moonlighter have a lot of variety. There’s everything from slimes, to golems, to giant laser cannons.
The main areas of Moonlighter is a simple town that you might find in most RPGs, there’s a small group of NPCs, as well as the main shop of the town run by our main character. Everything looks like one would expect from a normal town.
Moonlighter’s levels are divided into four different themes. There’s Golems, Forest, Desert and Tech, each dungeon has their own selection of enemies with a different look, as well as different actions and controls, and it really enhances the feelings of exploration when you’re finding new enemies all the time. Each time you go down a level in a dungeon, there’s more challenging enemies.
The enemies are interesting looking and most of them aside from the slimes are unique.
Of course, there are also bosses, and each boss in Moonlighter is very exciting to see, they all are introduced with a great little animation and then the fight against them is entertaining. Each boss acts differently but works with the theme of the dungeon. The boss of the Golem dungeon, for instance, stays in one location but spawns spikes, and uses hands from either his slime side or his Golem side to swipe at the player.
In addition, all the items that are dropped by the enemies become items to sell, but the art style is really nice and while there are no names on the game screen, it’s clear which items are which. There’s very little confusion.
Moonlighter does look very good, there are beautiful opening images in the story, and then a rather good looking dungeon for what it’s trying to do. It may not win an award for the graphics but they are in service to the adventure, rather than trying to stand out.
The opening images of the game are rather lovely looking portraits setting up the game. We learn there’s a series of four dungeons and a rumored 5th dungeon that is available. All the dungeons except for the Golem dungeon start the game being locked leaving Will to discover them eventually.
The minimal story at the beginning would have been enough for this game. It gives a basic reason for the player to dungeon dive.
Our main character is named Will. Will is a shopkeeper who has a taste for adventure. He decides to explore the dungeon to get more “artifacts” to sell at his shop. There’s a wise old man who warns our main character not to be distracted by the allure of the dungeons, which of course he ignores.
The first couple of dives in the dungeons are set up as tutorials, where Will will learn about dodging, attacks and more, but the first results in Will’s defeat and the second involves an exploration to learn about the magical pendant. These both are scripted but don’t have that much story. However, after these two dives, Moonlighter’s story disappears. The majority of the game is Will diving into each dungeon and trying to unlock the “Fifth dungeon”, though since each dungeon is unlocked in order, it’s odd to make such a big deal about it. After each dungeon, the wise old man comes back and tells Will to be careful.
So far it sounds like a game that doesn’t have much story, and I was accepting of that. There are little notes jotted down by previous adventurers but that’s about it. The thing is Moonlighter does have a story, but it is one that really only appears after the final dungeon, and that’s a problem because the story is rather… dumb.
There are a few notes left behind by other adventurers about what’s going on
I want to spoil it to talk about how stupid it sounds and how it doesn’t work, but I won’t. To put it simply, the game tries to explain why the levels change each time you enter a dungeon and then goes off the deep end. It’s… really bizarre but not in any way I can praise. Not every game needs a story, and in this case, the attempt comes too late and is too outlandish to work with this game.
Moonlighter is really broken up into two games. There’s the item shop component where Will needs to sell items and gather money to help his shop and town. He can use this money to buy new upgrades for his town, such as making an alchemist and blacksmith move in so they can sell him potions and weapons.
There’s also the dungeon portions where Will dives into the dungeon to collect the items that he’ll use to upgrade his armor or sell in his shop. This is really the core of the game, but the item shop is also interesting in a way I wasn’t expecting.
The item shop focuses on trying to maximize profits. The player doesn’t have a guide to the value of items, so he’s forced to keep pricing items and seeing how people react, the reactions are kept in a journal in case players miss them.
Running the item shops continues to be engaging and interesting throughout the entire game.
Customers might act disgusted at the price, reject it, accept it or look excited by the price, and each of these helps the player zone in on the perfect price for each time. Charging a lot might upset customers, and undercharging means Will will be losing money. It’s a solid system and rather interesting.
But it does come with some flaws, there’s a lot of items out there, but without a starting price, Will can only guess. If the price is 100 and the price should be 1000 he’s going to lose a lot of money while he tries to find an equilibrium. Similarly, if he’s much higher it’s challenging to find where the right price is as well.
The other side is not every item is plentiful that Will can sell them until he finds the right price. There are some items that will only spawn a single time in a game, and those tend to go for a lot but it’s easy to sell them cheaper without any additional information.
However, money becomes plentiful before long, each step up the dungeon rewards the player with almost 10 times the value of the object. It’s very quick and easy to gain millions in gold at the end of the game, whereas at the first dungeon you’re struggling to make a thousand gold pieces. The cost for upgrades rise in line with this but overall it’s a good progression system.
You can also upgrade your shop in a few ways to make it more efficient, have more stands that you can sell items on, even putting up decorations to change how the shop works, mostly in money earned or the number of patrons.
The shop system is more engaging than I realized and while there are issues with it, it’s a great addition to the game and gives the player something to do beyond just dungeon crawling.
The bosses (And mini-bosses) are unique in the game and are some of the better moments, it’s a shame you can only face them once.
But that dungeon crawling is also a major part of the game. Each dungeon has three levels, with a mini-boss on the first two levels, and then a boss of the dungeon at the end of it. When you first unlock a dungeon you’ll likely have to be careful and gather items.
Moonlighter sets up a Zelda-esque combat system, where the main character can block attacks, as well as swing his weapon to cause damage. There’s also a very effective dodge roll that allows Will to avoid almost all damage and dodge through enemies if necessary. Outside of that, the entire game is basically exploring the dungeon with combat and dodges.
Moonlighter adds in risk vs reward system in the shape of the pendant mentioned earlier. If Will loses all his life, he’ll collapse and 75 percent of his inventory (everything after the first row) will be lost. So if you have something very valuable you can place it in a safe inventory slot. However at any time, even in battle, Will can use the pendant and exit the dungeon with all his items.
In addition, the inventory system has a couple of tricks with items that have special rules, from where they can be placed to changing one item to another type, or destroying it when returning to town, to other special features, it adds a mini-game to the inventory screen without being too complicated.
The inventory systems in the dungeons have a few tricks with “cursed items” but just cause the player to think a little more about their inventory.
The dungeons operate in a rogue-lite manner, they change every time Will enters it, but there is a good layout and some simple rules. A healing spring will always be found on the way to the boss or the next level. There’s always a “Campground” where a previous adventurer left a note. The bosses and the types of enemies that appear are always the same.
There’s a lot of challenge from these dungeons, especially the first time Will dives in. Though each enemy can be taken one at a time and there’s usually a solid strategy to beat each of them. There’s a variety of weapons as well, so Will can use a sword and shield if he wants, there’s also a greatsword, a bow, gloves, or a spear. Each works differently, but I found that I was able to use a sword and shield for the entire game.
That’s really the whole flow of Moonlighter. Will dives into a dungeon gets a bunch of items, comes back to his shop to sell them and then upgrades his weapons and dives again, eventually beating a dungeon boss and starting on the next dungeon. It works for what it’s trying to do.
Yet, I do have a couple of complaints. By the time the third or fourth dungeon comes around, everything feels a bit routine. You’ll have enough money to invest in potions to avoid death, and farming items becomes much of the game at that point so you can get your final upgrades. The game doesn’t change at this point and just becomes a wheel to keep running on.
The story does fall apart as mentioned, and during the ending I was asking what was going on? It’s an outlandish and almost insane premise that only appears in the final moments of the game and doesn’t work.
The combat in Moonlighter is extremely solid and engaging, along with a really powerful dodge roll, it feels like a great modern form of classic Zelda’s combat.
In addition, the best points of the game, are the boss fights as they have the largest arenas and the most varied fight. I was struggling with the final boss, so I tried to defeat him on normal difficulty (the easiest of the three options) which wasn’t that challenging, but then I found out that each boss is only able to be defeated once per game. If you wanted to challenge the boss of the Golem Dungeon again, you have to start a new game (or a new game +) and reach them again. You can’t just fight the most interesting fights in Moonlighter a second time, they’re locked out until you start over.
And yet, I can’t deny that the gameplay of Moonlighter is very well done. The item store is also routine but it feels rewarding to see the items you collected in the dungeon turn into actual money.
Moonlighter is very well done, I absolutely enjoyed my time playing it and I think it’s a rewarding experience. It’s challenging but not as difficult as I expected, with only one real difficulty spike in the second dungeon, and that came from a mid-boss, rather than the final boss of that dungeon.
If you want to attach a dungeon crawler with Zelda style controls to an item shop management sim, Moonlighter delivers. It’s two rather different experiences that combine to make a single enjoyable game. I had a great time playing Moonlighter, and while it ended on a strange note, the majority of Moonlighter is a solid game that kept me coming back to try to get further and further.
I give Moonlighter a
Final Thoughts: A really solid item shop sim, with an enjoyable dungeon exploration game alongside. While the story does fall apart, the experience is worth tackling for the enjoyable gameplay.
Stats: 30 hours played 31/57 achievements earned.