How many people toil away in a cubicle for 40+ hours a week while wishing they could be somewhere else instead? Whether we want to finally write that novel, find true love, or embark on a life-changing adventure, it can be hard to stay content with the tedium of our work-week rhythm month after month, year after year. We often yearn for something more meaningful, right?
Moonlighter follows a merchant named Will who has inherited the family business: the eponymous Moonlighter, a humble shop within the cosy town of Rynoka. But the young man is not content to merely make a living; he has been making forays into the mysterious Dungeons on a quest to unlock their secrets and maybe make some serious dough on the side. When the old man/town elder figure Zenon discovers this dungeon-diving hobby he scolds Will, but also gifts him with a sword and shield. Armed with these and a magical Pendant that allows him to warp back to town as needed, our tale begins.
Moonlighter is a top-down rogue-lite action RPG. Anyone who’s played a Legend of Zelda Game Boy title or The Binding of Isaac will feel right at home with the static-screen sensation of clearing rooms full of enemies in twitchy, real-time combat. Even newcomers to the dungeon-crawl aesthetic will recognize the gameplay loop involved: get in, kill monsters, grab loot, get out, gear up, repeat.
And, boy, is the combat satisfying. You have an attack, a more powerful secondary attack, and a dodge-roll that doubles as a jump over small gaps in the environment. You can vary your fighting style depending on what sort of weapon you use. The spears have a long reach but are not as strong as the large swords, but those are slow. The standard sword-and-shield allows you to use, well, a shield… but you can even pull out a bow and attack from long range, albeit more weakly. In fact, you can carry two weapons and switch between them instantly, so there are many combinations to form a one-two-punch of creature-slaying strategy as you see fit. Have fun finding a combo you like, ‘cause there are thousands of enemies between you and unlocking the fabled 'Fifth Gate'.
But Moonlighter adds a hook to the mix, one that will make or break the player’s impression of the game: not only do you control the warrior trying to survive hostile forces, but you are also guiding Will as a shopkeeper trying to maximize profits. Quite literally; you get to move behind the counter and sell your looted goods, setting the prices manually for each item, gauging customer responses to decide how these prices should be changed, and dealing with challenges such as thieves or fluctuations in demand.
We enjoyed fine-tuning the prices of items until townspeople were paying the highest prices we could get without them getting angry, as shown in facial-expression icons when they examine inventory. There is a real satisfaction when you have a profitable day and clear a load of stock. However, it does raise the question: are you really getting something more out of directing this process that makes it more worthwhile than just selling stuff in a quick go, like in a traditional RPG, and leaping back into the fray sooner?
You will have to figure Shopkeeping 101 to some extent at least, because character progression is handled entirely by the in-game economy. There are no natural level-ups, no inherent statistical upgrades. You raise your HP by purchasing better armour, and raise your defence by enchanting said armour. You raise your attack by purchasing new weapons and enhancing those. If you want stronger armour, you can buy some that will sacrifice a little speed. If you want lighter armour, you can move faster but be more vulnerable to each hit. And you are not just buying these things whole; you’ll need to hand over the necessary ingredients to craft them, as well. Where some RPGs demand a balance of stats and skills, Moonlighter asks you to carefully manage your inventory slots to bring back not only the most profitable treasures but also those you will need to gain stronger items. Fortunately, you can ‘wish list’ the weapons, armour and even potion types you want in the shop, which highlights the necessary crafting components in your inventory once you are back in the dungeon.
Inventory management is a necessary skill throughout, but Moonlighter aids the player in a couple great ways. For one thing, you have a magic ‘mirror’ that you can drop extra items into in exchange for gold. You receive only a fraction of what you would if you sold them in your shop, but it is still a helpful, noticeable amount. Also, Moonlighter is designed really well from a user-interface standpoint. From cursor movements to menu layouts and on-screen button tips, everything feels very smooth and intuitive. Managing your inventory feels less like a chore and almost more like an artform.
The visuals of the game are a highlight overall, in fact. Will’s storybook rise to legendary Hero-Merchant is gorgeous all the way through. The pixel art is not just charming, but imaginative, and executed well on a technical level. Explosions are epic, liquid has a signature flow, enemy designs are indelible, and the tile art is meticulously well put-together. You may think 16-bit “retro style” graphics are old hat for indie titles, but Moonlighter manages a fresh, lively presentation.
The music is great, too, with rich layers of instrumentation on top of pretty compositions. We can hear the shop melody in our head right now, and we're transported back to our humble shop and the quiet task of arranging them on display for a noble purpose. The tracks are slightly contextual, as they may shift for certain rooms. Otherwise, they complement themes. The Forest Dungeon is reminiscent of the feel of the Forest Maze from Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars.
Oh, right, the dungeons! Will wants to conquer them, and there are four to be tackled in a specific order, ascending in difficulty: Golem, Forest, Desert, Tech. Legend has it that deep within each lies a Guardian, a special boss-fight foe of a much larger size than the rest. Upon defeating each, a Key is given. Once all four Keys are obtained, the mysterious Fifth Gate can be opened.
Once you unlock a new dungeon, you can immediately try it or you can always go back to a previous one for easier pickings. Each dungeon has three levels, which are incrementally harder in their enemy varieties and room patterns. Early in the game, Will gains the ability to place a teleportation gate in a dungeon, which lets him return to the same place after he’s come back to town, perhaps to heal or upgrade his gear. The formula soon feels straightforward: go as deep into the dungeon as you can, use the Pendant to get back before you die so that you can sell loot in order to get better gear so you can advance deeper. If you are familiar with Rogue Legacy, you can expect a very similar pace and feel to how things unfold.
Ultimately, the storyline is a bit thin. Even in the town, the NPCs are perfectly extemporaneous. Although their dialogue will change as Will unlocks more dungeons and gains renown, the available scripts are less than the available NPCs; in other words, you can talk to three or four people and they’ll all say the same thing in a row. Even certain named NPCs, who open a larger dialogue box and portrait, don’t end up serving any special purpose. While Will’s hometown of Rynoka is lovely, it doesn’t try too hard to disguise the fact that it just serves as a frictionless pathway between the dungeons and the shop.
There are other factors for the player to bear in mind, too. There are shop upgrades to purchase, in order to sell more items in a cycle or entice customers to leave tips. There are unique items that reveal some worldbuilding lore but can be sold at a high price, too. You can help other businesses move into town and aid your efforts in their own ways. We could write an entire separate, full-length article on the various nuances of running the shop, which proves more complex than the combat, although both will demand the patient discipline of a gentle learning curve.
And it all adds up really well, overall. This is a well-made game, a Kickstarter success. However, we encountered enough bugs in our playthrough to merit mentioning: we had to be careful fighting around edges of rooms, because firing an arrow nudges Will backwards and sometimes this was enough to clip into the level geometry, even to a softlock. Occasionally, a sudden drop of frames would result in us taking damage. Using the mirror too quickly will get an item “stuck” which means you lose it without gaining any gold. Once, we were stuck in our own shop at night, unable to exit or sleep in the bed. We're still not sure how the “percent exploited” stat on the map screen really works, nor why it wouldn’t have been more useful instead to tell us which of the three levels of the dungeon we're currently on. It’s our understanding that Moonlighter has been patched on other systems to fix many of the bugs and add other functionality; while the developer does intend to patch the initial Switch release as well, at press time they were not able to confirm how soon such an update would be available.
Between these issues and some dialogue typos, our only other quibble was a lack of impact in the sound effects (weirdly quiet enemies and combat going on). Otherwise, Moonlighter is a triumph of genre hybridization and artful setting. We think the final act is strong, too, as the Fifth Gate is finally opened and the curtain peels back dramatically on how the mysteries fit together.
If you want to play a top-down Legend of Zelda game as a rogue-lite while also taking shifts as a shopkeeper then, hey, Moonlighter is about to scratch a distinctive itch for you. It hits a sweet spot somewhere between satisfying swordplay and nitty-gritty economic sim, although some players may feel it gets ‘grindy’ after a while in its mechanics. Nonetheless, Digital Sun Games has produced a lush work it can be proud of; one that even touches on our humanity in an optimistic way.