A good 18 months in and Nintendo Switch isn’t struggling for content - especially when it comes to role-playing games. Be they turn-based affairs or action-RPG romps, owners of this plucky hybrid machine have a buffet of long-form adventures to gorge on. So when a new entry tries to hack and slash its way into this packed market, it really needs to offer something new and fresh - something that defines it from the crowd. Sadly, Moonfall Ultimate doesn’t have that all-important quality, and you’re left with a sword-swinging adventure that struggles to leave a mark, despite some fun moments.
Which is a shame, because there’s nothing to necessarily dislike here. Its opening cutscene has a Mike Mignola-style aesthetic that’s reminiscent of the ‘story so far’ cutscenes used to intro The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt every time you return to the game, setting the scene for a world where a nation known as The Empire has risen to the highest seat of power in the land. The discovery of a mysterious luminescent substance has, as McGuffins often do, provided a catalyst that’s turned this state into a semi-industrial powerhouse.
Of course, one king dies and in the turmoil that almost always ensues in the wake of a succession dispute, a group of ne'er-do-wells known as the Savages attacks, causing all manner of extra problems. And this is where you come in; a faceless soldier tasked with fighting on the fringes of the war. It’s your standard set of medieval fantasy tropes, and while there are some interesting glimpses into the inner workings of this world, they are resigned to the occasional note found in the field or a passing piece of dialogue.
It’s an obtuse approach that would work significantly better if the core of this 2D scrolling RPG - its combat - offered technical depth, but it’s frustratingly shallow. Striking an enemy three times in a row will land a critical hit, while levelling up will unlock the ability to acquire special moves. Some will stun any enemies in the immediate area, while another will provide a shield bash that pulls you briefly out of danger. They’re all bound to cooldown meters, and they’re ideal for clearing out large groups of foes, especially as you push further into its world.
But with only one main attack button, most weapons often feel incredibly similar. There’s clearly the potential for greater depth here - there are over 60 types of enemy to battle (the split into common and elite variants further accentuates their behaviour in battle) and they’re all animated with a lovely hand-drawn style that gives every element a living storybook feel. They’ll attempt to surround you, or use ranged foes to grief you while you’re busy fighting melee units, forcing you to use those aforementioned special moves more tactically.
But with no evade or dodge manoeuvre - or even the ability to sprint a little faster - Moonfall Ultimate's 2D setup is painfully lacking in agency. You tactics usually devolve into looking left or right and alternating between raising your shield with ‘ZL’ and slashing with ‘ZR’. Soon you realise you’re better off just hacking away until the enemy in front of you is dead. Thankfully your health and your mana (which is used for those all-important special moves) both regenerate immediately and with enemies regularly dropping restorative vials, you never feel like you’re in that much danger from one battle to the next.
Quests are found at a central hub, and most require you to find an ally and return them to safety or acquire a certain item. That hand-drawn style does offer up some striking locations, with everything from boggy swamps to dimly-lit dungeons making for some interesting (if not entirely memorable) settings. Most areas are open-ended, so exploring often rewards you with new paths towards your end goal and fresh weapons and gear. But as combat often degenerates into the same experience, time after time, this minute-to-minute questing soon loses its lustre. Even the ability to choose one of three character classes and level-up your Strength, Mind Power and Agility never offers anything outside the norm.
There is the option to play co-operatively via local multiplayer, and having a second player does make a big difference to Moonfall Ultimate’s fun factor. That basic combat model means you and a friend can just run around slashing enemies like an old-school scrolling beat-’em-up. There’s even an Endless mode, should the game’s setting and style grasp you, but it’s unlikely to be of any greater appeal if its Story mode failed to do so.
Like so many action-RPGs before it, Moonfall Ultimate is driven by the minutia of its combat model, but considering battles often rely on one attack (regardless of weapon) and a handful of special moves, you’re left feeling oddly unempowered and frustratingly disconnected. There’s your usual mix of quests to undertake, various medieval-style locations to explore and loot to collect, but none of it ever offers an interpretation you haven’t seen done better elsewhere; while the game calls upon the likes of Golden Axe and Dungeons & Dragons for inspiration, it never hits the same heights. A serviceable experience, but one that won’t linger in the memory for long.