An enjoyable mix of adventure and shopkeeping
Most games get more difficult as you play, beginning with generous tutorials and easy levels, allowing the player to get nice and comfy before starting to crank up the intensity. But there is also the other kind of games, the ones that dump all of their information on you immediately and let you try and sort through it all. These games usually start out more difficult, but get easier as you begin to understand how they work. They don’t warmly invite the player to take a seat on the couch, but rather indifferently shrug at the player, wondering if they’re ever going to figure out the unexplained mechanics. I think it’s sometimes difficult to tell how good these games really are. Is the game being coy with information because it’s a smart design choice used to encourage player independence, or did the developers simply ran out of time to insert a better explanation? In Moonlighter’s case, I think it’s a bit of both.
Moonlighter is a new release from Digital Sun Games, a Spanish game studio that launched a Kickstarter to fund the development back in May 2016. Like many games funded on Kickstarter, Moonlighter is an ambitious effort, but unlike most games backed by the crowdfunding site, it mostly delivers on its premise. Players assume the role of Will, a local shopkeeper whose inherited store, Moonlighter, is falling on hard times. In an effort to fulfill his dreams and breathe new life into his shop, Will adventures into the nearby dungeons to discover their secrets and reap rewards. Moonlighter hits more often than it misses and the synergy of collecting loot then selling it at your shop is nice a gameplay loop that is constantly rewarding. Moonlighter might not be a revolutionary title, largely because it doesn’t quite capitalize on some of its better ideas, but it hits far more often than it misses.
There isn’t really a narrative to speak of in Moonlighter, but there is some clever world-building. Will’s town is a community that was founded next to a series of dungeons. The dungeons attracted adventurers who would spend money in the town, making up the base of the economy. However, the dangerous dungeons have taken their toll and the untimely deaths of numerous adventurers have scared people away. The town has boarded up all but one of the dungeons and the money has left with the adventurers. It’s like if Vegas closed up all of its casinos because the slot machines were eating people alive.
It’s a clever idea: shifting the focus of a game to the shopkeeper and their small community instead of the burly hero who swaggers in to spend boatloads of cash. Yet, Moonlighter doesn’t really do anything with that. You see heroes wander into your shop to buy weapons, scholars enter to buy the ancient texts, and alchemists snatch up materials for their craft - but Moonlighter just presents the material as opposed to saying something with it. You never really to talk to any of the adventurers or mingle with any of the townspeople - it’s mostly just background noise. Which is fine, but Moonlighter is a game that is painfully lacking in subtext, only notable because the premise if so rife with opportunity.
Part of that is the fact that Moonlighter is clearly more interested in its gameplay. A lot of attention has been paid to filling the four dungeons with different enemies and the action gameplay as Will dodges around said dungeons, using his weapons to slay monsters. That’s not to say it all feels good. Moonlighter’s control feels a little sloppy, though I think that’s intentional. Will’s supposed to feel a little unskilled and it seems like Moonlighter wants to disempower the player. So attacks always take a little too long and the dodge roll is just a little unpredictable. The game wants to be a little difficult to master because it wants the player to take the journey with Will of going from a dungeon novice to a full-blown, boss-slaying hero.
Part of this journey is learning the patterns of the enemies. The villainous monsters are unique to each dungeon, so a lot of the time you begin your exploration a little off-balance, waiting and watching the actions of enemies and learning their attack patterns so you can exploit them. It provides a strategic element to the combat that’s satisfying as you quickly diagnose the kinds of enemies that are in the room and quickly construct an approach to best handle them. The other part of Will’s journey to being a badass hero is the evolution of his equipment. Much like Monster Hunter, there are no skill trees or traditional RPG elements in Moonlighter, but rather your character improves based on the equipment they craft from dropped loot. As your equipment improves, the enemies do less damage, Will does more damage, and the dungeons get easier.
Crafting that loot isn’t easy. The dungeons are randomized every time, so you can’t always rely on finding certain items. Your inventory is also limited, not just in how many things you can carry, but where certain items can be placed in your bag. Trying to add materials to your bag can feel a bit like packing groceries - making sure that certain elements go on the bottom and being aware that others will break if you’re not careful. The inventory management can be a bit much - it’s a smart move to balance the game - but you end up spending a lot of time in menus. What’s more annoying is that adding elements to your pack isn’t very intuitive. Materials won’t always stack correctly, nor will they move to the best spot available. So not only do you have to add materials to your pack, you then have to spend extra time arranging them. The most annoying example was when I purchased three health potions, but didn’t manually stack them into my useable potions slot, so after I burned the first two in a boss fight I couldn’t access the remaining three because I hadn’t taken the time to move them to the right place. It’s these quirks that nibble away at the good thing Digital Sun has built.
After you’ve acquired the loot, you’ll be heading back to town to determine what can be used to craft better equipment and what needs to be sold. The game does help out a bit here as it allows you to add equipment to a wishlist, which will mark the materials you need to build what you want. However, the menus don’t always provide the best information. Trying to figure out what certain stats do and the names of certain materials are a little cumbersome. While the action of Moonlighter feels intentionally clunky, the obscured information about equipment and materials feels more like final touches that Digital Sun didn’t have time for.
You’ll also be able to store materials in a chest at the shop if you don’t want to sell them. The mechanic of running your shop is creative, if not always interesting. You have to manually set out the goods that are available to be sold and price them. This can be difficult as there isn’t really a way to determine a baseline for what items cost. As you get deeper into the game you might be able to guess the price difference from one dungeon to the next, but in terms of figuring out what is valuable and what is not, it’s kind of hit and miss. Once you’ve assigned a price, visitors will come and peruse your goods, then they’ll react to the price of an item. So you might start off with something priced at 100, then drop it to 80, then 65, until someone buys it. You can also tell if you’ve priced items too low based on a customer’s overjoyed reaction at seeing a discounted item. There are also thieves who wander into your store and try to nick your goods. They’re annoying, especially since they’re so common, but they have a distinct pattern, making them predictable and not much of a threat.
It’s a fine system, but a little mundane. Certain customers will pay more than fair price for an item, but they’ll complain about it, and other customers will be looking for something specific, but the game doesn’t really make you pay attention to these hints. If you just set out what you have, you’ll move your inventory with plenty of speed. There are also upgrades to speed up customers or allow extra customers into your store, but again, I never needed to use this as I always sold what I had and could quickly get the cash I needed. It’s maybe just a little too simple.
Instead, I found myself wishing for a request board, like in Stardew Valley, or a way to build relationships with customers in order to earn their repeat business. The game is lacking in characters and it feels like the shop would be a perfect way to add some humanity to the game. Instead, everyone in the town simply exists to consume the materials you get from the dungeons. It’s functional, but only that. I also wish there was more interesting loot. You can build weapons for the adventurers who come to your shop, but it’s not economically worth it. I found a couple of weapons, but they were generally the cheap stuff and it would have been cool if there was equipment only available in the dungeons, stuff that had been lost by other famous adventurers.
Another example of missed opportunities are the merchants you can bring to town. Will can use some of his money to help blacksmiths, potion-markers, and other businesses get set up. You’d think this would be something remarkable, as in it would be something that these business would discuss with Will, but they don’t. They simply exist to sell you things and be unlocked.
That’s really all there is to Moonlighter. You grind through the dungeons, warping back to town to sell goods, get better equipment, and delve further into the dungeons before beginning the process all over again. Each dungeon ends with a final boss, who isn’t very difficult, which leads to another complaint about the scaling of the game’s difficulty. Some dungeons are a kick in the teeth when you get to them, but once I got deeper into the game, I found myself cruising through foes and bosses with little difficulty.
The frustrations of recognizing the intent of the developer carries over the way Moonlighter looks. The pixel art aesthetic manages to be unique by being a refinement of the style previously unseen in terms of detail. Character animations have a fluidity that’s truly stunning - for instance, when Will wakes up, he throws his blankets off of his bed in a really pretty bit of animation. But aside from that, it’s fairly rote pixel art and that’s what the game is going for. This is the kind of throwback game where you countdown the minutes until a characters says, “It’s dangerous to go alone…” But the trappings are intentional to reflect the idea that Will could be a shopkeeper in any retro game universe.
I ran into a few technical issues with Moonlighter, but nothing awful. I had a couple of crashes toward the end of the first dungeon, which is particularly annoying since all of the progress in said dungeon is lost. There was also an issue with scenery elements flickering in and out toward the end of the game, which doesn’t hurt the gameplay, but doesn’t look great.
I liked Moonlighter. It’s not life-changing, but this is a solid first entry for Digital Sun. The blend of action mechanics and smart dungeon design makes for a fun game, and the addition of the storekeeping gameplay is a nice twist that helps the game stand out from the pack. It would be nice to see the supporting cast fleshed out and the economy doesn’t totally work to support the shopkeeping aspects, but there is a lot that does work in this fun action game.