Moonglow Bay Review
A Flawed Fishing Adventure
Despite always getting heavily invested into life-simulator games whenever I play them, it’s been a long time since I’ve let myself get into one. Animal Crossing: Wild World on the Nintendo DS played a big role in my formative gaming years, as did Harvest Moon and the long forgotten but forever enjoyable MySims series. Since then however, I’ve barely given games cut from the same cloth a chance, opting to observe newer Animal Crossing releases and the likes of Stardew Valley from afar. After seeing Moonglow Bay with its stylish voxel artstyle and peaceful fishing gameplay paired with an emotional narrative about loss and recovery, I knew it was time for me to delve back into the genre I originally sunk hundreds of hours into.
Unlike most life sims where you’re a younger adult that’s single and new in town, Moonglow Bay places you in the shoes of an elderly individual. After choosing the appearance and preferred pronouns for both your protagonist and their partner, you quickly learn that the two have moved from Ontario to the peaceful and picturesque Canadian coastline town of Moonglow Bay to live out the rest of their days together.
Residing in Moonglow Bay and helping restore its floundering fishing trade is your partner's dream, and being the good life partner you are, you choose to join them for the journey. Despite being more than willing to help your soulmate fish, the denizens of Moonglow Bay would prefer to do practically anything else, as tales of creatures that inhabit the bay cause them to be too scared to bother.
The opening moments are particularly wholesome and emotional, which makes things all the more upsetting when the game skips three years into the future, revealing that your beloved partner has been missing for over three years. They’re officially declared dead and your player character is clearly a wreck, with countless fast food containers littering the home. Only when your daughter arrives do you finally begin to break free of your depressing funk, forcing you to open the gift your partner gave to you when you arrived in Moonglow Bay. The gift was a fishing journal, which proves to be all the inspiration you need to put your life back together and help reinvigorate Moonglow Bay, all the while kick-starting a street food stall that will house dishes crafted from the ingredients you catch out on the water.
Moonglow Bay does a fantastic job of setting the scene story-wise for the gameplay loop that follows, getting you emotionally invested in your character's quest to fulfil the wishes of their deceased partner. The narrative throughout the rest of the game never quite gets as interesting, but the story does a decent enough job at being enjoyable enough throughout, instead opting for its gameplay to do the heavy lifting.
It does look very pretty though, with its voxel Minecraft-eque visual look particularly appealing. The soundtrack is also top notch, providing relaxing tunes that are fitting for what is a calm and serene adventure.
While plenty of your time in Moonglow Bay will be spent traipsing throughout the town and conversing with the residents, the majority will be spent in your boat known as “The Two Cats”. You can make use of your fishing rod on the land to catch some fish that are close to the shore, but venturing out to the ocean will provide you with various locations to catch a multitude of various different sea creatures. The act of fishing is akin to Animal Crossing, with you waiting for the fish to bite at your lure before reeling them in. It isn’t that simple however, as fish put up a bit of a fight. The key to success is pulling the fish in from the opposite direction it’s swimming in, whilst also making use of the line pulling mechanic, which allows for you to quickly pull in a fish. This move must be used sparingly however, as overusing it can see the fish break loose.
Moonglow Bay has fish of all different shapes and sizes across three categories, and in order to catch them all you must make use of various types of lures and baits. Each fish type offers up a slightly different challenge when catching them, however I never felt that they were that distinctly different. Low grade bait can be made by catching sand fleas with your net and preparing them in your kitchen. This bait allows for the catching of small to medium sized fish. High Grade bait opens you up to catching medium to large sized fish, which are the fish you’ll want to turn a handy profit. As the story progresses, you will also gain access to different fishing rods, which further aid in catching particular categories of fish. Despite the perceived depth, the overall experience of catching fish never feels that different. Rod fishing also begins to get more tedious as the experience drags along, especially when you can make use of your net to catch various fish at once in a matter of seconds.
After fishing the day away, you’ll likely want to head to the kitchen to cook what you’ve caught. So long as you have the fish required to make a specific meal, as well as enough money to cover the cost of the non-seafood ingredients that automatically appear in your fridge, you can craft it by completing a series of small mini-games. These tiny mini-games are basically quick time events where you must do things such as chop and boil your ingredients in accordance to the event on the screen. The more mistakes you make when preparing your meal, the lower quality your meal will be, affecting its sale price. Once you’ve cooked up a storm, placing all your meals in the vending machine out the front of your home will see them eventually purchased by the residents of Moonglow Bay, with the profits automatically deposited into your account.
The money earned through your fishing and cooking adventures can be spent on things such as upgrades for your boat and food stall, while most will likely be spent renovating Moonglow Bay. Renovating areas in the town can be achieved by finding the renovation sign beside a building and paying the fee required to renovate. Some renovations are required to complete story quests, while others are optional and can earn you handy rewards such as a lure that can catch two fish each time. Donating fish at the museum can also be done if you wish to fill out your fishing journal and learn more about the species that you’re catching, such as what type of lure you need.
The gameplay of Moonglow Bay feels engaging and entertaining to begin with, but its simplicity quickly erodes a lot of the positivity, resulting in a gameplay loop that feels monotonous. You can only experience the cooking mini-games so many times until you’ve seen them all, which makes all other instances feel like they are wasting your time. Making cooking mini-games skippable after a certain period of time would arguably have alleviated these frustrations, but ultimately there should’ve been more variety in these sections. The same applies to the process of fishing, as not a great deal changes in fishing encounters throughout the game.
There is a co-op mode that allows for easy drop in and out cooperative play, with the second player essentially being a handy buddy that can assist you with fishing and cooking. They can cook and fish the same ways that the main character can, with their efforts helping line the pockets of host with more money.
Having the ability to play alongside a friend in the local co-op mode may make the experience enjoyable for a bit longer if you have a friend keen on chilling in Moonglow Bay with you, but it doesn’t fix the fact that there simply isn’t enough variety in for the game to remain entertaining. It does allow for faster cooking of recipes though, which is a welcome positive.
Even worse is the fact that it’s arguably one of the buggiest indie releases I’ve ever played. Throughout my travels in the bay I had my rod get stuck in the water on multiple occasions, while also being able to clip through the land while driving in my boat. Some glitches were only visual and didn’t hinder the gameplay, while some broke the game to the point where I needed to restart from the last recorded save. I even had a bug where a side-quest that required me to talk to a particular NPC couldn’t be completed. While the odd bug can be forgiven to a degree, Moonglow Bay’s rap sheet is extensive and borderline unforgivable for a game of its simple nature.
While Moonglow Bay initially grabs you with its stylish voxel aesthetic, emotional narrative set-up, and relaxed gameplay loop of catching, cooking, and restoring the titular town to its former glory, it too often finds itself disrupted by repetitive mechanics and unacceptable amount of immersion breaking bugs. Pair these issues with the fact the level of customisation is barebones in comparison to other games in the genre, and it's abundantly clear that there are plenty of other titles that do this gameplay style better. I wanted to love Moonglow Bay, and at the start I thought I did, but my desire to stick with it fizzled out far quicker than I expected.