Whilst I’m a fan of rogue-lite dungeon crawling, sometimes it’s hard to tell all of the releases in the genre apart. I mean, a lot of them look the same, a lot of them feel the same to play, and they rarely offer a distinctly unique feature to make them stand out in the crowd. That’s not a bad thing – as long as they’re fun to play who’s complaining? Still, it’s nice to see them do something a little different. Enter Moonlighter: a rogue-lite adventure that sees you exploring dungeons, defeating enemies and collecting loot. Oh, and running a shop to sell all of your loot and ensuring your prices are fair and competitive.
Sounds unique, right? I didn’t realise how much I would enjoy being a shop keeper until I played the game, but fortunately the dungeon-crawling just so happens to be a lot of fun too. It’s just a really clever idea for a game and it’s one that developer Digital Sun Games have managed to make into a really enjoyable experience.
You take on the role of a Merchant named Will who happily runs the ‘Moonlighter’ store in the town of Rynoka. However, Will craves so much more from life, with his ultimate dream being to adventure through the dangerous (but loot-filled) dungeons in the surrounding area and find out what lies behind the mysterious Fifth Gate. Thus, begins his quest to not only become the greatest adventurer that Rynoka has ever seen, but also run a profitable business on the side too.
Admittedly, the narrative isn’t the most fleshed-out aspect of Moonlighter, though it does a good job of adding a bit of context to Will’s journey. You shouldn’t expect to meet a ton of interesting characters or find yourself uncovering plenty of twists and turns, but it does at least ensure there’s a point to what you are doing and that there’s always an end-goal in sight: finding out what’s behind the elusive Fifth Gate.
The dungeon exploring will remind gamers of the likes of The Binding of Isaac, with a series of procedurally-generated dungeons to explore that are full of enemies, secrets, and most importantly loot. The best way to get loot is by killing enemies, though you’ll also stumble across plenty of treasure chests and hidden rooms along the way anyway so you’ll never find yourself running short.
The further you progress through a dungeon the more powerful its enemies become, with the fourth floor always hosting a vicious boss battle for you to tackle. If you’re defeated by enemies mid-dungeon, you lose any loot you’ve collected so far – believe me, there’s nothing quite disheartening like losing all your hard-earned loot because you thought to yourself “I can clear one more room”. Fortunately, you have a pendant that can warp you out of the dungeon for a small fee, so you can always escape and take your loot back to the safety of your shop. However, doing so means you lose your place in the dungeon, though as you progress you’ll unlock an additional warp function that costs a LOT more gold but will take you back to where you let off. Your choice of warp comes down to two things: do you value your gold more, or your progress through each dungeon?
It’ll be something you need to take into consideration a lot, because the enemies in Moonlighter’s dungeons can be pretty tough to handle in one run. They come in all different shapes and sizes, and even the foes found in the game’ first dungeon can be tricky. They mix up ranged-attacks with close-range assaults, and will even launch at you from different heights. Some of them aren’t always vulnerable to your attacks either – one enemy in particular could only be damaged if I tricked it into smashing itself into a wall, whilst another could only be hurt if I attacked it from behind.
Fortunately, Will is well-equipped to take down these foes, with an assortment of weapons available to him in the game including swords and shields, crossbows, great swords, and even claws. Moonlighter’s combat mechanics are simple enough to follow too, with two different types of attacks at the player’s disposal as well as a quick dodge-roll that can get you out of tricky situations. The combat mechanics themselves are simple enough with it easy to pull off quick combos to beat up most enemies, though the weapon variety does add something different to the experience. For example, the sword and shield gives you competent attacking and defensive options, whilst the great sword goes for all-out power. The spear on the other hand allows you to hit some decent attacks from range, but the claws are much faster than anything else. There’s enough variety in the weapons to suit anyone’s playstyle so you can use what works for you, though the fact that you can equip two weapons at any times means you can swap them up with ease too.
Of course, battling through dungeons is only half of the adventure in Moonlighter – the other half is spent managing your shop and selling all of the loot you find to the many inhabitants of Rynoka. Whilst your shop can be upgraded over time to make it bigger and better, you start off with a table that can sell up to four items at a time. This is where you’ll need a good eye for business; you see, you list the price of the items you want to sell and depending on your patron’s reactions (they’ll reveal an emoji that reflects their opinion on the price) you need to work out if you’ve listed it at an appropriate price. If you see gold in their eyes then you’ve given them too much of a bargain for example, but if they look angry then you’ve overpriced that item and they just won’t buy it. Certain shoppers will want specific item types too so it’s worth keeping an eye out for them, whilst the popularity of an item will shift over time so you can expect to change some prices up based upon that.
It might sound like an awkward system, but it’s really not – you just have to pay careful attention to everything that’s going on. Thankfully, you’re also equipped with a little encyclopaedia of the items you’ve collected, so you can always check back upon how much you’ve sold it for previously and how popular it might be. As you grow your shop and sell more valuable items you can expect things to get a lot more hectic so you’ll really have to knuckle down and focus on your selling skills, but it’s always a fun and rewarding experience. Sure, I loved exploring the dungeons of Moonlighter, but I think it was with the satisfaction of selling where I had most of my fun…
The gold you earn from selling will be used to buy new equipment, upgrade your shop, and even improve the town. You can pay new shopkeepers to come set up their own stores, though they’re more specialist so they won’t rival yours – in fact, they’ll offer you more elusive items and gear to help you on your adventures. The best examples of this are the Blacksmith and a Potion Shop that’ll help you out with improved gear to venture through dungeons, so they’re essential if you’re hoping to succeed in the game. It’s worth bearing in mind that they don’t only require gold but items too, so you won’t want to sell EVERYTHING you find whilst adventuring.
This need for loot and gold does bring up one of the game’s more negative sides though, and that’s the constant need to grind. Whilst Moonlighter has plenty to offer with its adventuring and shop keeping gameplay, you do have to spend a lot of time doing the same things over and over as you look for more loot in order to earn more gold. There are just five dungeons to play through in total and whilst there’s decent variety on offer in their design, you’ll be seeing a lot of them over and over and over again as you look to find the best items to sell.
It’s not a big pain because, admittedly, I’m used to grinding in RPGs – nothing quite like being over-powered, right? It might not be for everyone though and those who prefer to feel a stronger sense of progress in their games might find that it feels a little drawn out. There’s limited loot that you can actually carry in a dungeon too, so you’ll have to warp back to your shop quite often if you want to make the most of it. You can actually turn some of your loot into gold mid-dungeon by using a magic mirror that you find, though you won’t get close to as much gold as you would if you sold it yourself. Sure, it’s not a big problem, but it can certainly drag things out a little.
Whilst my experience with Moonlighter was mostly a very positive one, I’d be remiss not to mention some of the technical issues I had. Don’t get me wrong, for the most part it runs smoothly, but there were a few occasions during the busier action sequences where the game would start to stutter a bit. It’s not terrible nor is it common, but it did see me suffering the occasional death thanks to not being able to avoid enemies’ attacks in time. I also suffered one crash during the game where Will seemed to get stuck in the environment, but that was a one off so I wouldn’t say it’s a real issue.
Developer: Digital Sun Games
Publisher: 11 bit studios
Platform(s): Nintendo Switch (Reviewed), PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, Mac, Linux