Stop, Drop, Shut ’em Down, Open Up Shop
You find yourself exploring a dungeon to pick up wares for your shop, aptly named The Moonlighter, in the town of Rynoka. Playing as a merchant (named Will) we find ourselves in a world with heroes, merchants and ordinary townspeople who buy goods with their seemingly endless supplies of gold. There are 5 dungeons and, save for one, they were locked away years ago along with their secrets and origin. As we explore floor by floor, the truth of the dungeons is unearthed through the history books, notes, and scribbled pointers from adventurers that have been through here before you. Moonlighter’s story is revealed by ignoring the sage advice of an old man who urges you to value your life, and instead work on regaining the former glory of your grandfather’s shop. As we pay attention to the pages we come across on our dungeon crawls, a story is told to us indirectly but it’s not long before we discover that the dungeons aren’t exactly as they appear and have a purpose of their own, willed to them by actors unseen.
Ever Play Dark Souls? Good. Then You’ve Heard Of Dodge Rolling.
The gameplay largely consists of slaying guards in dungeons, collecting their splattered pieces, selling that loot and then buying upgrades for yourself, the shop, or the town of Rynoka. There are four themed dungeons in this game and defeating the boss at the end of each dungeon will unlock the next one. You crawl through four unique aesthetics which are (in order): golem, forest, desert, and tech. The floors are procedurally generated with a few staple rules that you can count on to pop up, rely on, and sometimes guide your way. Occasionally the dungeon set you’re in will give you a glimpse into the next thematic set, which was a smart decision by developer Digital Sun, because it does a lot to breakup the visual monotony that you would encounter otherwise.
The monsters you’ll find vary not only in their color sets, but also in their mechanics as you progress through the game. This variety pairs well with all the different weapons available to you in Moonlighter. Whether you go with sword and shield, bow, spear, gauntlets, or the great-sword (my personal favorite) the enemies provide a good reason to cycle through your arsenal and find some tactical favorites. If you’re like me, you will whirlwind your way through packs of monsters with your great-sword. Each weapon has a main and charge attack, with sword and shield being the exception by giving you a block maneuver. Shield block is something I said good-bye to within the first hour, as I opted for the bow’s natural ability to fire projectiles from a distance and over terrain, which helped keep me safe when I needed it. In it’s recommended “hard mode”, the boss battles offer the best challenge in this game, aside from rooms that generate with a ton enemies that don’t take well to hack and slash. There’s a real sense of accomplishment as you take them down, but if you’re smart about teleports and learn enemy attack patterns, you’ll have fun rather than feel frustrated. If hard mode isn’t enough then you have the option of an even harder difficulty setting!
When you’re done risking your gathered loot, you’ll head home frequently to sell your full bags by way of one-way portal or a two-way portal that lets you return without losing dungeon progress for a fee. If you die in the dungeon you lose everything in your backpack. This is not a game where you should hoard or be too cautious with your items. Potions? Use them! Money? Spend it. The progress you make by investing in the town and possible upgrades nets you a much bigger return than being careful and trying to slowly afford just the right things in any correct order. Your pack and wallet are filled faster by doing what you can with what you find sooner rather than later.
The town can be upgraded through your investments into different shops and services. These upgrades unlock the forge and enchantress most importantly but they also give you access to shop decor items and even a bank to throw further money into. The shop is actually rather fun to run compared to what I imagined at first, but it did take one shop upgrade before I realized it. You’ll set prices, chase down thieves, haggle aforementioned prices to please customers, and eventually you can even hire someone to do your work for you but it will cut into profits. As the 98th rule of acquisition says “Every man has his price.” Choosing to have an employee sell your goods opens up your day cycle to extra dungeon time.
Under The Table
Retro 16-bit style of Moonlighter sells the gameplay well. Weapons all have a unique look to them both in inventory and use. Getting that sweet looking weapon and then crushing a dungeon with it feels great as you upgrade your way through the game. Armor art is only inventory, unfortunately. (I would have loved to see that in action too.) The music isn’t in your face, but rather it’s more subtle and conducive to both pick up and play sessions or long crawls as it’s repetitive without grating on the ear in any way.
The details that go into the generated rooms are well appreciated. I even stepped on a dungeon slug and squashed it which made me feel surprisingly guilty and sad for a second before I stalked off to the next frame. The NPC artwork is well made and sell their presence for what isn’t a story driven title. The boss, monster, terrain, and attack designs fit well between the golem, forest, desert and tech dungeons. You’ll feel a familiarity with titles like the old school Legend of Zelda games and Binding of Isaac.
The Last Word
Easy to pick up dungeon crawler that teaches you without holding your hand. If anything, it could have told me one or two things a bit more plainly. I didn’t even find the storage chests in Will’s room until the end of the first dungeon! Nothing I recall let me know it was even there. Moonlighter does however do enough to nudge you in the right direction with the tutorial by letting you know what you’re about to get into and then sets you loose in Rynoka to bash some monster guts. The upgrade and gameplay mechanics are intuitive after the initial tutorial so that you could find yourself hooked on the sell, crawl, portal home, sleep rhythm before you know it. It took me 5 hours to beat the first dungeon because I was having too much fun jumping back in over and over before realizing a more optimal method of play for progression. Moonlighter was a joy of feverish repetition that somehow kept itself feeling fresh the whole 15 hours I spent with it.
~ Final Score: 9/10 ~
Review copy provided by Digital Sun for PC. Screenshots provided by Digital Sun.