When someone sees roguelike combat in a game, they prepare themselves for the long haul. Hundreds of hours combining different items to discover the most effective combination for combat. This is all well and good, but it doesn’t leave the genre a lot of room to breathe. Can a game take this popular form of dungeon crawling and integrate it into a more linear experience? Would twenty hours feel less satisfying than two hundred? Can a game make shopkeeping just as fun as sword fighting? These are the questions that Digital Sun tries to answer with Moonlighter, an action RPG that’s one-half Isaac and one-half Recettear.
You play as Will, the young proprietor of a trinket shop in the ghost town of Rynoka. Your stock of odd objects come from the dungeons, mysterious evershifting caves on the edge of town. Every night, you jump into the green goo to fend off slimes and retrieve more stock. Every morning, you sell your wares to the few customers that still show up. Once, the town was bustling, with adventurers coming from far and wide to take on the cave’s challenge. Now, after a few too many never returned, only one remains open. Will dreams of opening the locked doors and unraveling the mystery that has defined his hometown. If he happens to revitalize his shop in the process? That’s just a bonus.
Moonlighter imparts this narrative mostly through its gameplay. After the initial setup (where a stern guardian advises against your adventuring ways), you set out on your daily routine. You’re encouraged to sell during the day and dungeon crawl at night, but it’s really left up to you. Your shop won’t go out of business if you go on a dungeon spree, and you can sell as long as you have items to fill the shelves. The real key to making it all work is combing these two halves into one cohesive whole. Moonlighter pulls this off perfectly.
There have only been a few games to capture the gaming potential of a shopkeeper, and Moonlighter really runs with that opportunity. Choosing what to sell and what to keep from day to day speaks to the hoarder in me. You need to deduce exactly what each item is worth and whether you’ll be pricing things just right or trying to wring a bit more profit out of your customers. You do this naturally via the context of other shops in the area. Consulting your journal also helps, as it keeps track of which items are valuable based on your travels. A magic mirror you get early on lets you “sell” extra items in the dungeon, and this is an easy way to get in the pricing ballpark.
In the end, items were never too difficult to price. The reward in the shopkeeping comes from seeing your income rise as you conquer new dungeons and master pricing. Different customers will want different items, and needing to sprint to grab a potion for a visiting mage will keep you on your toes. Eventually, you’ll deal with shoplifters, complete customer service tasks, and even hire a second pair of hands. This assistant can run the shop during the day, which lets you dungeon crawl more often or fill specific orders as needed. You can sell non-dungeon items too, in case you happen to have a spare sword lying around.
Completing a day of commerce only takes a handful of minutes, which is just about right. It’s very zen to go through the motions of selling and restocking your shelves. If you’re so inclined, you could follow your relative’s wisdom and stick to the shopkeeping at any point. While there’s nothing super engaging here for me personally, filling out your journal with prices totally works in an Animal Crossing kind of way. However, no matter how you want to play, you will have to dive into the dungeons eventually.
For many, the roguelike sections are going to be the meat of the experience. Will starts off with a simple broom but quickly acquires an arsenal that can include swords, claws, and staffs. You can equip two of these at a time, and each is upgradable in various ways at the blacksmith back home. Combat consists of a basic three hit combo, a secondary move that changes based on your weapon of choice, and a dodge roll. It’s pretty simplistic, but switching between your weapons gives you enough variety to get you through each run.
The various enemy hordes also keep things exciting. You’ll see a lot of familiar tropes if you’re a roguelike veteran. There are golems with huge shields that you have to catch from behind. There are invulnerable enemies that only fade out when you clear a room. Cannoneers will spread puddles of lava and acid around you. While there are a few unique ideas, it’s mostly iterating on what’s worked in the past. Each enemy fits the design of whichever of the four dungeons they reside in, with high-res pixel animations that are smooth as silk. Thankfully, Moonlighter also changes things up often enough that you never get tired of fighting any single foe.
On each floor, you’ll find a campsite of a former hero, a healing pool, and at least one pit leading to a secret area. There are no item rooms, bombs or keys, nothing to distract you from your routine. You use most of the loot you gather later, either as crafting material for upgrades or stock to sell. In rare instances, the remains of an adventurer crop up, gifting you with healing items or gold. On even rarer occasions, you’ll gain spare weapons in these instances instead. In one fell swoop, you’re able to bypass entire progression trees and gain new combat options. Quite an exciting prospect.
There are bosses to conquer of course, with each slain beast opening a more advanced dungeon upon their defeat. These fights are tense and challenging, just as you’d want them to be. You’re forced to bring your very best equipment as well as your bullet hell and pattern memorization skills. Most of the time anyway. I found that it was sometimes easy to trap enemies on the scenery for minutes at a time, bosses included. As they danced around ineffectually, I pelted them with blows. While it’s thrilling to gain the upper hand in a tough spot, I felt more satisfied by the victories I’d earned.
Unfortunately, combat glitches are the least of Moonlighter‘s problems. The version I played before launch had a slew of technical issues. I ran into hard crashes to desktop while dungeon crawling and shopkeeping alike. After that, I discovered that the save system is less than clear about where the checkpoints are once I load back in. On several occasions, I’d find enemies in rooms where they didn’t belong. Once I cleared them, the game didn’t know how to proceed, and I had to exit the dungeon before I was ready. This even happened to me after a boss fight on one occasion, forcing me to replay an entire run. Thankfully, I never lost a significant chunk of loot because of a glitch, and I proceeded without incident. However, there’s some definite patching to do in the long term.
It’s important to note that Moonlighter‘s boss fights are one time only encounters. After all, they offer substantial progress to your town’s narrative and extremely valuable loot drops. This is a big distinction between this action RPG and more pure roguelike experiences. As solid as the combat can be, it’s simplistic, and it’s not meant to entertain endlessly. This game is telling a specific story, and that is really one of its greatest strengths. I love endless arcade fun, but Moonlighter has taken that addictive procedural gameplay and layered a more traditional game on top of it. The mechanics of permadeath and random rooms make sense contextually, and everything builds to a fully realized world delivered in a small package.
That’s the true victory of Moonlighter. Every piece of the puzzle is simple and welcoming, but the whole is more than the sum of its parts. This is a gorgeously rendered world that succeeds in translating the monotony of life in a fun way. You can feel Will’s yearning for something more, and you share in his discovery as you unearth each new mystery. Moonlighter isn’t going to be your new roguelike addiction, but its touching coming of age story will stick with you long after you put the controller down.
Our Moonlighter review was conducted on PC via Steam with a copy provided by the developer. It’s also available DRM-Free via GOG and on Xbox One and PlayStation 4. A Nintendo Switch port is currently in the works.
Moonlighter is an absolutely gorgeous adventure that tells an effective and heartwarming tale. The gameplay is top notch, even if it's a bit simplistic. Take away the launch day technical issues and you've got one top shelf production.
- Evocative 2D World
- Balanced Gameplay
- Natural Storytelling
- Simple To A Fault
- Showstopper Bugs
- Exploitable AI Routines