Review | Moonlighter
Dive, dive and dive again…
Moonlighter, released in 2018 by Spanish developer Digital Sun, is a peculiar little gem of last month’s Humble Monthly service. I’m a huge fan of dungeon games, town builders and sometimes the occasional shop management if I’m feeling in the mood, which is what attracted me to this beautiful little pixel game that promised me all of that in one package. The fact it was published by 11 Bit, the developers of my one of my previously reviewed games Frostpunk, simply sealed the deal.
Moonlighter’s headline feature is playing the two sides of the coin: managing a little store in the charming town of Rynoka by day, and delving into ancient, mysterious dungeons by night. At the game’s opening, the town is in a state of disrepair. Not many people roam around, buildings sit unused and most of the dungeons have been sealed off after many brave adventurers vanished in its walls. It doesn’t take long for the loop of gameplay to become very familiar, jumping into the dungeon for a hack and slash, bullet-hell adventure fighting unusual enemies and claiming its loot for yourself. Inventory management is made harder by pesky curses that limit where items can go in your inventory or sometimes even destroy other items. Once you’ve got past this you can head back home using a wonderfully handy, albeit greedy, teleportation pendent. When your goods are displayed and priced you enter a completely different way of playing, managing customers as they come into the store and keeping an eye out for thieves. Pricing is a difficult thing to manage at first. Working out quite what that water gem is worth compared to the mountains of rocks you’ve found so far, without annoying your customers so much demand hits rock bottom, is a learning experience to say the least.
Ultimately though, this core loop feels natural. Changing between game states is effortless and at later points in the game you can even get your hands on a shop assistant who’ll run the store without you some days, though the cheeky sod takes a fair cut of your earnings. Every adventure’s focus is getting more stuff to sell, funding upgrades to make you stronger to go get fancier, more valuable, stuff. However, some items are worth holding onto for crafting into more powerful gear and armour. While the weapons system is not terrifically complicated, granting a pretty standard variety of weapons with only some differences in attack style between them, I feel like it suited how the game plays nicely. I could focus on what I needed to get to proceed without too much stressing over what weapon is the best pick or experimenting too much.
While weapons and armour feel suitably simple, potion alchemy feels simply unfinished. Potions in Moonlighter are a very simple affair. There are 5 tiers of healing potions, all superior to their predecessor and requiring the material from each dungeon floor. On top of this are a bunch of guide potions for each dungeon that show you the exit, all requiring no ingredients besides your hard-earned wealth. That’s it. A healing and a guide potion for each area. The whole ‘combining ingredients with a little cash’ mechanism to produce a potion feels unrealised. A lot could’ve been done with that kind of system to enhance core stats, boost dodging or any number of different factors. Maybe it was supposed to include more but fell to the cutting room floor, it’s hard to say. While I appreciate some features need to be reduced to make a game viable, it still leaves me wondering what could’ve been from an otherwise very pretty crafting animation.
My other issue, or more surprise I suppose, was the game’s difficulty curve. The first dungeon felt very natural, providing a nice steady progression of challenge and profits as I gained new gear, upgraded my town and got better at the game. The second dungeon, the forest, felt like quite a spike when reaching the second boss floor, which took me a long while to overcome. The final boss of the forest dungeon then felt quite underwhelming after all the work beating his predecessors had been, but the steady curve in profits continued. Then I hit the third dungeon, the Desert. Within a couple of runs my profits completely exploded. I went from carefully managing my stock to fund my regular potion usage and gear upgrades, to having hundreds and thousands spare with nothing to splash it on. This was made even more extreme when I found the mimic companion, who gives you essentially another inventory for each run to store goodies. It’s also a cute little friend that bites people. The rest of the Desert and Tech dungeons went through easily, making ridiculous amounts of cash with every single run and powering on through to the next boss battle each time. While I don’t mind some easier gameplay from time to time, the sudden shift from a tough but steady curve of improvement to easily breezing through every enemy like its nothing was a little off-putting.
The story isn’t going to win too many awards for mind-blowing originality, but it does introduce a few interesting characters and ends on a peculiar, certainly unexpected note. By far my favourite character is the old man that provides you most of the game’s advice early on. After every final dungeon boss is beaten, he comes by with a little remark about how you shouldn’t risk your life chasing secrets, just be happy with what you’ve got. Obviously, your character completely ignores this and risks life and limb for some dusty old book a guy will pay 16,000 gold for, but he tries, bless him. No matter that we don’t listen to your advice, I’m always going to love that old man’s sassy attempts to stop you progressing.
Overall, it’s a good little game that kept me engaged and happy for a solid 25 hours. Even though I have some issues with parts, it ultimately rewards you generously for your efforts and stays fresh dungeon dive after dungeon dive. Even with somewhat repetitive concepts at play, I never felt like I was grinding and didn’t really get bored. I am glad I had my controller at the ready though. The inbuilt control scheme for mouse and keyboard is far from comfortable.
Review Round Up:
Fresh gameplay loop, doesn’t get boring
Successfully manages two different game styles into one, with effortless crossover
Beautiful art style and music
Good way to kill 10 minutes or 2 hours
Alchemy was a little lacking
Difficulty curve was a bit messy
A controller is needed, or substantial key rebinding if using keyboard