Developed By: Digital Sun
Published By: 11 Bit Studios
Category: Action, Adventure, Role-Playing, Simulation
Release Date: 11.5.18
One of my favorite cult games of all time is Reccetear, a small Japanese game about a young girl and her fairy companion trying to keep her family’s shop from going under. It combined a simple shop keeping mechanic with dungeon crawling action/adventure. Moonlighter for the Nintendo Switch takes that basic formula and kicks things up to the next level with a heavy dose of Legend of Zelda-style dungeons with a little bit of roguelike flair thrown in for good measure. It’s one of the best games I’ve played in a while.
Retail Jobs Are Not a Life Sentence
A long time ago, five gates were discovered in an archaeological dig site. Early explorers found that four of the gates were pathways to other dimensions, where they found relics of unknown power and immense value. The fifth was locked, with no apparent way to open it. Adventurers from all around flocked to the site, hoping to lay claim to the vast riches the gates seemed to promise. A small village, Rynoka, sprang up near the dig and great prosperity followed for many shops serving the influx of treasure-seekers. The most famous of these shops is Moonlighter – one the few that survives to this day.
Due to the highly dangerous nature of the gates and the diminishing returns of the adventurers entering them, three gates have been closed in addition to the locked gate. Without the riches brought by the gate explorers, Rynoka has fallen on hard times. Will, heir to the Moonlighter shop, is captivated by the mystery of the fifth gate like his father before him. At nights, he sneaks into the remaining open gate to retrieve artifacts to keep his store stocked and seek answers concerning what the gates are and how they came to be. In Moonlighter, players take control of Will to solve the mystery of the gates – and maybe revitalize his hometown in the process.
Crashing the Gates
I mentioned Legend of Zelda before, and that is the best comparison for the dungeon crawling aspect of Moonlighter. The camera angle and dungeon layouts are very similar to the classic NES title. Moonlighter adds some roguelike elements to its dungeons, as the layout is different every time you enter. Each gate consists of three levels, ending in a boss fight at the end. Defeating the boss grants you that dungeon’s key; once you’ve cleared all four dungeons, you have everything you need to unlock the mysterious fifth gate.
You can arm Will with a variety of weapons, including sword and shield, spears, claws, and bows. The melee weapons all play fairly similarly; you walk up to enemies and swipe at them. Melee weapons also have the ability to guard, which I very frequently forgot to do. You should do it more often than I did; it really helps. If you do forget to block, you can use health potions to restore some lost HP. The bow provides a nice alternative if you’re low on health and/or the enemy you’re fighting is hard to get close to. There is also a very useful roll action that you can use to get into and out of trouble.
Moonlighter does not use experience points or levels for its character progression system; the sole way to improve Will’s stats is through his equipment. New or upgraded weapons increase damage, and some weapons have a chance to inflict status effects. Armor raises your HP and defense, but sometimes at a tradeoff for speed. Heavier armor will reduce your speed, while lighter armor will make you faster. I was never very good at a speedier character when I tried it, but those of you with nimbler fingers may want to give it a try. Some heavier weapons reduce your speed as well, so if you want to tear through monsters with a buster sword like Cloud Strife you may be disappointed.
The Search For More Money
Exploring each dungeon is a fun experience. Along your journey you will come across the journals of previous explorers who will expand on the history of the gates and provide some hints about the exploration process. The main way to accumulate items is by killing enemies; almost all enemies will drop something when defeated. Some rooms will have chests in the middle, which can only be opened when all the monsters in the area are defeated. Items in chests generally have some sort of curse placed on them that range in severity; the gentlest curses require you to place the item in a certain area of your inventory. The worst curses will destroy items when you leave the dungeon. Luckily, some items’ curses aren’t really curses at all; there are some treasures that will remove the curse from your other items.
Your inventory has twenty slots for carrying items. You can stack up to ten common items in on slot, or five rare items. Weapons and armor take a full slot; equipped weapons and armor don’t affect your inventory, however. In the first dungeon, Will finds a magic mirror than will convert unwanted items into money. The amount of money awarded is somewhat random, so you can’t always count on getting as much money this way as you would selling the item in the store. Still, it’s a good way to get something for a less valuable item instead of just leaving it behind in favor of a more valuable one.
Some rooms have pits; generally, falling into a pit will just do some minor damage and respawn you near the door where you entered. But sometimes there will be a sparkling animation in the pits; if you fall into these pits, you’ll enter a secret room which will have extra-valuable treasure, monsters, or more often both. Every level of the dungeon also has one hot spring room; sitting in the hot spring will regenerate your health.
It’s Not Retreating, It’s Restocking
Will, like most gate explorers, possesses a magical pendant which allows him to teleport out of the dungeon. For some reason, the pendant is powered by gold, so Will has to pay a toll to exit. Somehow, the pendant knows how much treasure Will is carrying and it gets more expensive the more stuff you have. When you use the pendant, when you return to the gate you will have to start your exploration over from the beginning. Eventually, Will finds a cube that will allow him to resume his exploration from the area he left instead of starting over. I never used the cube; the dungeons are only 3 levels long, and skipping any portion of it means you get less treasure. And you always need more treasure.
Make Your Own Hours
Once you’ve got a full sack of treasure, it’s time to head back to Moonlighter and put stuff on sale. Selling items is relatively easy; you place items on a table in your store, set a price, and then use the door to open for business. As customers come in, they look at your items. If they think your price is fair, they’ll buy it, and if they don’t, they’ll make a mean face and walk away. Rarer items command more money, naturally, so make sure you explore every corner of the dungeon.
Your store also has a living quarters for Will. It contains a bed and some storage chests. Sleeping in the bed will save the game and advance the game to the next stage of the day/night cycle. Upgrading your bed also adds some bonus HP whenever you go into a dungeon; it’s represented by an orange bar. This bonus HP can’t be regenerated by potions or hot springs, though; once it’s gone, it’s gone until you leave the dungeon and come back in. Storage chests are a good way to organize items you want to keep for your next equipment upgrade or to make sure you don’t accidentally sell any items you need to fulfill a customer’s request.
You Gotta Spend Money To Make Money
There’s a bulletin board in Rynoka that allows you to upgrade the town and your shop. Upgrading the town adds new merchants which allow you to, among other things, craft new equipment, potions, and purchase various items. The store that sold crafting items is completely useless; I can go find them for free in the dungeons, why give money to a competitor? But I guess if you’re impatient and have some extra cash it’s not a bad way to go.
Upgrading your shop has various benefits, like adding more retail space and unlocking new types of customers or services in your store. Once you do the first upgrade, thieves will start to come into Moonlighter; keep an eye on those guys. When they try to steel an item, if you can get to them before they get to the door you can beat them up and get your stuff back. You can also decorate the store with various items which affect your customers’ actions; some items will compel them to leave a tip or get them to wait in line longer than they normally would while you whup some thief’s butt.
The second upgrade introduces the ability to take item requests from customers. They tell you what item they want and how many days you have to fulfill the order, and you have to give them their request on the day they specify. There’s no penalty for missing a deadline, but if you hit it you will get a lot more money than you would for selling those items.
Moonlighter is the most drop-dead gorgeous pixel-art game I have seen since Hyper Light Drifter. Let’s just get that out of the way right now. I’m a huge fan of retro styled graphics, and Moonlighter is one of the most beautiful examples of that aesthetic I have ever seen. The character models are exquisitely detailed and the animations are smoother than Billy Dee Williams after a Brazilian. The color palette is bright and the overall design sense of the game is refreshingly original. It’s going to be tough to find a better-looking game than this.
The game’s audio design is perfectly fine, if less outstanding than the visuals. The music is intrepid and mysterious; a mixture of strings and woodwinds that fits the game’s atmosphere to a T. It didn’t stick in my head the way, say, Zelda’s theme has stayed with me my whole life, but it did the job it was asked to do. There isn’t any voice acting, which fits with the game’s retro influences, but it also leaves very little to talk about with regards to the game’s soundtrack.
Moonlighter doesn’t use the Switch’s touch or motion controls, so I suppose you can play it either docked or undocked as you prefer. Personally, though, I played it almost exclusively on my TV. The graphics are too good to waste on a small screen.
TL;DR: Fun dungeon crawling gameplay combined with perfect pixel-art graphics makes for an outstanding gameplay experience. Moonlighter is a must-buy.