Every so many years, an indie game will come out and take my gaming life by storm. The last time I remembered losing this much time, I was checking out a farming game called Stardew Valley. We all know how that story ends, but Moonlighter is here to write a new chapter.
This dungeon crawler combines combat and roguelike gameplay with shop management in one core gameplay loop that fuels its own progression. Does this concept create a game that will drag your free time down into its dungeons, or will you get bored of this loop before long? Read on to find out.
An Addicting and Polished Gameplay Loop
Moonlighter has a really interesting premise, but the story is not the star of the show. You play as Will, a young man who dreams of becoming a hero, but his destiny is to run the Moonlighter shop in the town of Rynoka.
The game takes place in a world where mysteries gates suddenly appeared one day. They led to massive dungeons full of dangers, which enticed heroes to try their hand at defeating them for the treasures the dungeons held.
Rynoka was built around this concept, as a sort of tourist trap for heroes coming to try their hand at these mysterious and dangerous underground labyrinths. Over time, it became clear these things were too dangerous, so they were boarded up and the town of Rynoka fell into obscurity.
Will isn’t finished just yet, though. He wants to unlock the secrets of these dungeons and a mysterious door that seems to be connected to all of them. From this premise, you’ll find notes from other adventurers in the dungeons that hint at some really interesting concepts as far as the nature of these places is concerned.
From a storytelling standpoint, I really wanted more of this. The developers seem to have some really interesting narrative ideas about what these dungeons are and how they function, but this information only seems to be hinted at during the majority of the game.
Despite a lack of consistent narrative, Moonlighter manages to succeed based on its gameplay alone. Your time will be divided into two major categories: management and combat.
During the management phase, you can visit other shops in the town that you’ve invested in to buy potions, upgrade your weapons, or do plenty of other things as time goes on. As you continue to invest in new shops, they will open and provide specialized services for you. One shop is a blacksmith for weapons and armor, while another sells potions and enchants your weapons.
When you are ready during the day, you can head into your shop and set up your wares. These are the components, artifacts, and treasures you found from your trip into the dungeons, which we’ll discuss in a moment.
The game has an excellent user interface for setting prices and examining your knowledge on the supply and demand of specific items. It will also help you track how well certain price points perform, which is invaluable when things start to expand.
The actual process of moving items from your inventory to the shop displays can become tedious as it’s done with one item or stack at a time, but this never really bothered me. A tap of the R1 button will send the item straight over for you.
Once you open the shop, customers will come in and react to your prices while shopping. You can use this to determine if you should raise or lower the price. The simple emoticons used to convey this are perfect as it quickly provides visual feedback that you can use to make price changes on the fly.
You’ll need to ring out customers manually at the counter, which I actually really liked, but things can get hectic as the shop expands. Thiefs will try their hand at taking your things, and customers won’t enjoy waiting.
Furthermore, as supply and demand change, people will gain or lose interest in specific items, so you need to manage this as well. It’s a great mechanic with just enough depth to keep things interesting, but not so deep that it detracts from the rest of the experience.
Now, let’s talk combat!
The wares you sell in your store are gained solely from your exploration in the dungeons. These are procedurally generated levels played from an isometric perspective, much like classic Zelda. There are several classes of weapons to choose from, and multiple slots for different types you can switch on the fly.
A sword and shield may seem nice for the block ability, but a spear offers additional reach and a sprinting charge attack. Each one has its pros and cons, but they all have a unique feel and animation to them.
Since you do not level up in the traditional sense, you will need to use some of the things you find in your travels to upgrade your weapons and armor. This is your primary mode of progression and the game offers a great wishlist mechanic to help you keep track of which items you need for crafting, and which to sell.
As you kill enemies and find items, you will see that some of them have special effects which require inventory management. One item may require that you place it at the top or the bottom of the inventory, while another will destroy an item adjacent to it when you leave.
This unique take on inventory management helped keep things interesting as you continued to find loot for your shop and for crafting. Dying will force you to drop everything not on your person, but you do have a charm that will teleport you out of the dungeon safely.
This does require a small charge of in-game currency, but you will also have access to a device that can take items and provide a nominal fee if you’re in a pinch. The rogue-like element of pushing as far as you can while risking it all makes the combat incredibly satisfying and engaging.
The pursuit of loot to craft and then sell in your store, only to go back and get more, is one of the most satisfying gameplay loops I’ve experienced in recent memory. The temptation to go to one more room, the urge to play one more day, it never faded for me.
With multiple dungeons to conquer and widely varied themes, the game doesn’t fall into repetition either. The constant satisfaction of seeing yields on your hard work put all of those feelings to the back of my mind.
Stunning Pixel Art Brings The World to Life
Moonlighter has a pixel art style, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at screenshots. The amount of detail in every aspect of the presentation here is nothing short of breathtaking. This detail also applies to the animations, which account for everything from hair, to dust, and even real-time physics.
It’s absolutely gorgeous in motion, and the incredibly smooth frame rate makes everything just play incredibly well. The soundtrack was also a standout aspect for me. The music in the village is a soothing mix of piano, guitar, and string that brings to mind the masterful soundtrack in the recent Nier: Automata, which is perhaps the highest musical compliment I can pay to a game.
This is paired exquisitely with the dungeon and combat music, which is suitably faster and conveys urgency without being pushy or overly dramatic. What can I say? I absolutely loved Moonlighter. Its core gameplay loop is incredibly addicting, the graphics are gorgeous, and the soundtrack is both soothing and intense when the time calls for it.
I only wish there was more narrative to this intriguing world, but beyond that, I loved every aspect of this game. If you want something to utterly devour your free time, Moonlighter is one of the best ways you can lose it.
Final Score: 9.0/10
A copy of Moonlighter was provided to PS4 Experts for review purposes
Article by - Bradley Ramsey
Insert date - 5/29/18