Moonlighter is a quirky indie title which started life on Kickstarter; it was lovingly crafted by the team at Digital Sun Games, before being released on PC, Xbox One, and PS4 on the 29th May 2018. The game follows the exploits of Will, the young proprietor of the eponymous ‘Moonlighter’ shop, which sits at the heart of the quiet town of Rynoka.
Will is the latest in a long line of shopkeepers, a profession which – as his kindly old mentor, Zenon, is wont to tell him throughout the game – can be surprisingly perilous. Having apparently been a friend to Will’s now-deceased parents, Zenon has taken it upon himself to act as Will’s de facto guardian, and so pops up after every boss battle to make sure he didn’t snuff it in the attempt. It’s not the most effective form of parenting we’ve ever seen, but who are we to judge?
As can be seen from the screenshots throughout this article, Moonlighter perpetuates the Video Game Industry’s resurgent love-affair with pixel art, by embracing that most diverse of styles. And it does so beautifully. The soundtrack is perfectly in keeping with both this aesthetic, and is utterly enchanting – there were times that I found myself zoning out, just enjoying the title music. Stylistically, the audio and visuals call to mind classic Zelda, which has been a clear inspiration for the game…
Moonlighter doesn’t have a storyline as such, and is more concerned with Will’s vocational goal of returning the family shop to its former glory – something he aims to achieve by repeatedly plundering each of the five dungeons which lie at the edge of town, and flogging the peculiar collection of objects he finds within. This odd little quest gives the game a slightly Pokemon-esque vibe: in place of gyms, Will has dungeons; and in place of a Pokedex, Will has his notebook – in which he records each unique items he encounters, and the price he’s able to sell them for.
The game doesn’t have the same breadth as a Pokemon game, though, as all the action takes place in the minute starting town; sadly, we don’t see Will snatch up a stick and bindle, and go merrily off on his travels. Moreover, other than the smarmy owner of a rival shop, nor is there an equivalent to Gary M*****f*****g Oak. Given the theme of the game, a little healthy rivalry from another sword-wielding shopkeep wouldn’t have gone amiss. Hopefully these points can factor into a sequel!
Shopkeeping isn’t optional in Moonlighter – it isn’t some mini-game, bolted on for the sake of flavour – it is an intrinsic part of the game. The game doesn’t have a system of experience points, and so Will’s development comes exclusively through the pursuit of better weapons and armour – which the local blacksmith will helpfully craft in exchange for coin and the necessary raw materials – i.e. whatever odds and ends Will has been able to liberate from his favourite haunts.
The best and most efficient way of obtaining coin is to work that shop floor and sell, sell, sell – and the gameplay becomes pretty formulaic as a result of this.
Ye Olde Moonlighter Formula:
- Step 1: Enter Dungeon X, kill everything that moves, and escape with as much loot as Will’s tiny, pixellated arms can carry;
- Step 2: Keep the Best (i.e. the requisite upgrade materials) and sell the Rest (who the hell is buying “plant flesh” or “insulting dust”!?), ensuring you have enough dollar bills to meet the Blacksmith’s fees;
- Step 3: Commission the Blacksmith to craft the best armour and weapons available;
- Step 4: Slay the boss in Dungeon X to unlock Dungeon Y;
- Step 5: Enter Dungeon Y, and repeat Steps 1 through 4.
It’s a simple formula, but by no means an unsophisticated one.
Whilst the retro aesthetic makes the game feel warm and familiar, Moonlighter has several unique features to remind players that it isn’t just old hat; whilst tending shop, for example, players will have to take the Law of Supply & Demand into account, as – if Will repeatedly offers the same tired selection goods to the great unwashed, his customers become bored, and he’s forced to lower his prices. To keep customers happy, you’ll have to mix it up, and take full advantage of the items available across the five dungeons.
As the game progresses, Will starts to get major props from his fellow Rynokans; taking down dungeons can be hard work, and they know it. Every time Will enters a dungeon, its layout is randomly determined by some behind the scenes magic. A series of rooms is chained together, and these form a branching path toward the doorway to the next floor. The challenge posed by the enemies Will encounters in these rooms increases with each successive floor, and culminates in the boss fight at the base of the dungeon.
The result of this procedurally generated approach is that no two dungeon runs are the same. There’s no way of knowing which items or monsters Will will come by whilst exploring; the only guarantee is that his run will end in mortal combat with the dungeon’s boss. If Will bests the boss, he gets to take home some primo loot; however, if he dies – at any point within the dungeon – he’ll drop all the items he was carrying in his backpack, never to be seen again.
Fortunately, there are some helpful nuances to the game which make Will’s life a little easier. The development team has even, quite ingeniously, made a little game out of inventory management; generally coming into play in the later stages of dungeons, this mini-game forces players to think tactically about where to place items within the backpack, as certain pieces of loot have effects which may destroy, clone, or teleport adjacent items. If done right, the most valuable items can be safely sent to a storage box at home, away from the perils of the dungeon.
Aside from the patently nefarious Zenon, the dungeon bosses are Will’s greatest adversaries. Each dungeon has a different theme – be it ‘Golem’, ‘Forest’, ‘Desert’, or ‘Tech’ – and each boss embodies the theme of its dungeon, in one way or another. The battles between Will and these bosses are very well designed, though it has to be said that some of these arcade-style encounters are markedly better than others. In the main, the game does a good job of striking a balance between challenge and contempt for the player, and as a result victories leave you with a feeling of satisfaction.
Moonlighter has all the hallmarks of a modern classic. Whilst the game makes aesthetic and thematic references to classic RPGs, Moonlighter’s simple formula is interspersed with enough quirks to keep it feeling fresh. This Kickstarted indie title has fun-yet-challenging gameplay, coupled with beautiful, stylised visuals and an enchanting soundtrack. Whilst these things make it a technically solid little game, it is the indefinable lovable quality which overarches all of this that has us yearning for a sequel. If the day ever comes, we’ll back it in a heartbeat.