Moonlighter sells itself as a rogue-lite action RPG with shop management mechanics and some of the most beautiful pixel art around. It’s a frustrating game to review because it both succeeds and fails in many places making it difficult to prioritize what works and what fails. But either way, Moonlighter is a game with a lot of heart and a lot of problems.
What a Wonderful World
If you’ve looked at screenshots you already know the single, objectively incredible thing about Moonlighter and that’s the artwork. I don’t usually linger on visual art in reviews but Moonlighter has some of the best pixel art I have ever seen. The animations are smooth, the particle effects during certain boss attacks left me speechless, and the attention to detail is, simply put, incredible. There were these small moments, a cat stretching in the town square, or just the odd realism of the gelatinous slimes that just made being in the world of Moonlighter a magical experience.
Additionally, there are five dungeons in Moonlighter and each one has its own distinct feeling, making the adventure into each new area feel significant. I mention this up front because it made many of the nitpicks I’m going to talk about way more manageable.
How to Run a Cost-Effective Store
Moonlighter follows the tale of Will, a shopkeeper who secretly aspires to explore the town’s abundance of dungeons and become the hero who revitalizes the town. The game emphasizes that you’re not a warrior, you’re a shopkeeper and to reinforce that, shopkeeping is a major part of gameplay. If you’ve played Recettear, you can skip this section of the review, it’s pretty much the same but without a lot of the depth.
For the rest of you, you start Moonlighter in a rather small mom and pop shop. You have a few display cases where you can put the items you find in dungeons up for sale. You pick a price and open your store. Potential customers, each with their own buying habits, come and pursue your wares. If they find something they’re interested they’ll look at the price.
If you priced it too high, they’ll put it down or buy it with a fair amount of indignation and other customers will be less likely to buy that type of item in the future. If it’s priced correctly, then you’re made in the shade. Finally, pricing low enough to be a bargain will increase popularity.
There’s your basic crash course for a good 80% of shopkeeping. Later on thieves will try and steal your wares (if you roll into them you can stop them.) You can also buy upgrades for the shop such as expansions, tip jars, and a bargain bin. These mechanics try to keep things fresh but, alas, fail miserably. Shopkeeping is way too simple. As I mentioned before, other games have done better and I was not impressed by Moonlighter’s effort in this regard though the idea itself is charming.
The Hero of the Town
In addition to shopkeeping, Moonlighter also makes use of a basic town management mechanic to track your progression. When you start out, your store is the only one in town. As you make money you can attract different vendors such as a potion brewing witch or a blacksmith. These open up gameplay by giving you access to better gear or life-saving potions, and even decorations to put up in your store. However like every other mechanic, town management feels a bit simplistic. It’s decent but they should have gone further.
Will the Warrior
With shopkeeping already feeling a bit like a Recettear-lite, it’s important that Moonlighter gets the other half of gameplay, the dungeon crawling, right. And in a basic way, it does. But stick with me.
You could probably gather this from looking but Moonlighter is very Zelda-esque. It has the same top-down action mechanics that get associated with the series’ 2D installments with four directions to face and eight directions of movement. There’s a powerful dodge roll which mitigates damage from all sources, and the default weapon is a sword and shield that feel very familiar.
That’s a good thing. Fundamentally speaking, the combat is good though the hitboxes occasionally felt wonky to me, especially in the third dungeon. Movement is fluid, the dodge roll feels nice. There are a few types of weapons from a bow to claws and even a spear. It’s a nice touch that allows you to explore your options based on what your goal is for that particular journey. The framework for dungeon-crawling is good, the enemy design is good, varied and challenging so what’s my problem?
Level Design a Slime Could Understand
Let me tell you about every dungeon in the game. Every dungeon is a series of interconnected, nearly identical rooms with different pitfalls and enemy arrangements. There are three floors in every dungeon and a healing fountain just before you reach the door to the next level. At the end of the floor, you’ll fight a boss. This is the same. Every time in four of the five dungeons. It’s very repetitive.
As a rogue-like, at some point, the dungeon will reset which means you’ll be spending a fair bit of time retreading very familiar territory. Once you understand the structure of the dungeons, you can abuse it badly. You can entirely circumvent exploration to race down to the lowest point in the dungeon, fight the boss, move on. There are no puzzles or anything to solve. Just the ever-the-same formula each run.
I want to be clear – initially, this is not a problem. The variation in enemies is more than enough to make each delve into the procedurally generated dungeons feel fresh but occasionally the game will put a wall between you and some sorely needed gear and you need to farm an enemy. This is when the monotony of the level design becomes an issue. Farming sucks because it is the action of doing the same thing repetitively. Anything that exasperated that feeling is a mistake in my eyes. I was searching for some variation but there’s none to be found. That’s a problem.
You will notice that this review is coming out a month after the game. Well, it’s not because I’m a lazy reviewer. I was using my Steam controller and in the middle of the third dungeon, I stopped being able to scroll through menus. I tried using the keyboard, restarting the controller, reinstalling the drivers, fussing with the game files, nothing worked.
I’ve been waiting for a fix this entire time and finally, I got it a few days ago when the 1.5 patch was released. I’m not really even sure what the issue was but it left a bad taste in my mouth. The developers seem to be updating the game on a regular basis and ironing out a lot of bugs. There’s my obligatory disclosure. Moving on.
Should you buy it?
I like Moonlighter in an irrational way. When I look at it I do the equivalent of going “OO shiny!” But that doesn’t mean it’s a good game. That’s what’s frustrating. It does everything decently but I can think of other games that do those things better. Recettear has better shopkeeping. Stardew Valley has a tighter reward loop. Any Zelda clone off the street can do what Moonlighter does with combat. It’s just so damn, average.