"It was a pleasant surprise to find such diversity in the gear and see how it can be tailored to each player's style."
It is evident that the roguelike is a fun mold for developers; the gameplay lends itself to any number of themes, each with their own mechanical tweaks, rendering one quite different from another. However, it can also become quite repetitive, as players are forced into the same situations again and again to improve their hub and progress even further. Digital Sun has taken a lot of what they have likely known and loved from games over the years and packed it into their lush Kickstarter-funded take on the genre, Moonlighter.
Will is a young merchant and would-be hero from the dusty, near-dead town of Rynoka. We catch up with Will in one of the "Dungeons," a strange collection of, well, dungeons that mysteriously appeared years ago, inspiring adventurers from all over to delve their depths in search of riches and glory. Typically, heroes push into the more challenging dungeons, the Forest, Desert and Tech Dungeons, whilst merchants are relegated to the easiest, the Golem. Within these labyrinths, various artifacts can be retrieved from battle with the Guards, then sold for gold. Enter the Moonlighter, the oldest shop in Rynoka and Will's family business handed down to him by his now dead parents. Business, however, has dried up; too many deaths in the dungeons has caused all but the Golem to be closed to the public. If there are no heroes plunging into dungeons, bringing back artifacts for coin or seeking out the secrets of the mysterious 5th Door, what's a curious merchant to do? Go in and do it himself!
Will's first foray into the Golem Dungeon, armed with naught but his broom, thrusts players into the action and provides a tutorial of Moonlighter's basic roguelike mechanics. The controls are smooth, handling the relatively fluid action well. As the game progresses, it becomes clear that skill matters as much as equipment, if not more. Most foes can be felled with even the most basic equipment, provided players have the ability, time and patience for the undertaking. The fact that proficiency is rewarded makes the battle system much more engaging; players are forced to stay aware, as even with the best equipment, a few simple oversights can easily end in disaster and see them jettisoned from their delve. What's more, skill progression is built subtly into gameplay, as basic Guards prepare players for the multitude of skills the final boss of the dungeon, known as a Guardian, will wield in the last chamber. Coupled with clear pattern recognition, this makes battles against the Guardians a highlight, and emerging victorious feels incredibly satisfying. It is disappointing to learn, though, that defeated Guardians cannot be encountered again, which hampers post-game fun and rare item hunting. However, Digital Sun has promised a secret boss in future updates, which will likely be just as rewarding.
After the overwhelming tutorial fight, Will is unceremoniously spat from the dungeon (get used to this), where he is found by old man Zenon, the classic guide figure, who returns him home for healing, brief exposition, and a very obvious nod to one of the title's inspirations, The Legend of Zelda. The story is sparse, offering just enough to motivate Will to go back to the dungeons as he focuses on opening the mysterious 5th Door. The tale develops in small bits from notes found in dungeons, then loads it all in at the game's resolution with an oddly casual tone that falls a bit flat. Still, while there is little to this tale, it was more than I expected from a roguelike and could spell further adventures in Rynoka down the road.
From there, players are introduced to the shopkeeping component through Zenon, who barely explains the basics before leaving them to their own devices. Players gain access to their inventory, calendar and merchant's notebook. That last one is a handy item that is integral to the mercantile side of the game, tracking the value and lore of artifacts. From this point on, much of the shop managing portion of the game is trial and error (again, this is something Digital Sun has plans to rectify in future updates). Tending shop boils down to guessing an object's value and then hoping for a sale. Thankfully, patrons are somewhat forgiving as they browse Will's wares, using emoticons to denote their satisfaction or displeasure with the prices, allowing players the chance to adjust accordingly. While minding the shop mostly entails standing around watching the reactions of clientele and restocking goods, Digital Sun has thrown a few surprises into the system to keep players on their toes, such as thieves, who become a common occurrence and need to be watched carefully else they make off with an expensive artifact! From sunup to sundown, the shopkeeping experience is stimulating enough, and it can sometimes be a welcome break from the constant fighting in dungeons, as players listen to the satisfying clink of gold enter their moneybags.
Armed with a better weapon and knowledge, players begin the repetitive task of plunging into the Golem Dungeon and the others beyond to defeat foes, collect as many artifacts as they can, then hopefully return to the surface alive to sell their goods. Dungeons are randomly generated with each visit, though they always contain three floors, each of which always houses a hot spring that heals Will (with finite use). Most rooms are homes to enemies, and sometimes chests as well. While chambers offers no puzzles, the artifacts in chests do. Sometimes items in chests will have one of a variety of "curses;" some items can only be placed in a certain row or column in your inventory, while others will delete an adjacent artifact upon returning home. It is a fresh take on the inventory management system that discourages some of the mindless loot grabbing endemic of the genre, forcing players to really weigh their choices instead. Plus, as players learn to manipulate the curses, certain ones can even be a boon! The map reveals as players progress, making note of rooms where chests, hot springs and secrets were found, and also where enemies remain. Ultimately, players meet up with the Guardian at the bottom of a dungeon or use a special pendant to escape to the surface with a bag full of artifacts. Should players die in a dungeon, all of their hard work is undone, as anything that is not in the inventory's top row falls out. Using the pendant situationally costs varying amounts of gold, and it initially only allows Will to leave (though this is quickly expanded upon and allows for longer expeditions). If money is an issue in a dungeon, players gain the Merchant's Mirror early on, allowing the conversion of goods to coin, though for far less of a premium than shop sales. In a pinch, to afford a portal home or make more space for quality goods, it is a useful and necessary tool. Knowing when to retreat is essential to this game, as it is to any roguelike; greed will get the better of Will if players overdo it. Furthermore, lingering on a floor comes with its own penalty and can catch players off guard if they do not move on in a timely fashion.
When business is good, Will can earn a great deal of gold, which can be spent on the third major component of Moonlighter: restoring Rynoka! Players can invest their hard-earned income into improving the hub town in two different ways: opening other shops or improving the titular Moonlighter. Adding other businesses opens more options for money spending and artifact use, like crafting weapons and armour to raise Will's stats, acquiring various potions, or even getting beneficial decor. The Moonlighter's upgrades allow for additional decorations and inventory, more space to sell goods, and eventually a helper who can tend the shop while players go for another delve. Players can also upgrade things like Will's bed for better healing or the cash register to earn higher income. The hub town provides many distractions to keep players invested beyond the simple hack and slash mechanics that dungeons offer. The inclusion of these simple customizations to the Moonlighter and Rynoka can facilitate a variety of playstyles for each playthrough.
Further versatility can be found in the five different weapon types and three sorts of armour arrangements. Each of the weapon trees diverge in two directions: one that focuses on damage output and one that adds status ailments. Beyond the first status ailment that seems to stun enemies, the others do damage over time and, unfortunately, more or less seem the same with a different symbol and colour flash. The different armour pieces can be combined as players wish but fall into three distinct families as well: one suited to lighter defense and faster mobility, a balanced set, and heavier gear prioritizing health and protection at the cost of speed. It was a pleasant surprise to find such diversity in the gear and see how it can be tailored to each player's style. Adding the fact that Will can have two different weapons equipped, and switch between them on the fly, players can form combinations best suited to them. All of these upgrades are achieved through spending substantial amounts of coin and acquiring specific artifacts. While this crafting system is neat and gives some worth to a few of the artifacts beyond fodder for sale, it seems a little underutilized. The blacksmith uses the system well with its armour and weapon recipes, but the magic shop crafting is uninspired. Some of the artifact descriptions even make specific references to their potential use in potions, then go unused for any sort of alchemy; it's disappointing and a missed opportunity that, if rectified, could further open up the customizability in the game.
Moonlighter's style certainly does not suffer from all these moving parts. The sprite work from David Aguado and his team is beautifully rendered, with bouncy models full of life and detailed environments for Will to battle through. Specific NPCs, like Zenon or the shopkeepers, have gorgeous portraits that appear when conversing, which really brings the characters to life in this vibrantly coloured world. Another nice touch is each armour piece changes Will's attire, while weapons look as they do in the inventory, with an added flash and particle effects if they inflict status ailments. The fluidity of the animation is a match for the responsive controls and the visceral strikes of many of Will's foes. Enemy designs are mostly unique, with only the occasional palette swap, and many have dynamic animations as their attack patterns vary. The art direction is a definite draw to this title, enchanting the eye with each step into the dungeons.
Equally satisfying is David Fenn's plucky soundtrack, which is full of dynamic twists integral to keeping the repetitive gameplay fresh. Dominated by gentle guitar and delicate piano, Rynoka's theme offers a reprieve from the mysterious music occupying the dungeons. The wonderful touch of dynamic themes for each of the shops is delightful, too. As players approach, say, Vulcan's Forge, the melody stays the same but the instrumentation changes to metallic percussion and hefty horns, emphasizing the smithy's strength. Dungeons also boast their own melodies with added dynamics that occur on each floor, building on the theme as Will adventures deeper. The tension swells as the danger increases, moving from curious exploration to the struggle against more difficult foes. Even with the unified melodies between floors, the altered instrumentation and variations keep the music interesting. David Fenn's compositions bring Rynoka and the various dungeons to life, meshing perfectly with the aesthetic of Moonlighter's design.
This is a solid roguelike with enough action to keep folks coming back for more, especially as the developer continues to freely update and add improvements to the game. It plays relatively quick once players get the hang of it, and I could definitely see it becoming a fun title for speedruns or challenges that limit gear and the like. Though it comes with some bugs, ample load times when entering or leaving a dungeon, and an English localization that shows some evidence of the developer's Spanish roots, Moonlighter presents well. While some may shy away from the repetitive formula, I am certain fans of the roguelike genre will find a lot to play with in Moonlighter. That being said, the scant story is not so demanding that players need commit fully to it in one continuous playthrough. Thus, Digital Sun has developed Moonlighter into something that feels as timeless as its role models and will welcome back players delve after delve.
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.