Moonlighter is an indie title that found prolific success on Kickstarter. It’s the first fully realised game to come out of the folks at Digital Sun Games, a team whose youth hasn’t hindered their vision.
Digital Sun Games is obviously a talented group. The team is armed with little but a keen eye for detail. Digital Sun Games also has a deep reverence for old school game design and one of the best logos in the industry.
The Spanish developers have turned out a game in Moonlighter that is steeped in disarming nostalgia and subtle innovations. While not quite the knockout it could have been, Moonlighter etches a place into your heart with its vibrant art, bombastic dungeons and…shop keeping?
In the quiet, vaguely whimsical village of Rynoka, a young retailer named Will restlessly struggles to carve out his place as both a shopkeeper and adventurer. Having run the local store for the better part of his life, Will’s 9 to 5 is second nature to him.
As the sun sets though, the call to adventure booms loudly to our would-be hero. His path to greater things is lit by the light of the moon. Will sets out for the local excavation site where the mysterious Gates have been unearthed.
These Gates each lead to other realms full of monsters to slay, traps to avoid and riches to plunder. It’s no surprise that Digital Sun Games have claimed inspiration from Studio Ghibli films. The central plot of Moonlighter hums with the same affirming warmth you’d find in one of its films.
It’s not just a narrative device either. Moonlighter tasks the player with successfully operating a small business and raiding dangerous dungeons. This duality leads to a remarkable level of depth.
The game’s core conceit inherently bears a glut of the mechanics to engage with. For the most part, Moonlighter manages this balancing act quite well. Despite the relative infancy of the developers, combining the best elements of two genres has also combined the worst.
Moonlighter both lives and dies on this stability.
Chop Chop Dig Dig
The sharper side of Moonlighter’s double-edged sword is undoubtedly its dungeon exploration and combat. Each of Moonlighter’s Gates opens into a randomly generated realm.
These realms have various themes that would feel right at home in a Zelda title; forest, fire etc. These realms are expansive, dangerous places that sprawl out into every direction and consist of three floors.
The deeper you go, the tougher the challenge and of course, the richer the riches. Enemies are varied and often a joy to encounter, while the loot you collect is often a mini-game in itself. Certain items are cursed with magic that directly impacts your inventory for example.
All of this is tied together with a rouge-lite core loop that is constantly challenging you to gamble your loot against your progress in the dungeon.
Your time in these realms is split between fending off hordes of aggressive beasts and pillaging for treasures. Combat is deceptively deep and rises above the mindless hacking that other games in this style can often default to.
Instead, Moonlighter delivers a system that rewards attentive play and harshly punishes anything less. Will can equip a variety of weapons that change his fighting style. I opted for some very satisfying bladed gloves.
These gloves meant I had to get up close and personal with my foes and heavily rely on the swift dodge roll. Rynoka’s blacksmith is the key who unlocks Moonlighter’s combat depths. The blacksmith provides Will with a selection of swords, spears and bows.
Will can also equip a variety of armour sets that can be mixed and matched. Switching up parts of armour can alter defensive capabilities, movement speed and more. Of course, to open up the blacksmith, Will needs to invest in Rynoka’s budding economy and that’s where all of that treasure you looted comes into play.
Managing your store in the daylight hours means truly managing it in Moonlighter. Will is able to sell anything and everything he has found the night before. Open the shop, stock the shelves, set the prices and man the counter. Townsfolk will flock in to peruse your wares and monitoring their reactions to your prices will dictate how you cost items in the future.
You also need to be ready as they expect to be served promptly when they’ve finally decided what to buy. Wisely managing the cost of items is crucial as gold, Moonlighter’s currency, will either completely make or break your experience.
Money, Money, Money, MONEY!
The old adage that money makes the world go ‘round resonates deeply here. Moonlighter heavily leans into its capitalist core. Gold is required to do almost everything. While some of those things are obvious — buy new weapons, refill potions — there are much deeper mechanics at play.
Opening up new stores in Rynoka is a relatively cheap endeavour. Once these new stores are operational, you’ll be faced with some steep costs. Essential things like damage upgrades and defensive enchantments sting especially harshly in the early game.
Gold can also be invested in your own store. It bolsters your retail operations to allow for more display units, fancier cash registers and eventually your own staff.
This economy is where Moonlighter starts to feel a little dull. It’s unfortunate given that the duality of Moonlighter’s conceit is such a marvellous endeavour. Running a retail space in-game is a cute task the first few times.
Running the shop is even better thanks to little touches in animation but after the novelty wears off, so too does the fun. There’s no apparent way to speed up the process of shoppers coming in and out. There’s also very little dynamic gameplay regarding the actual operation of the shop.
The Daily Grind
In the end, the process of selling your hard earned loot can begin to feel like a daily grind. Which, for anyone who’s worked in the retail space before probably won’t be a huge surprise. Paired with a more traditional loot grind, Moonlighter can eventually start to feel like just slightly too much work.
It’s a true credit to the game then, that in spite of the occasionally frustrating weight of it all, Moonlighter remains an unbridled delight for the most part. There’s a genuine warmth to Moonlighter’s style which often elevates what could have been a simple dungeon crawler or shop sim into something more.
The deliberately retro-inspired art direction is a wondrous little trick. It lends many of the game environments a warmth that is nostalgic and somehow refreshing. Despite exceptional execution, certain elements of the realms can feel a touch uninspired.
It’s a problem that comes from taking so directly from artistic tropes. That said, Rynoka at night is striking. Fireflies light street corners and a gentle breeze moves through the trees, all rendered lovingly in pixel perfection. Simply put, Rynoka feels alive in these moments and this allows for a kind of affection for the town that further drives at the core loop of investing in it.
Looking and Sounding Good
The soundtrack doesn’t fare quite as well but there are still some stellar moments. The first time you stumble upon a dungeon’s healing ponds in which the sound of dripping water seamlessly weaves into a soft, synthy tune is brilliant.
The writing crackles with layers of video game charm. Found in nuggets of self-aware humour, an old man literally tells you that it’s dangerous to go alone, or in the way in which NPCs repeat lines of gameplay advice to you in an infinite loop.
The balancing issues of the economy aside, Moonlighter is difficult to not invest in.
For better, and occasionally worse, the game dives headfirst into the depths that its dual mechanics provide and produces a distinctively engaging game.
The tale of Will, a man who wants so badly to rise above his station in life and achieve great adventures, will resonate with many. Paired with an addictive gameplay loop and beautiful respect for inspiring art, Moonlighter is well worth the price of admission.
Moonlighter was reviewed on PS4 using a digital download provided by the developer.
Game title: Moonlighter
An unbridled delight - 9/10
The daily grind of running the shop - 5/10
Deceptively deep combat system - 8.5/10