Moonlighter ($11.99). A store, a story, a legacy, a game. First announced on mobile at GDC last year, it has finally been released. Part dungeon crawler, part shop manager, it is entirely fun. Players follow Will, proprieter of the Moonlighter, as he gathers materials for his shop, crafts weapons, potions and enchantments, and enters dungeons to find fame, fortune, and just maybe learn a little more about them.
While a shop simulator and a dungeon crawler are distinctly different, they are both RPGs, and it isn’t surprising that they blend together well. In a dungeon crawler you will frequently find junk items that serve no purpose other than to fill your all-too-limited inventory, forcing a decision between holding them until later for some coin or discarding them now in hopes of filling that space with something more useful. Some dungeon crawlers will allow you to turn those junk items into enchantments, or gems, or perhaps even crafting them into better equipment. Others try to limit or completely remove the trash with filters, or automatically smelting it down… but, inevitably, some gets through.
Shop management games, on the other hand, have to get their merchandise somewhere. Most of the time raw materials are simply… conjured up from the base code to be turned into useful items. Once in a while, though, you can buy rare or interesting components from adventurers for much more expensive products. The question, however, is what if you combined these two genres? What if you could crawl dungeons for materials to craft, and so have a bit of action; then, when you return to town, what if you could create the useful items—weapons, armour, potions, enchantments and such—and sell the junk? Well, then you would have Moonlighter.
While the game is named after the shop, the balance between managing the Moonlighter and trawling dungeons for loot and boss fights is quite reasonable. That said… it is easy to spend too much time doing one thing, focusing on one part of the game, which makes the inevitable return to doing whatever you were avoiding much more painful. Beating up monsters is fun, for example, but if you aren’t aware of which materials are worth selling later, which ones are needed for better equipment, and which ones can safely be consumed for gold to escape the dungeon, sorting everything later when customers are piling through your front door can be rather stressful. Alternatively, if all you want to do is sell loot, you’re going to run out pretty quickly. Balance is key.
Ignoring all that, though, the dungeon crawling is rather fun, if simple. There are only so many enemy types in each dungeon, and it doesn’t take a strategic genius to figure out how to safely clear a room without taking damage. Sure, there are weapons with unique status effects, but why would you use that when you could opt for a bigger stick instead? Death, after all, is the best status effect, and no amount of stun chance or burn chance or poison chance applies death faster than just having a bigger stick to clobber stuff with. Bosses (and by bosses, I mean the Guardians at the end of a dungeon, not the mini-bosses at the exit of each floor), on the other hand, are a different story. They have radically different attack patterns, significantly more health, and unique rewards. Taking them on isn’t easy, although making sure your equipment is up to snuff makes a big difference. Yet even against bosses, status effects are less effective than just having a bigger stick and better armour.
After you’ve tired of beating up on mobs, or after a guardian has tied your sword in knots and tossed you out, it’s time to sell all the stuff accumulating in your backpack. While any item can be listed for any price, each has an ideal price range, dependant on your reputation, at which people are happy to buy it. Below that, and you’re “losing” both money and reputation; just above it, people will buy it, but they won’t be happy. Too far above the ideal range, though, and not only will the item not sell, anyone who takes a look at the product will get angry, leave early, and significantly hurt the Moonlighter’s reputation. Unfortunately, figuring out what that price range is is rather tedious, and it isn’t unusual to slightly undervalue (by not more than about a hundred gold, usually) an item. Worse yet, that perfect range can change with your reputation. Meaning, eventually each and every item you sell will have to be revisted and have its price adjusted. Ugh. That said, after you nail the price, selling chest after chest of items for tens of thousands of gold pieces is incredibly satisfying.
While the story isn’t exactly a heartrending tale of loss and love, betrayal and found friendships… it isn’t boring either. The premise is short, and sweet: Will wants to be a hero, but he also has a business to run. Along the way, he learns more about the dungeons and why they are here. Other than a brief introduction and periodic chats with Zenon, your old mentor, narrative is delivered via notes found on dungeon floors and journal entries from Crazy Pete, an adventurer obsessed with finding a deeper meaning in the depths. There’s also flavour to be found by chatting with the villagers, and sometimes dead adventurers yield equipment and a little more background information, but… well, that’s about it.
Much more impressive is the art and music. Artistically, Moonlighter uses a blend of colourful pixel art for gameplay and something a little more stylish for cutscenes and such. Each dungeon delivers a distinct aesthetic, with a unique soundtrack for that little extra something. The combination is delightful, and I thoroughly enjoy it. I do, however, have but one complaint: The warning animation on enemies. You see, it isn’t consistent. Sometimes attacks trigger just before the yellow flash, other times during it, and still others immediately after. It doesn’t even necessarily seem to be consistent among enemies of the same type—I’ve been hit by attacks that I had just dodged because the timing had changed! It’s really quite annoying, and I can’t help but think it’s a bug.
Despite that, it is very fun to play. Controls are dead simple: Tap to move (although there is an option to use a virtual joystick instead), swipe to roll, and tap an enemy to designate it as a target to attack. In addition, there are buttons to swap weapons, a special attack, potions, inventory, a map, and a pendant to escape the dungeon scattered along the edges of the screen. They have really done a great job porting to mobile, and it could easily be mistaken as a mobile-first game. However… I can’t help but wish to play it with a controller. As of this writing, controller support isn’t available however, prior to release, the PS4 controller I tested was detected, and was not entirely nonfunctional, lacking only some rather important bindings (such as exiting the pause menu, and attacking). Hopefully this will be added in the future.
I said it before, and I meant it: Moonlighter is a great game. It feels good to play, the soundtrack is great, and all my complaints are really quite minor. It is an interesting blend of dungeon crawler and shopkeep simulator, something not really delivered by other games that I have found. As a mobile port, it is excellent. Recommending it is easy, however with a twelve dollar price tag, it isn’t something everyone can or should pick up without second thought. Nevertheless, if you’re on the fence and have previously enjoyed games from both of the genres it pulls from, it’s definitely worth a shot.