In the age of the Milennial, even games have 2 jobs.
Moonlighter is an indie rogue-lite that was released in May 2018 to reasonable popularity and acclaim, standing out from the crowd with its shopkeeping mechanics. With a new DLC pack that came out this year and having been given away for free on the Epic store, this game is attempting to regain some of its earlier popularity. Does it belong on the top shelf, or was it made for the bargain bin?
The primary activity in Moonlighter is exploring 2D Zelda-esque dungeons armed with 4 different styles of weapons and a dodge roll. After each expedition, you can sell the items you loot from enemies and chests at your shop, the eponymous Moonlighter. The game is very forgiving in that even if you fall in the dungeon, you may keep 5 items from your inventory, so you always have a source of income. The main challenge is balancing your greed; you can leave a dungeon at any time for a small cost, or you can risk your loot and delve deeper into a dungeon.
The dungeon crawling is enjoyable on the surface, but each run feels very similar to the last. You are capped by your equipment, so there is a need to grind for upgrades. Then you can clear the dungeon quite easily. Enemies do vary between dungeons; however, the limited amount of combat options makes everything blur into one. Loot management is important but time-consuming; some items are cursed and have to be stored in a way that prevents their curses from biting into your profits. Sometimes dungeon rooms can become awful deathtraps that single-handedly end your run with the right combination of enemies, floor hazards and a mimic chest. Other times, bosses leave you unsatisfied by being straight up too easy or encouraging slow, tedious strategies.
After you leave the dungeon, you have to sell your loot at your shop and/or use it as crafting supplies. The premise is very promising, there is a lot of room to roleplay. I liked to price an item super cheap to lure in customers and then raise the prices to the maximum, like some sort of tempting online storefront looking for a sizeable market share.
However, once you find a price that customers are happy with, there is no real reason to ever change it. This is because you will always probably have plenty of money. Unless you die every run and never cut your losses. Despite never selling the rarest boss loot and dying from overconfidence a fair few times, I could buy most items as soon as I unlocked them thanks to over-generous income-boosting shop decorations.
Moonlighter does have a story, but you could be forgiven for not knowing about it. You are a boy called Will, and you have a shop, and… yeah… go be a hero! Your old uncle tells you not to explore the dungeons, but he doesn’t know that it is a dungeon crawler video game, so ignore him. By spending money on upgrade, you grow your little town and make the locals happy, like in the Disney movie Cars but with no cars. Kachow.
The bare bones narrative is completely disjointed from gameplay. You can ask your uncle why your parents are dead and there is some lore to read, but just cracking open a book every couple of hours is a much more satisfying experience. I’ve been enjoying Haruki Murakami recently, if you want a recommendation.
Sunshine? Moonlight? Good Times? Boogie?
All of the above?
In terms of positives for the game, the main gameplay loop is inherently gratifying. Learning to deal with enemies and finding new loot felt like meaningful progress and there were plenty of new things to unlock. Complexity increased steadily, but soon plateaued to a comfortable level and you have to know what you are doing in order to progress (with the exception of one or two bosses). Gauging prices and managing your own little shop is fun and relaxing. I really got into character as an overly chipper clerk, running over to help patrons carry the heavy sheet metal they had picked out.
On the other hand, the game has a lot of seemingly useless features that do not provide any benefit. For example, there is a sale box to throw unwanted items into, but you can just sell them cheaply on the shop floor. Or just sell them for regular price and maximise those profits. Similarly, many of the shop decorations did not offer any noticeable benefit. You can increase the amount of time customers will queue for, but I never had an issue with impatient customers. Additionally, the game would occasionally lag and have some issues with transitioning scenes, but was generally bug-free.
To summarise, Moonlighter is a pleasant but forgettable game. A tasty little snack that most people will like, a crunchy ready salted crisp, but not something you will ever dwell upon unless you get your kicks from writing reviews like me. The shop management feature cannot hope to match the personality of Enter the Gungeon, the cheerful randomness of Rogue Legacy or the replayability of Nuclear Throne; it is missing a true defining feature. There is a yawning inevitability behind its core mechanics; eventually you will max out your gear, figure out a boss’s three attacks and beat the game. It’s the sort of game you can beat in a weekend while catching up on podcasts. Whether or not that is a recommendation is up to you to decide.