Moonlighter is a uniquely crafted game that expertly merges the rogue-lite action role playing of a game like The Binding of Isaac, with the simulation role playing of Stardew Valley. Comparisons aside, Moonlighter is very much its own beast, providing one of the most addicting gameplay loops in recent memory, alongside a bevy of mechanics and ideas that feel fresh and new.
By definition, a moonlighter is somebody who works an additional job after regular, full time employment at night. This is exactly the scenario that befalls Moonlighter’s protagonist Will. Will is a young merchant for the shop called Moonlighter in the village of Rynoka, a once thriving town that was built by those intrigued by the mysterious otherworldly dungeons nearby. The Dungeons as they are called in game, are portals to constantly changing locations, full of treasures and deadly creatures. As the village grew more and more greedy to snatch up all the sweet loot that these dungeons provided, they were closed, as too many lives were being lost. With the dungeons closed, the village struggled, turning many people away. Being the desperate merchant but also the gutsy adventurer, Will explores the depths of the dungeons, to gather loot to sell at his store to help bring the people back to Rynoka, while also living out his childhood dream of traversing through the mystical dungeons. In terms of story, this is all that Moonlighter really provides. Each dungeon has notes littered throughout that further explain the otherworldly nature of the dungeons, but besides that, the story of Moonlighter is yours to make.
Introducing Will, the merchant of the Moonlighter
The gameplay of Moonlighter is split into two main parts, those being dungeon crawling and shopkeeping. Your daylight hours will be spent mainly running the Moonlighter, which involves selling the loot you have acquired from escapades in the worlds numerous dungeons. You can forgo your day work at the Moonlighter to explore the dungeons if you wish to do so, but dungeons aren’t as difficult throughout the day, leading to poorer quality of loot drops. For this reason I spent my days at the Moonlighter, and my nights in the dungeons.
Merchant by day, Loot Gatherer by night
Dungeons in Moonlighter are procedurally generated maps consisting of multiple rooms with varying enemies and types of loot to find, with the goal being to either make it to the end of the dungeon to kill the boss, or collect as much loot as possible before cleverly escaping the dungeon. As you make your way down the three floors of each dungeon on your way to the dungeon boss, you’ll spend your time engaged in combat with enemies, hacking and slashing away until the room is clear, before moving onwards to the next. For anyone that’s played 2D Zelda titles or The Binding of Isaac, you’ll know what to expect from the gameplay. You are initially awarded with a sword and shield, but you can also expect to craft and use other weaponry, such as big swords, bows, spears and gloves, all of which have their own pros and cons. Big swords for example are slow to attack with but pack a punch, while the spear allows for a greater attacking distance, at the expense of overall damage output. Enemies aren’t particularly difficult to take down, but they damage you so heavily if you aren’t cautious that death can come quickly, which isn’t ideal, as all items in your backpack will be lost. Thankfully, alongside his weapons, Will has a dodge roll that allows him to quickly evade attacks, a technique that is sure to aid you in sticky situations. The game even on hard wasn’t particularly difficult which is a shame, but I still found myself perishing on many occasions, forcing me to leave my loot behind.
Speaking of loot, there is plenty to find in each dungeon. Whether it be collected from dead enemies or pilfered from chests, you are bound to fill your backpack quite quickly. Having only 20 spaces for items leaves you with decisions to make as to what to keep and what to drop. This dilemma is further complicated when you begin to encounter cursed items, which are often rarer items that have negative effects on your inventory. Some cursed items can only be placed on the left and right hand sides of the inventory, while others may break if you take too much damage. The limited inventory space paired with the effects of cursed items leads to an interesting puzzle-game like battle when it comes to what you keep and what you leave behind.
Items collected can be sold immediately in dungeon through the use of the mirror (at a significantly reduced price), or can be held onto before leaving the dungeon. The problem is, leaving the dungeon costs a fee, unless you defeat the boss. The fee to use the pendant to leave the dungeon isn’t overly expensive, but upon returning to the dungeon, you start from the beginning. As your progress further in the opening hours, you are given another teleportation item called the catalyst, that for a far heftier sum than the pendant, allows you to go back to the Moonlighter with all your loot, before returning to where you were in the dungeon. This may appear to be a lot to take in, and it kind of is, but the premise is simple enough that it doesn’t take too long to understand what you need to do every time you go to the dungeons. At the end of the day it’s up for you to decide whether you want to play it safe and spend the gold required to leave the dungeon once you have enough loot, or progress further into the unknowns of the dungeon to defeat the boss and/or find better loot. It’s a savagely addicting cycle, but the constant decision making during each run leads to dungeons never feeling overly stale.
Dungeons are both pretty to look at and a joy to traverse
As mentioned previously, when you aren’t trying to defeat the bosses of dungeons and collecting and managing the copious amounts of loot you gather, you’ll spend your time selling your wares as the merchant of the Moonlighter. Selling items at the Moonlighter is a simple affair of placing your items on your sales tables, and pricing them at a price you deem appropriate for the item, however it’s a far more intricate system than that. The reaction of shoppers to the price tag of the item serves as a gauge as to whether an item is worth its sales price or not. If a customer is happy with the price, a simple happy face will appear above their head, and they will grab the item for you to complete the purchase, where as a disheveled sighing face will appear if the item is too expensive, causing them to look around for something else to buy or leave the store entirely.
If an item is priced too cheap, they’ll gleefully exhibit a coin-eyed emote, while if the item is slightly overpriced, they’ll display a reluctant emote, leading to the item being purchased, but the demand of the item decreasing overall. The key to selling items in the Moonlighter is to slap a price on something and see how the consumers react. The shopkeeping mechanics feel particularly interesting and enjoyable, and even after 20-30 hours of gameplay the process of pricing items to find a ideal price point feels refreshing and unique. Not going to lie though, seeing a customer glow with excitement after laying their eyes upon a great deal is heartbreaking, but it also puts you in good stead to better estimate your price the for the next time.
Another Happy Customer
In the small periods where you aren’t shopkeeping or looking for loot in dungeons, time can be spent breathing life back into the village of Rynoka. Upgrades for both the town and the Moonlighter can be purchased for gold at the town bulletin board. Upgrades for the town come in the form of staff, who once purchased, set up their own stores in Rynoka. Shops that can be purchased include an armory that allows you to buy armor and weapons in exchange for gold and materials, as well a potion shop that allows for health potions and stat upgrades for armor and weapons to be purchased. You can even buy another retailer similar to the Moonlighter that also sells loot found in the dungeons, meaning that if you’re too lazy to journey out to find a specific material required to craft a better sword, you can simply purchase it from the store. Be wary though, it’ll cost you a pretty penny. These upgrades are essential to building up your character, and they also aid in helping Rynoka appear like a living and breathing town.
You can also spend your hard earned merchant money on upgrades for the Moonlighter. There are small store upgrades such as purchasing a better chest to expand the stores inventory space, or buying a better cash register which leads to customer tips, but there are also more extreme upgrades, such as levelling up the entire store. Levelling up the Moonlighter costs a considerable amount of money as to be expected, but they are worthwhile investments if you want to be making money at a faster rate. Upgrading the store leads to the expected increase of inventory space and tables to place items, but it also leads to new mechanics being implemented altogether. The first expansion allows for the Moonlighter to be decorated with special items that buff the store, such as 10% longer open times, as well as the ability for the moonlighter to receive customer commissions. In regard to the commissions, customers make a request instore for a certain resource, offering you a hefty chunk of cash, so long as you meet their demands within a set amount of in-game days. Upgrades are essential to progression in Moonlighter, and thankfully they feel particularly rewarding.
Upgrades for the town and the Moonlighter can be purchased at the bulletin board
I’m not sure if it was just a coincidence or not, but my first upgrade also introduced me to thieves, who attempt to pose as would-be customers, before deviously running off with whatever item they get their grubby mitts upon. This initially took me by surprise, as I saw a suspect looking individual run off with some crystals that were netting me a pretty decent sum of gold. Once thieves are in play, managing the store becomes a tad bit more stressful, especially considering the amount of money the items begin to sell for as you reach the later dungeons. Overall, the upgrades in Moonlighter feel extremely rewarding and exciting, as they don’t just net you inventory upgrades, but new gameplay mechanics also.
Thieves are always trying to nab your most lucrative products
Despite the sheer amount of positives that Moonlighter brings to the table, it does have a few minor issues. One of my biggest faults with the game is the hitboxes of the enemies present in the dungeons. As I progressed through the game, my main weapon setup was the sword and shield combo, however, despite clearly slicing away at an enemy, my hits didn’t seem to register. Most of the time this wasn’t an issue but on a few occasions I went in for the killing blow, only to be rejected and dealt a heavy blow of damage instead. I also wish there was more of a narrative present throughout Moonlighter. I was as enthralled as Will was to see what lay behind the 5th door of the dungeons, but I did find myself wishing there was more of a narrative reason for rebuilding the town of Rynoka and the Moonlighter, although I’m probably being a tad nitpicky.
At the end of the day though, Moonlighter is a truly brilliant title that I find myself extremely addicted to and enamored by. The constant trade off between delving deeper into dungeons or cutting your losses with the loot you have is a consistently intense and thrilling experience, and even when you get too greedy and die in the dungeons, the loss of all your loot only seems to inspire another journey. Despite the seemingly overwhelming depth in each of the games core mechanics, the game almost never feels overbearing and difficult to comprehend. The fact that Moonlighter can both feel mechanically deep and simplistic at the same is a testament to the games design. Pair the addictive gameplay loop of collecting and selling loot, with a brilliant pixel art style and an alluring soundtrack, and you’re left with one of the most satisfying games of recent memory. Moonlighter is available now on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC, with a Nintendo Switch version slated for release in the near future.
Huge thanks to 11 bit studios for a Steam code of Moonlighter.