Mixing and matching separate genres into one game is not a new concept. Many developers have tried, some have succeeded in creating a balanced and, most importantly, fun game experience by blending at times wildly different playstyles. Digital Sun’s Moonlighter combines action RPG elements with management simulation aspects, but is Moonlighter more than the sum of its parts or should they have been sold separately?
In the beginning, you are greeted with a bit of exposition where the player gets to know the town of Rynoka, its history and most importantly the titular shop Moonlighter and its owner Will, our main protagonist. Then you are handed control of Will inside one of the towns local dungeons, where the action RPG portion of the game takes place. Armed with a broom, you fight and roll through the first few tutorialized rooms when you meet your demise, but here’s the catch: the dungeon just spits you right out. You are picked up by Zenon, who brings you to bed at the Moonlighter to rest. After teaching you how to be a shopkeep the normal gameplay loop begins and the story takes a backseat, only to be told through finding notes scattered across the dungeons.
After trying your hand at being a salesman you are given free rein in how you proceed. The town of Rynoka feels like a lived-in place, with many inhabitants around to have a word with. After exploring for a bit the absolutely gorgeous pixel style graphics are a clear contender for best of the year. The detailed environments and insanely fluid animations are phenomenal, with the art style being very unique and recognizable. All this comes together as a magnificent background for the gameplay. At the same time, the framerate stays stable the whole time, docked as well as in handheld mode.
Entering the dungeons, this time with more experience, nets you more stuff to sell at your shop. You fight enemies to progress from floor to floor, to eventually beat the boss of the dungeon to progress to a newly unlocked dungeon with a fresh environmental backdrop and new enemies.
From a mechanical standpoint, the combat is unfortunately not that noteworthy. Will’s movements can feel sluggish at times while the combined fighting mechanics can feel a bit on the simplistic side, especially at the beginning. The enemies are not the brightest bulbs of the bunch, one particularly dumb enemy type comes to mind, which can easily be overcome by just standing in the right spot and abusing its absolute lack of an urge to move while still firing away, desperate to hit you. Alas, his destiny is never to do so. Just subject him to a beating from the correct angle and you’re good.
A quick dodge roll gets you some invincibility frames, similar to Dark Souls, while your moveset is determined by the weapon you are carrying. A huge two-handed sword deals the most damage on impact and has a wide radius of attack, but the additional weight slows you down and decreases your attack frequency. This can become problematic as an attack means full commitment, no dodging out of it and no movement during strikes. In comparison, gloves are very quick but don’t hurt as much per hit and the range is catastrophic. Each of the weapon types also comes with a special move and you can upgrade your arsenal with gold and materials from the dungeon, one of the few carrots on a stick keeping you motivated.
Progressing through the dungeons, risk versus reward also comes into play. The lower the floor, the greater the loot, but the harder the enemies. If you die, you lose all your loot except for the items in your five item slots which count as being on your person as opposed to being inside your backpack.
If you’ve had enough and the looming threat of being spat out of the dungeon gets too big to handle you can just teleport out to save your hide and your collected goods. To me, this became a big factor for frustration, as the enemies often felt easy but could suddenly become overwhelming in the next room with the right numbers and too few health potions at hand, but this might as well be a product of my own greed and hubris. Additionally, if you spend too much time on a floor an invulnerable monster spawns, which would really love to put a damper on you.
If you’ve made it out of the dungeon with something to sell you can display your goods and open shop during the day. Chose an individual price for your wares and watch your potential customers browse, while they react in horror to a price worthy of an eBay scalper or cheering at the bargain of the century. Somewhere in between you need to find a sweet spot and endless riches will be your reward.
Using these funds you can upgrade your shop in various ways, get better gear or enchant your previously owned equipment. There’s even the possibility of luring additional merchants and services into town, for the right price of course.
The sound design is one of Moonlighter’s weaknesses. Overall, it just doesn’t do enough to keep the player informed of the surroundings, with many enemies and attacks being silent. Your own weapon sounds are pretty meaty though, and except for the music in the first dungeon, which became boring very quickly, the tracks were pretty solid.
Thinking about bugs, my time with Moonlighter was pretty carefree, but I encountered the same bug twice, where I couldn’t re-enter my previously opened portal to continue my current dungeon run and I had to start over. Nothing game-breaking, luckily.
After a while, Moonlighter’s hybrid design lost its novelty to me, with the combat and the shopkeeping mechanics at the game’s core is just too shallow to create a rich and engaging long-term experience. Unfortunately, the various upgrade systems in place don’t help to alleviate these issues that much. The slow roaming through dungeons with the possibility of losing all your hard-earned loot in a second can be much less fun than I hoped for and your day job in retail isn’t that entertaining most of the time. Who would have thought? Add to those minor annoyances like the cumbersome menuing, of which you’ll be doing a lot, and the somewhat dumb enemies and the delicious cocktail of genres Moonlighter set out to be turned into an aspiring barkeeper’s first, watered down experiment.