Moonlighter is one of the best games you’ll play all year. Digital Sun Studios’ debut title not only effortlessly combines aspects from some of the generation’s best roguelikes, it also presents an utterly addictive loot system that will have you unleashing your inner shopkeeper long after the main game has been polished off.
The premise is deceptively simple: you play as Will, custodian of the good shop Moonlighter, and one with dreams far beyond his station. He longs to be a Hero, with the aim of conquering The Dungeons, the five ominously looming areas to the east of his hometown of Rynoka. To pay for his precarious adventures, Will goes the extra mile with every enemy he slays, every chest he opens, and every boss he bests. Hilariously, it all goes towards lining his pockets, with loot being sold to his customers through his shop. Talk about gaming the system.
The gameplay loop that you’ll find yourself stuck in for the next 15-20 hours should be tedious, but it’s not. Moonlighter keeps things abundantly fresh with several choices a player has to make on their (hopefully) profitable journey. Do you pour all of your profits into the town, upgrading it with better merchants to aid you on your quests; do you only go for the best weapons and armor so you can make your way to the end of the dungeon far more quickly, or do you go about upgrading your shop, with all the positives and negatives – thieves, more space than you know what to do with – that come with it? Eventually, you’ll get to do all of them, but it’s a genuinely tough dilemma that presents itself across the first dozen hours, and one that’ll keep you craving return trips to Rynoka.
It helps that the shopkeeping element, the place where you’ll spend most of your downtime, constantly keeps you on your toes. The player is never privy to the price of the loot they’ve swiped from each dungeon so must set the prices themselves, with each time plunging the depths of each dungeon allowing you to get a better idea of how much something should sell for. It’s a tough business – but someone’s got to do it.
There is also a fluctuating economy, with a supply-and-demand system that stops things from stagnating in-store. A four-tier emotion system, which is indicative of the game’s design philosophy of being simple, yet satisfying, keeps it all ticking along. You can instantly tell whether you’ve set prices too high or too low by the customer reactions. There’s nothing more soul-crushing than spending 20 minutes finding new loot in a dungeon only to find out you’ve sold it to a lucky customer at a fraction of the cost which, again, encourages repeat trips and “just one more go.”
In fact, dungeons take on a whole new meaning in this game. No longer is it a simple battle to get to the end, as it would be in a Binding of Isaac or a Spelunky. Moonlighter’s dungeons are always fascinating fact-finding missions: what items are in demand? What enemies drop the best loot? Even learning the patterns of a boss should you get that far, but you’ll be lucky to get anywhere near the third and final floor of a dungeon before your fourth and fifth try. By that point, you should have made enough moolah to make your experience a far less stressful one – and so the game continues in that vein.
But a roguelike (or roguelite, as termed by the developers) is nothing without its combat. Thankfully, the experience is buttery smooth. It’s one button to attack, one to hit a special move/block depending on your weapon (bows, gloves, big swords, spears, and more are available), and there’s even an infinitely useful roll move which allows you to cross gaps and give you a few frames of invincibility. While the game will break you down in the first few hours, each and every trip back to the dungeon – complemented by a risk/reward system of deciding whether you should bail via magical pendant when the going gets tough so you can get all of your wares home in one piece – will make you a better player. That’s the sign of a game (and studio) at the peak of its powers. I don’t want to bring up that game (it rhymes with Park Holes), but you definitely get that vibe from it when you finally figure out how to beat a boss that’s crushed you into the dirt the last half-a-dozen or so times you’ve come face-to-face with it.
At first, the game could have you asking “Is that all there is?” when you breeze through Moonlighter’s opening dungeon, and finding more of the same in the second dungeon. The worries that enemies in each dungeon merely being a palette-swap that take a few more hits to kill the further you go into the game will be alleviated by the time you reach the third dungeon, a harsh desert filled with fire and a frenzied end-boss. It’s credit to the team at Digital Sun studios that this is a game I’m still thinking about while writing this review and one I haven’t stopped thinking about since first picking it up. Moonlighter will take over your life – say goodbye to your family and friends for the foreseeable future – and its incessantly effective gameplay loop will burrow into your brain long after the final enemy has fallen.
The game isn’t perfect, however. If you’re not a fan of roguelikes, there’s a chance you won’t enjoy Moonlighter. Which is fine. Not every game is for every person, but it’s crucial going in that you know there isn’t a lot in the way of side content away from the core experience. The content there is, of course, is fantastic but, outside that, there’s a nagging feeling that persists where you feel more could have been done outside the town of Rynoka. The cynic in me smells the prospect of DLC, but it’s a good sign that I’m desperately craving more of the world-at-large, and would happily pay for additional content.
Lore or Less
Which leads me to the story. There isn’t much of it. You’ll often find notes dotted around by a previous adventurer and this lore eventually gets tied together in haphazard fashion in the game’s final act. Be warned: the story isn’t paramount in the game’s thoughts, and neither should it be in yours—you’ll be too busy counting coin to notice the absence of a finely tuned narrative.
During my 20 hours or so with the game, I also encountered a handful of bugs. The only major one I came across was where a customer who refused to leave my shop after the doors had been locked, the swine. This necessitated a restart which sent me back all of two minutes. There’s been nothing game-breaking, but it’s certainly noticeable when things crop up such as not being able to talk to certain townsfolk at night when the rest of the game runs like, well, a super-slick store.
Moonlighter is going to be a game you’ll pick up, play, and instantly want to tell your friends all about. It encourages discussion—how much a certain item costs, how to navigate the metagame of the increasingly tricky Resident Evil 4-style inventory system with its cursed items requiring a shuffle of your bag—and feels like, honestly, the endgame of all rogue-likes. After that, there isn’t much more the genre can hope to accomplish. It’s all here in one gloriously gratifying package that will have you coming back for more, more, and more again. An incredible dungeon crawler with a cutesy consumerist twist that’ll provide you with some of 2018’s best moments, and capital fun it is, too.
Moonlighter review code provided by publisher. Version 1.01 reviewed on a standard PlayStation 4. For more information on scoring please see our Review Policy here.