In recent years the indie roguelike genre has thrived, with the likes of Binding of Isaac and Spelunky being the two standouts from the many offerings that came to market. Mixing procedurally generated dungeons along with tough as nails gameplay and awesome loot-based pay-offs, creating a unique risk-reward loop that many gamers just lapped up. As the popularity in the genre grows, new developers are coming to the fore with new ideas and some interesting genre mashups for us all to enjoy. One such game is Moonlighter brought to us by Spanish developers Digital Sun, and published by the often reliable indie hit crew at 11 bit studios.
Moonlighter brings together a roguelike, Binding of Isaac dungeon crawling, and small town shop ownership and town building - mixing the dungeon diving gameplay with a really laid back, chilled Stardew Valley-esque, small shop owner gameplay. The mix of styles is initially a little daunting and your first few hours crawling dungeons will provide players with a steep learning curve. You play as the young would-be dungeon hero, Will, and you begin your adventure with a small modest shop in the small rundown town of Rynoka which is conveniently situated really close to five massive loot-filled dungeons. With many of the dungeons closed off, the village empty and derelict, Will sets out to rejuvenate the town, reopen the dungeons, drive out the many monsters that inhabit them and ultimately continue the tradition of his store and the wider town around it.
The crux of the core gameplay loop is simply to tend to your store by day, selling your wares at competitive prices and improving both your store and the surrounding town so commercially you flourish. By night, you moonlight as an epic dungeon-diving hero intent on conquering the many dungeons available within the game, all complete with secret rooms, tons of loot and varying enemies who won’t blink an eye at one hit killing you if you get too close. You dungeon crawl, loot, get out alive and then spend the next day selling all the stuff you raided the night before.
The combat element in this adventure is simple yet demanding, easy to pick up and run with yet at times really tough. No doubt people will throw Dark Souls into the mix (yawn) as the “die and you’ve lost everything you were carrying” element exists creating that edge of seat risk-reward, but really Moonlighter is its own unique beast. The controls are simple; dodge, attack, power attack and run around; there is nothing complex but by gosh it’s easy to die early on in the game. As you progress and feel your way into the game you gather enough coin to approach a blacksmith who, with a little help from your wallet, can set up shop in your town and provide you with some much needed improvements to you arsenal and your armour. In time you can also entice other such vendors to the town, again, with enough coin and for the most part they bring with them wares that will aid you on your dungeon-diving hobby. One pro tip once you have unlocked vendors is to mark aspirational gear on your wishlist as you will need both ingredients and lots of coin to be able to craft items - the wishlist feature highlights things you need for crafting so you don’t mistakenly put them all up for sale in your shop resulting in you having the coin but no ingredients.
The dungeons themselves are randomly generated and all contain many levels, tons of loot (again randomly generated) and a boss that will most likely, for the first few attempts at least, see you tearing your hair out in frustration. That said, as you perform the rinse and repeat actions required from the core gameplay you will soon be swimming in coin and able to buy that upgraded weapon, or new armour piece which will see you hang in there when fighting a boss that little bit longer than the last time. It’s in these moments of tiny power increases that brings you back and in no time you will be waltzing through a level with gay abandon whereas you previously died thirty-plus times. The dungeons don’t just include enemies to defeat, they also include hidden areas with interesting texts from past (now dead) explorers, extra loot from skeletons dotted around and even highly prized hidden loot which when taken awakes a new enemy that will hunt you down throughout the entire dungeon. The mix of randomly generated elements as well as hidden secrets and special loot make even the very first dungeon a delight to repeat over and over again.
Stylistically Moonlighter is superb, giving us a really clean old-school pixel look which is executed really well and the subtle animations littered throughout the game really bring what is essentially a simple game to life. NPCs within the game are detailed and often amusing, and the enemy variety found in the multiple multi-levelled dungeons (three and a boss) is excellent. Working your way through the dungeons never really ceases to be tense yet is always interesting and fun, and once you are back to the shop things completely relax and you become a really chilled out shopkeeper simply looking to turn a profit. The mixing of the gameplay types is really well executed and whilst you may curse your own abilities at times due to the toughness of the dungeons, if you stop and think about it, you probably should have bailed with all the good loot you had before taking on the next level, headed back to the shop, equipped a new weapon and then gone again. It’s this strategic loop that will keep you coming back for more and time flies when you are playing.
Whilst completely chill, shop ownership isn’t without its own strategic elements — any retail store manager will testify to this we’re sure. When back at your shop it’s down to you to gauge demand for items from your clients, find the right price points (done by watching client reactions), decide whether to sell or keep key upgrade ingredients as well as keeping an eye out for shoplifters. The mixture of the look, the sound and the general vibe of the store often provide a relaxed, rewarding pay-off when selling your items given how nervy and tense it can often be acquiring them. This mix of tense yet charming and then just full on chill and charming is what makes Moonlighter a unique experience.
The only real negative to level at Moonlighter is that aforementioned learning curve and the consistent difficulty in general. It’s a tough little game and requires many hours of patience to make significant headway, even with a ton of upgrades the dungeons and in turn the bosses are difficult. This is a double-edged sword as it provides players with an incentive to keep pushing onward, but it can also be a barrier to the more casual players out there.
Moonlighter is initially charming if a little difficult for genre novices, but with a little persistence it opens up and grab you. Amiable, beautiful, relaxed yet challenging with a risk-reward mechanic that can see you either fist pumping or pulling your hair out, Moonlighter is a fantastic mix of gaming styles and genres which you shouldn’t miss.
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