The indie scene is populated with a huge variety of games filling in the void of particular genres and styles that gamers naturally gravitate towards. Often a stellar idea is put into a playable art form that probably wouldn’t see the light of day given huge budgets put into AAA titles that aim for what’s hot at the moment, although in fairness it’s just as innovative. Meanwhile, indie developers put the same precious time into their projects expressing to the world their own vision. It’s all about heart. And indie developers are composed of many cells that keep the passion flowing throughout the industry. One such title to fuse ideas we’ve become familiar with is Moonlighter, developed by Digital Sun Games, which looks, sounds, and plays like a true passion project. Successfully funded by Kickstarter, Moonlighter evokes a sense of a nostalgia providing a Zelda-like dungeon-crawling experience with the relaxation of running a small town as a merchant finally landing on Nintendo Switch. It’s a hybrid that creates an addicting gameplay loop of management and action allowing you to choose how to progress.
You play as Will, a merchant-turned–hero-in-the-making, settled in Rynoka Village. Initially not populated due to its declining of both resources and residents — both linked to one another — Will finds himself to turn things around and make Rynoka bustling again with people as well as unique materials which are not only an attraction but also great for business. You’ll find yourself in the midst of vacant buildings and a lack of town decor, but determination will spruce things up. Much like the mystery of abandonment in the village, just outside of the village is a large worn-down house containing 1 large gateway portal needing 4 different keys in order to unlock it. What stands before it are 4 smaller portals, each leading to different dungeons. These dungeons, as deadly as they may be, hold an ancient secret. It is that reason and its trove of unique materials which have led many of Rynoka’s residents meet their end inside of them. Despite the fate of many repeated to Will by the village elder, Zenon, he chooses to ignore them and pursue on the adventure.
Dungeons open in a particular order based on if you’ve reached its end and defeated its boss so the feeling of natural progression is done quite well. Especially since there is challenge, Moonlighter provides a few different options for how you choose to play. There’s a solid chance you may not reach the end of a dungeon your first time, but that doesn’t mean it’s your doom. There’s plenty of risk vs reward given to the player. It’s also possible to get a sense of upcoming dungeons by certain rooms themed to them, allowing players to make that risk of seeing what’s in store. Your earnings and progress through the dungeons are essential in expanding Rynoka Village. In return, Rynoka’s prosperity will return the favor by using materials for both crafting new items and earning a profit by selling said materials during the day at your shop. There’s no limit to how many times you may go through a dungeon for gathering resources as the game’s roguelike nature comes into play here by having each dive into a dungeon provides a procedurally-generated layout each time.
Contained within each dungeon are elements that remain interesting enough to clean up and clear out every time. Consisting of 3 different floors with multiple rooms, each introducing more enemy types and ramping in difficulty, also hold treasure chests and secret rooms to explore for additional loot. Pressing Minus will toggle the map displaying rooms you’ve visited without pausing the action. For the most part, doors to the next room remain shut until all enemies are defeated. Navigating through every room is entirely optional and may be bypassed should you choose to enter the gate to the next floor. However, once you do there’s no going back. Whether you want to brave the next room over or are confident enough to face what’s ahead is up to you. The deeper one goes, the more they have to lose should they fail. If you die, you’ll lose most of your items with the option to either go back to town or restart the dungeon with a new layout. There’s just also way more to gain. Everything does come at a cost, though. Luckily, it doesn’t have to be your life.
Be prepared to do a lot of inventory management if you want to optimize your earnings and/or lose less. Thankfully, 3 key items you carry at all times are there to help you to never come home empty-handed. As treasure chests get looted and enemy drop their goods, you’ll notice your inventory (accessed by pressing X) quickly filling up. The inclusion of the Merchant Mirror will help you with a couple of things. If you find yourself with no more room to collect more materials, items may be dropped into the mirror to discard it and make room. There’s a benefit to this being that you earn a bit of gold as part of the exchange. The only negative is that the price is a fraction of what could be earned through selling it at your shop. Still, every little bit adds up. I found myself dropping stacks of items through the mirror and maximize the number of best loot by pushing through the most rooms I can. In fact, gold is need for most of the benefits in Moonlighter. The mirror helps you with that.
The Merchant Pendant provides a means to escape the dungeon at any time. If you’ve found yourself with enough loot for the day and perhaps want to bail since you’re low on health, ran out of potions, or just came for what you need, you can exit by paying the mirror a fixed price. The Merchant Emblem costs even more money, but it allows you to create a portal anywhere within the dungeon so you can return to it later without losing progress. Perfect for having great loot you want to sell, upgrade equipment, and then return with fresh health where you left off. If you can afford it, of course.
Additionally, certain loot may have curses on them. For instance, one item may have a curse to destroy an object in your inventory that’s to the right of it when you return to town. However, placing this item on the very right of your inventory makes it have nothing to destroy. Curses break when exiting the dungeon. Being efficient in your combat skills will allow you to clear out a dungeon you’re comfortable with repeatedly to gain the most out of your crawling of the dungeons. Combat will feel familiar, but provide enough styles to choose from without complicating things. It’s all about timing and movement.
There are weapon style variants present allowing being able to swap between two on the fly. Players can eventually choose among 5. Moonlighter kindly starts players off with two pieces of basic gear that gets the job done in the beginning: Training Sword & Shield and a Broom. The 5 weapon types are: Sword & Shield, Big Sword, Spear, Gloves, and Bow. Each style has a basic function and a secondary function. For example, while using a Sword & Shield, pressing A will attack with the sword and pressing B will guard with the shield. A Big Sword will behave differently. Pressing A will do a standard attack and pressing B will charge a spinning attack. Every piece of gear has its own stats as well. While slower, A Big Sword has higher damage than a Sword & Shield in the same class. While a Bow is weaker than a Sword & Shield in the same class, it can be fired in succession from a distance with unlimited arrows. Pressing L will swap between two weapons you have equipped. Good timing also helps out. For instance, performing an attack with a sword followed by a well-timed switch to the Bow will immediately shoot an arrow. Combos with close-range weapons can be performed as well if timed correctly. Landing the final hit to a combo will double the base damage. It’s good to know when to land that final hit or you’ll be the one taking damage instead. Enemy patterns are designed with this in mind. Do you go for the final hit or just move around like magic getting in shots when you can?
Why not both? Pressing ZL will perform a dodge. Dodging is used to roll through enemy projectiles and even directly through enemies to get behind them. Dodging is also necessary to roll over hazards such as a bottomless pit or an acid puddle, for example. Although with a keen eye and judgement, sometimes falling down a pit will reward you. There is no stamina to watch out for, but health is definitely one you’ll want to keep up. Each floor has a fountain where players can relax in and ease their weariness to regain their health, although the amount of health supplied is a particular amount for each dungeon. It’s a good idea to stock up on potions which 5 can be held at any given moment. Press ZR to drink a potion. This can also be done in the inventory.
Will is able to equip armor in 3 different slots: Head, Chest, and Feet. As with weapons, armor has its own stats and the difference between them is felt. Armor made with lighter material such as fabric will increase your speed allowing you to run faster, but lower protection than heavy armor made with iron. However, the iron armor will weigh you down thus decreasing your speed. Standard RPG stuff, but it’s implemented nicely. Take any weapon or armor type, an elemental variant in the same class will be available, but at the cost of lower physical damage. Your damage output may be a bit lowered, but something like acid damage causes a poison ailment, too. Of course, purchasing any kind of gear requires a bit more than just the gold you’ve earned. It needs the materials as well and some are more difficult to come across. Maybe holding off on selling a rare material is worth it. In the meantime, scavenging materials easier to come by and selling them can give you enough money to buy better gear to take on areas with higher stakes.
Themes including Golem, Forest, Desert, and Tech keep things fresh. Layouts will have their own identity and the enemies have new tricks in store (or not in store until you sell their parts at your store! Heh, eh, hmm). They hold a visual style of 2D Zelda and behave in patterns like The Binding of Isaac. Moonlighter is all about the grind, but it’s an addicting one. You see, every aspect ramps up to the next level. The challenge increases as well as the rewards. The cost to use either the Merchant Pendant or Merchant Emblem increases on each floor. And the base cost of them is even higher for every next dungeon. That means tackling a dungeon you’ve yet to prepare yourself for will have it in for you. Maybe you don’t have the gold to plan an escape or the best gear to endure pain as well as inflict it. This is where the relaxing pace of being a merchant in Rynoka has its perks.
It might be fair to call the shop portion of Moonlighter as being a merchant simulator, but it’s easily one of the most gratifying parts. The gameplay in Moonlighter creates quite an addicting loops and rewards your efforts. Its RPG elements says to loot dungeons and sell the goods. Except this time not to another vendor, but instead actual customers as the vendor. Only when it’s daytime can one play the role of shopkeeper. Time remains still whether it’s day or night. This allows Will to set up shop, place items to sell and price them accordingly without time passing. Once you open the doors, time slowly moves as depicted on the dial in the bottom-center of the screen. Shop closes and customers automatically leave once nightfall comes. Likewise, you can close it at anytime which also turns it to night.
Being a merchant has many moving parts to it and money is what makes Rynoka go round. Your shop starts off pretty small, only a handful of customers come in, and the kind of people to enter your shop are limited. You’ll begin by selling the most common items for a decent price to the ones with low income who can afford it. Knowing how to price your items just right can be done by seeing their reaction to an item on display depicted by a thought bubble with a face showing their emotion towards the price. Someone even disappointed by the price may still purchase the item. It’s just less likely of them to do so. Expressions range between 4 moods which can be described from best to worse as Enamored, Satisfied, Dissatisfied, and Enraged. If a price strikes a chord with customers, you may even raise the price to see where the sweet spot is before it gets too expensive for some. Moonlighter smartly incorporates a feature which is placed in its own tab your inventory which is basically an encyclopedia that documents every item you found, a description of that item, and accompanied by the 4 reactions towards the prices you gave said item. For instance, if an item had a price of 200 over Enamored and a price of 300 over Dissatisfied, then you could sell that item for more than 200 but under 300. Every dungeon has their own tab on this screen so you can find every item that belongs to their respective dungeons.
If you have enough to sell, you’ll constantly be moving. Someone making a purchase will wait in line waiting for you to ring them up for the sale. The room behind the shop is Will’s room. Items can be stored in chests. You may find yourself running back there to grab more items and place them on shelves if it’s a busy day. If not, you’ll still have to keep moving for the thieving ones. A variety of customers enter the shop. What customers are looking for are also within the bubbles above their heads. For instance, adventurers might show that they’re looking for a weapon. They’ll browse around for a while and then might leave without buying anything. Meanwhile, during that time, you can run back to your room to grab weapon from your chest, even if it’s a broken one found in a dungeon. They’re more likely to buy. Say a shoplifter entered the shop while you were back there and you didn’t see the “burglar” icon in the bubble when they entered, they always behave differently than other customers so you can spot one. Unless shop closes, they’ll always try to run off with an item. You’ll always need to beat them up by rolling into them.
As said earlier, money is involved with all kinds of improvement to your character, but it’s essential in making Rynoka grow. As you open up new dungeons, more people show up in town. Some want to settle down and open up shop. Checking the billboard in the center of town will let you know what’s available to purchase. You can’t buy armor & weapons without a blacksmith so you’ll need to purchase a smithy forge for a contractor to build one for them. Same is applied to the one with potions & enchantments. Newer items even get added to their inventory as you progress through the game. Since more people are in your town, your shop is likely to be more active with customers. New types of customers also visit such as wealthy individuals who look for something that’s to their taste. What may be sold at a fair price for a lower-class customer could be sold at a higher price. Eventually people will be looking for specific items which serve as optional quests to take. Successfully retrieving those items within or by their deadline can earn you a nice chunk of gold.
Gold is also used to improve your shop by a great deal even if the upgrades may not look like a great deal due to its price. Players can choose to upgrade the size of their shop which increases space, add more display shelves, and additional chests to store loot. Other improvements such as getting fancier cash registers will sway customers to add a tip and bigger, comfier beds that add health benefits to Will when he sleeps are certainly enticing. Maybe you wanna spend thousands of gold on a sale box, which sells a lot of items at a discount, where you will earn less, but put more items on display at once swaying the customers to buy from it at the same time. It’s all about player choice. Do you spend the hard-earned coin on character improvements or do you spend it on expanding the town you can earn more gold to spend on specific items? Or maybe you want to have enough gold to make sure you have enough materials to take back into town from a dungeon after spending a hefty amount of gold for a portal deep into a difficult dungeon? Progression is what you make of it in Moonlighter. The action within dungeons to gain the best loot and the decisions made in town pertaining to that loot, whether it be used for equipment or making a profit for growth of Rynoka is entirely up to the player. Once one gets familiar with a dungeon and enemy patterns, it makes you want you to hoard as much as you can. Seeing a customer’s face light up and then seeing your coin bag fill up due to a big purchase is certainly satisfactory.
Moonlighter is beautiful all around. The pixel art is smooth and fantastic. Its vibrant color palette and environment animation feel alive. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the composer for Moonlighter, David Fenn. The soundtrack is simply great, evoking a sense of nostalgia and adventure. The tracks played when the shop is both closed and opened are just jolly. The night rendition of Rynoka Village is calming and just as beautiful the day version, which also eases into different flavors depending on which person you’re talking to at their shop. Dungeon themes are particularly atmospheric and every floor also has their own style to it as well. The game runs as smooth on handheld as it does on the TV. The HD rumble is nice, but not innovative.