Your next Switch adventure awaits.
There’s something powerful about the ability of a handheld console to transport you into a game’s world. Pokemon, Animal Crossing: New Leaf, Persona 4: Golden – their captivating worlds all immediately open for adventure wherever you are with a flick of a power button. It’s fitting, then, that the enticing realms of Moon Hunters can now be dived into from the Nintendo Switch. The only pity is how technical issues threaten to rip you straight back out again.
After seeking refuge in one of several tribal villages scattered across the world of Issaria, the hero of Moon Hunters discovers that the moon has failed to rise. As the origin of magical energy throughout the world, this is both a literal and figurative astronomic disaster. You have only five short days to travel, fight monstrous creatures spawned by disorder and solve the mystery of the moon’s absence.
Every journey through the procedurally-generated lands is different. After choosing from one of seven character classes you can explore in whichever direction you see fit. With only enough time to visit one main region per each of your five days, however, the way in which you spend time is crucial. No longer than an hour and a half later you’ll reach the adventure’s conclusion, heavily influenced by the decisions you made along the way.
More than merely the locales you visit, it’s the actions you take and how you conduct yourself in dialogue which shapes each playthrough. At night you can stargaze to boost your intelligence and faith stats, or hunt for strength and stamina. Many characters and scenarios you meet will present choices, the consequences ranging from stat modifiers and entertaining story arcs to personality renown. Bustle through with heroic bravado and you’ll become prideful and brave; personate self-centered malice and you’ll develop cunning and vengefulness. In a circular fashion, your traits influence how others treat you and the future actions you can take.
The dialogue and story are beautifully written, though veer towards the cheesy side of high fantasy at times. It’s Moon Hunters’ visuals and music which truly draw you into its setting. In spite of their random generation, the distinct biomes of Issaria are crafted with stunning, vibrant pixel art which beautifully straddles the line between detail and abstraction. It’s an unforgiving, unwelcoming world, littered with ruins, deadly arenas and savage predators. This is echoed by a haunting soundtrack, evocative of peril and despair. The juxtaposition of bleakness and stylish charm reminded me of Guacamelee and Severed – no small compliment, coming from a rabid fan of DrinkBox Studios’ output.
Combat is a simple affair involving a few key abilities, upgradeable over the course of a run using ‘opals’ dropped by enemies. You’ll quickly settle into familiar successful attack patterns after getting to grips with your class, but the short runtime and emphasis on replayability with different classes saves from repetition setting in. Another side effect of a condensed duration is that progression is satisfyingly accelerated far beyond that of a typical action RPG.
What sours the experience is a disappointing amount of technical issues. These range from trivial dialogue and visual inconsistencies to chronic performance hitches. At release, the game suffers from pronounced slowdown and stuttering which threaten both the life of your character and the immersion of your real self in equal measures. Kitfox Games have promised they’re working on a fix – if this happens, you can consider my already positive recommendation to be even stronger.
There are many ways to play Moon Hunters, but some are arguably better than others. Grasping it portably is a subjectively more delightful way to experience the game, the Switch’s small, sharp screen flattering the lovely pixel art. You can play co-operatively with up to three other players, which works well mechanically but loses its sense of bittersweet isolation along the way – something to try after at least one solo run.
With a multitude of plot variations and endings plus persistent unlocks and character stories told through ‘constellations’, Moon Hunters begs to be played through a handful of times. There’s a point of diminishing returns, however, and I’d argue that to try and uncover every secret of Issaria’s world would be a disservice to its provocative mystification. Some secrets are better left buried.