Rags to riches.
Roguelikes have exploded in popularity in recent years. Whereas the definition of a true roguelike is strict and rarely adhered to, many games have at least adopted ‘rogue-lite’ elements. It’s this happy medium that I prefer: the peril of heavy consequences for death offset by some permanence, so failure isn’t entirely catastrophic. Moonlighter nails this balance, offering an adventure with both high-stakes dungeon crawling and satisfying progression.
The titular Moonlighter is an item shop in Rynoka, a village with mystical portals to otherworldly dungeons. Once prosperous from the valuable artifacts uncovered from these dungeons, Rynoka has languished after they were shut due to the dangers from within.
You play Will, Moonlighter’s shopkeep. By day he tends to the shop, flogging his wares to villagers and visiting adventurers alike. By night he strives to re-open and explore the dungeons, uncovering their mysteries and bringing wealth back to his shop and village.
These dungeon excursions are where Moonlighter’s rogue-lite elements come into play. Procedurally generated with each trip, no two are the same. But there are patterns. Each has three floors of increasing difficulty, culminating in a boss battle. There’s a healing spring and encampment on every floor, plus chests to loot and secrets to uncover. And of course, gangs of tough creatures and machines to fight along the way.
Will is driven by a burning desire to best the four main dungeons and discover what’s behind the never-opened fifth door. But the real quest – as far as you’ll be concerned – is to find rare and expensive loot to hawk to punters. That shop ain’t gonna stock itself. The deeper you go, the better the wares you’ll uncover. But the deadlier the enemies are that you’ll face, too, and dying (more figurative than literal in this case) results in losing almost everything you’ve collected.
It’s a perfect example of risk and reward, weighing up whether to teleport out to safety using your magic pendant or continue on in the hopes of finding some real treasures. Making it back to town by the skin of your teeth with a bag full of rare items is a truly exhilarating feeling.
With a bag that’s limited in size, however, inventory management is a puzzle within itself. You can quick-sell items within a dungeon but only at a fraction of their actual value. Some items are also enchanted to delete or replace the item next to them, or break if you’re hit too many times, so it’s a real juggling act.
Should you make it back unscathed with a load of goodies, it’s retail time. Tending to your shop is another minigame of sorts, in which you place your stock on display, determine its price and serve your customers. But items vary wildly in value, so there’s a great deal of trial and error involved – pluck a figure out of the air, and see how a customer reacts. Do they get disappointed, or wrinkle their face in disgust? You’re shooting too high. Do they jump for joy and excitedly rush over to the counter? You’ve given it away for less than it’s worth. Charge more next time.
To begin with, shopkeeping can be frustratingly ambiguous but you get a feel for the worth of new merchandise over time. This makes it a generally chilled and satisfying experience of min-maxing prices and hearing that satisfying ‘ker-ching!’ of the cash register. With one exception: thieves.
With disturbing regularity, ne’er-do-wells frequent Moonlighter and attempt to make off with your hard-earned goods. The only real threat perhaps, but an irritating one nonetheless. Even if you’re standing practically on top of a thief they’ll still grab something and run. It’s easy to tackle them and recover your items, but it’s an annoying and illogical mechanic.
Keep the criminals at bay and have a profitable day’s business, though, and there’ll be a wad of coins burning a hole in your pocket. This leads to one of Moonlighter’s most engaging elements: the upgrade system. There’s a great deal to invest in, from better armour and weapons to potions, enchantments and shop refurbishments. A good run should afford you enough cash for at least one upgrade. Whether it’s extra health, damage or bonus tips from customers, these incremental improvements create a virtuous cycle of becoming stronger and making more money.
These enhancements are not to be sniffed at, either. A new sword or chest plate is expensive, but they can provide near double the previous attack power or health. As a result, progression through the dungeons is very gear-dependent. Combat is tight and you have tricks up your sleeve like an invincibility dodge, but venture past your limits and it’s easy to become overwhelmed. ‘Hard’ is the default difficulty mode and it lives up to its name.
This does necessitate grind, on occasion. But diving into dungeons is addictive and rarely gets tiresome. Crucially, Moonlighter respects your time. Even if you massively mess up and die, you still get to keep your top five items. And even a modestly successful run leads to tangible progression.
One downside to item hoarding is having to sort everything out afterwards. It’s important to keep a personal stock of goods, because many upgrades need both cash and ingredients. The solution to an ever-expanding need for storage is just buying more chests. Splitting your inventory across multiple stores becomes confusing. A ‘quick sort’ option that consolidated everything neatly would have been a worthwhile addition – as would one large centralised storage vessel. This necessary admin bogs everything down a little and delays your next excursion.
Moonlighter is also very barebones on story and dialogue, both of which are merely utilitarian and smack of a missed opportunity. Instead, its world building is accomplished through pretty pixel art and a well-realised soundtrack. While the former is nothing we haven’t seen before and the latter has the tendency to become repetitive, it’s a strong presentation overall.
With its “just one more run” gameplay loop, Moonlighter is a challenging dungeon crawler that hits the spot. Head to your village shop/digital storefront of choice and you’re unlikely to feel buyer’s remorse from this rogue-lite treasure.
James loves a deep action-adventure game, RPG or Metroidvania. He can often be found in The Indie Game Website’s review section casting his critical eye over the latest indie games.