“The jungle is dark but full of diamonds, Willy.”
-Arthur Miller, Death Of A Salesman
Moonlighter! What a fun game with such a simple concept, you’ll ask why you haven’t bumped into it before. Not in this exact combination at least.
Ever wonder what happens behind the scenes with shopkeepers in RPGs? When their shops are closed, what do they do? I mean, surely they don’t just disappear… You’re not a video game solipsist, are you? NPCs are people, too!
So where do the merchants go, what hazards do they face in order to guarantee that you’ll find their wares stocked and ready the next day after spending a night in the inn? I mean, presumably potions and ethers, weapons and artifacts don’t just grow on digital trees. Purveyors have to go moonlighting, survey the world so that they may parley their goods, and Moonlighter is the story of just such a merchant securing his stock.
In this world, there are mysterious dungeons which appeared out of nowhere one day, enticing the brave and the foolhardy to explore and find their riches. Heroes delved deep, many of them only to be chewed up and spit back out. Each dungeon is different for each person and upon each visit. They change as if accommodating each new individual. In this constant flux, the dungeons are treasure troves just as full of danger as they are of wealth and glory.
That the dungeons are special goes without saying. They each lead as if to other worlds, other realms. Over time, however, the risks proved too great and the societies which thrived on the excavated riches waned. The dungeons were sealed up.
Will, the last of his line, is a shopkeeper who inherits the rundown Moonlighter, a little shop in the rundown town of Rynoka just outside the field where the dungeons lie dormant. He’s immediately confronted by all the dangers of the American Dream: aspirations with risks, visions of grandeur you have to be careful don’t turn into delusions.
The dungeons are dangerous, Will is immediately and constantly reminded, but will ambition turn to greed or will it end in disaster? Answering that question is incumbent on the player. It’s easy to think in terms of just one more artifact, just one more treasure chest, but the next could spell Will’s doom. Aspiration is great but so is contentment, as well as staying alive. That’s the balance you’ll have to strike as you help him establish his establishment: Moonlighter.
I found Moonlighter to be an interesting fusion of appeals. The Harvest Moon and Dark Cloud series, old school top-down Legend of Zelda, rogue-lite elements… this cocktail comes together harmoniously. Don’t let the “rogue-lite” namedrop scare you away; what seems like two core ideas for two different games play into each other her beautifully. The two halves of the game are really the merchant-by-day and the adventurer-by-night, the two facets of Will’s daily life. Moonlighter is half business simulator and half dungeon crawler.
As a merchant, Will is concerned with opening his doors from sun-up to sun-down, inviting complementary vendors to town, shmoozing with the villagers and new neighbors, figuring out the best prices for his items and tracking them in his ledger, upgrading Moonlighter’s space and decor, keeping a wary eye out for shoplifters, and of course, selling Will’s stuff, the bottom line. As an adventurer, Will sneaks off at night for the dungeons, scouring for treasures, battling back enemies, making the best use of his limited inventory space, and getting the heck out of there before he gets killed (a convenient pendant can whisk him back home, for a fee). Each half of Will’s life feeds back into the other, creating this addicting gameplay loop.
Whatever Will finds in the dungeons he can use to sell in his shop (provided you didn’t let him get killed and drop almost all the goods). Profits from the shop can be put toward the blacksmith or enchantress to beef up your weapons and armor and healing capabilities, allowing you to explore even deeper into the four dungeons, maybe even get down to their bottoms where the Guardians await. It’s a great little loop that carries the game for a decent length of time. It is so good, in fact, that I found myself wishing there was more game for that concept.
Maybe a “Moonlighter 2” is already in order. I felt like there was much more they could do with the game, more weapon trees, more upgrades to the shop, more end-game/post-game content, and so on. Moonlighter’s conceptual loop could easily fill up the time of a prolonged Harvest Moon or Rune Factory game (which I thought it was at first, given the in-game calendar with its 12 months and 28 days each). Instead, I completed Moonlighter in about half a week.
This is essentially a good thing when a game doesn’t drag on. Better to end soon and leave the audience wanting an encore rather than end too late and leave them checking their watches with a bitter taste in their mouths. The game can be slow-going at first with some items seeming impossible expensive but by the end, I was left wanting more!
The 8-bit Review
Moonlighter features beautiful pixel art with a grasp of color palettes: the town of Rynoka is all soft earthen and autumnal browns which is immediately contrasted by the alien greens of the dungeon slime, the blue stonework of the Golem dungeon, the deep greens of the Forest dungeon, and so on. I’ve found the occasional RPG to be bland in terms of the range of its colors and settings, but not so with Moonlighter, which to me has a recognizable style all its own. This is further compounded by the enemy designs, the likes of which are far removed from the typical high fantasy goblins and demons. Come to think of it, I don’t know that I could even think of analogous names for most of the deadly creatures that infest the dungeons.
It’s tough to realize how beautiful the pixel art is unless you see it in motion. It is some of the most fluid animations I’ve seen, maybe since I played Hyper Light Drifter. Once you see it in motion, though, it’s enchanting. This is what first attracted me to Moonlighter; yes, one of the primary functions of graphics is marketing, grabbing the attention of the potential player, since actual interactive systems aren’t easy to convey in the space of a minute and a half in trailers. Moonlighter has got that in spades.
I really wanted to award Moonlighter an 8/10 for the Visuals element, except I had to take it down a notch for graphical glitches I encountered in the last quarter of the game. This came as something of a surprise, considering again how well-designed the graphics and aesthetic of the game were. I saw some flickering sprites, entire buildings disappearing (“What happened to my shop?!” I exclaimed), and the background layer turning solid black in the town Rynoka right up to the credits roll.
These missteps aside, Moonlighter is a gorgeously fluid game with a lot of dynamism.
And it’s happy to see ya.
Those that know me will recognize that this statement means a lot: I was reminded of the soundtrack for Chrono Trigger hearing the music in Moonlighter. Hyperbole, much? Well, hang on a minute. I don’t at all mean that Moonlighter has the same sort of scope and variety that the dream-conceived music of Chrono Trigger possesses. I only mean it reminded me of it, somehow.
Certainly, there’s a sense in which the structuring of Moonlighter’s music is similar. It shares with RPG music of the 90s a pleasant, looping melody that’s almost lyrical in quality. Its leitmotifs are front and center, with a delightful play upon the idea: whenever Will approaches another vendor in town, the music changes without switching songs. The Blacksmith adds metallic percussion to the Rynoka theme whereas Le Retailer turns the same theme into baroque par excellence and the Hawker replaces the piano with an accordion.
When I make this comparison with Chrono Trigger, I don’t do it lightly. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve made this comparison ever before, not with an indie game. It’s my way of paying the music a very high compliment. Each of the four floors in each of the four dungeons has its own variation on its central theme, filling out what would otherwise be a sparse soundtrack. It’s wonderful to hear something so melodic as opposed to purely atmospheric. This stuff screams classic JRPG.
Gameplay is what Moonlighter is all about. As it propels you into the life of the salesman, things can seem a tad overwhelming. You’ll not only have to learn how to fight with your weapon of choice and search for treasures to sell. You’ll also have to figure out how to navigate Moonlighter’s record-keeping menus to see which items are popular and how much to sell them for. The tutorial at the start of the game is short and crammed with info but finding your own way and getting into a rhythm on your own seems to me to be the best have to go about it, at least that’s how I eased myself into Moonlighter. At first I thought it would be a lot to manage but the game automates and keeps track of a lot for you.
The real world tedium of paying property taxes, calling someone to fix the air conditioning, and having to navigate the treacherous world of viral marketing are all absent for a streamlined, fast-paced, enjoyable bit of gameplay when manning the Moonlighter store. You have to worry about tackling ruffians and restocking and manning the cash register but that’s about it. Once your shop grows in size, it becomes an adrenaline-fueled task trying to squeeze every last profit out of a single day of operation. It’s Moonlighters equivalent of a high score.
Sir Auron cameo on the far right.
I love all the quality of life conveniences such as warping just outside your shop from the dungeon (rather than having to walk back, or possessing a magic mirror that you can drop items into for cash when they won’t fit in your inventory in a dungeon, or, most importantly, single-button swaps between Will’s ledger from his shop’s shelves. You’ll need to frequently check not just an item’s popularity but how much you should sell it for based on how well it sold in the past.
Items which are only sold infrequently steadily gain popularity over time, allowing you to sell them for higher prices. Be careful, though. Selling an item for cheap lights up your customer’s eyes but selling them at too high a price will either prevent them from being interested at all or worse, they’ll purchase it begrudgingly and the item’s popularity will go down. Building up a history of records where you tested the waters to find that magic number for each item is important if you expect to earn enough for the game’s really expensive upgrades.
There are many such upgrades. Moonlighter can be expanded to afford more space for decorations that affect things like discouraging shoplifters, your max customer capacity, the speed of the customers, or your hours of operation. Expansion allows you more shelves to display your wares and store extras you’d like to hang onto for weapon and armor crafting. Will’s bed, cash register, and storage can be upgraded as well. The final stages of the shop even allow you to hire some help, someone who can run the shop in your absence and help beat up sneak-thieves.
And this is beside the multiple weapon and armor trees, and the handful of other vendors you can drop money on to expand the town and your dungeon crawling capabilities. So there’s a lot to do, yes. It’s just easy to pay for it all once you reach the fourth dungeon.
The Banker… I never really got any use out of him.
Inventory management is a big part of Moonlighter, unfortunately. I’m not sure anyone particularly enjoys inventory management, shifting around and stacking items, figuring out what to keep and what to trash, and what not, but there isn’t a whole lot of inventory to worry about here. Will’s backpack fills up quickly and holds only 15 stacks of items (5 additional stacks can be “held” by Will himself and these aren’t dropped upon being killed in a dungeon). This is bound to be full before you reach the bottom of a dungeon. I was disappointed that there was no upgrade to increase the size of the backpack but considering the size of the dungeons themselves, it’s not so bad. There are even some secrets that can help you get your goods back to town without having to leave a dungeon and call it quits.
A wrench the developers threw into inventory management is the frequent appearance of cursed items. These are items which will destroy another adjacent item or which must be placed in a specific spot in the backpack. Other curses include items which can remove a curse or which will duplicate themselves out of another nearby stack of items upon returning to town. It’s an extra layer of having to be mindful about your inventory.
Ultimately, I do wish there was a “sort” feature for the items. This is probably my biggest complaint with the game, especially when it comes to Will’s storage back at the shop. I hung onto a stack of most every item in the game, unless it was exceedingly common, and having to manually move all that about to keep it organized was something I immediately gave up on. You can transfer all the content of your satchel to the Moonlighter’s storage, but the game isn’t kind to people who crave order.
Despite this, I think that the loop of Moonlighter is pretty powerful. I knew at once I was feeling the same kind of addicting gameplay from a farming simulator or some such. It pulled me in and pushed me onward, deeper into each dungeon, defeating each Guardian as soon as I could so that I might get to the next dungeon and get my hands on even better items to sell.
I got rich quick with this scheme and was able to afford all the upgrades by the end of the game. All that was left was to go back and purchase every weapon and collect some final trophies, as I couldn’t find any post-game content to speak of. The magnificent bosses can only be fought once, so far as I know.
Briefly, I just want to talk about the game’s themes and story without touching on its ending and the final revelation of the dungeons’ natures (which I found delightfully surprising with its combination of ideas and genres).
I suspect that the hero-merchant, Will, is named after the main character from Death of a Salesman, Willy. Moonlighter is kind of a has-been of a store and it is Will’s task to restore it but not bite off more than he can chew. That balance of aspiration and contentment. The game both in terms of its gameplay and in terms of its story is about taking risks versus playing it safe.
Every time Will enters a dungeon, it’s a risk. He takes a greater risk going deeper. As his life declines, it’s a risk to keep going and discover more valuable artifacts. You can at any time pay a small fee to use his pendant to return to town but figuring out when to do this and when to push on can be challenging. That sense of loss when you perish and lose almost all your hard-earned treasures is immense.
I think that a lot of us in real life, especially content creators, small business owners, upstarts, and entrepreneurs, feel the temptation of aspiration and walk the delicate balance between risk and reward. “Fortune favors the bold” can be true but that doesn’t mean that putting your life or brand on the line is going to pay off every time. Certainly not. Life isn’t that predictable.
Like Will, we each have to decide for ourselves when enough is enough, when we are full, and when to put ourselves out there for more. Will’s wrestling with the American Dream, his battle to build and rebuild while being almost constantly chastised and warned by the elder Zenon… that all resonated with me. I’ve always wanted to create things and creating The Well-Red Mage has given me a lot of experiences like Will’s. I’ve had to decide when to go and when to stop, when to say yes and when to say no. Life is an adventure like that: knowing when to risk and when to play it safe. That’s what investment is.
I certainly didn’t expect a superficially simple-looking game like this to make me reflect upon life in this way!
I found it funny that Hard mode is the recommended one but there is still Very Hard to deal with. There’s Normal as well, presumably if you want to take it easy. While it’s not the toughest game I’ve played in recent memory, especially when amassing your fortune and assembling some great gear, but it is pretty easy to pass out in the dungeons on Hard and lose almost everything. That happened to me a good number of times. Learning to dodge and attack only when it’s safest is your best bet but some of the enemies can be very dangerous.
Because of that delicious loop, Moonlighter sustains a lot of addictive replay value on your way to the finish line. I could only wish that once the game ends that there’s still more tangible goals to aspire to. A handful of clean up trophies on the PS4 are neat, though I’m not much of a trophy hunter myself. A secret boss, a post-game dungeon, new upgrades… there’s a lot of potential because the central concept of the game is capable, I believe, of sustaining a much larger and longer game than Moonlighter happens to be.
I came for the smooth as butter pixel animation and I stayed for the fulfilling gameplay full of upgrades and earnings and acquisition. I think the core idea of an RPG shopkeeper having to do all the behind-the-scenes work for the actual heroes out saving the world is a novel idea, and I was only happier to know that such a fun thought ended up crafting a fun and addicting game. Now I’m wondering what other games you could make based on traditional RPG NPCs! Maybe the innkeeper sneaks off to spend the weekends with his second family?
…This is why I’m not a developer.
My Personal Grade: 8/10
Moonlighter is one of those special indies that comes along once in a while, the kind that leaves you wanting more. These are self-contained experiences, though, and in the end, I should probably be thankful for that. I have a feeling that by the close of 2018, Moonlighter will have been one of my favorite indies of the year. Lots to enjoy here and now I’ve got my eyes peeled for a sequel or expansion!
I’m delighted to thank 11 bit Studios and Digital Sun Games for granting us a copy of their game for this critique! I hope it sells like hotcakes, y’all.
Aggregated Score: 8.1
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Categories: Game Review