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MOONLIGHTER REVIEW and ANALYSIS (Steam): A Retailer’s Deep Dive into Shallow Dungeons

MOONLIGHTER REVIEW and ANALYSIS (Steam): A Retailer’s Deep Dive into Shallow Dungeons

Indie gamers have been blessed with an overwhelming amount of choices when it comes to retro-styled titles. Steam and other store platforms have been inundated with a huge amount of 2D shooters, platformers, and roleplaying games that attempt to capture the charm and nostalgia from when 8 and 16 bit consoles reigned supreme. On the flipside, this recent deluge of pixel painted products has resulted in a huge playing field of me-too clones and mediocre titles, with only the best games rising to the top.

Being a huge fan of retro graphics and chunky pixels myself, I was glad to see Moonlighter made the pick for the first round of Hearts and Barrels reviews. Published by Warsaw-based 11bit Studios (known for other fascinating titles such as This War of Mine), Moonlighter is the first game created by the team at Digital Sun. I plunked down my credit card for the modest $19.99 on Steam and dived on in to what promised to be an interesting hybrid of rogue-lite dungeon crawl and shop management simulation.

From the moment the player taps New Game, Moonlighter thrusts them into the shoes of Will, aspiring Merchant-Hero. Broom in hand, Will ties his trusty bandana around his forehead and plunges feet first into the Golem Dungeon – the first of five dungeons – and lands square in the middle of a tutorial. The player is taught the basic ebb and flow of combat and inventory management until the dungeon overwhelms Will with enemies, spitting him back to the dungeon entrance by means of a wobbly mucous-filled portal. He wakes within the Moonlighter shop to the sight of an apprehensive old mentor, who takes up the burden of tutoring Will in the ways of the Merchant.
 
Graphically, Moonlighter is a prime example of how to do retro graphics right. A vibrant palette, adorably animated characters, and detailed environments took me right back to the 16-bit reign of classic console RPGs such as Zelda: Link to the Past, Chrono Trigger, and Secret of Mana. The super-deformed art style of Moonlighter lends itself fairly well to how the gameplay reads on-screen during a heated battle or shopping spree, and the user interface and menus, while basic, were fairly clean and suitable. All in all, Moonlighter’s visuals provide a warm nostalgic throwback while still maintaining its own unique sense of style.

While the sound effects are suitable and feel right at home in Moonlighter’s throwback style, the soundtrack is where the audio really shines. When talking to the villagers of Rynoka, a relaxing piano theme draws in the listener with a memorable hook, which smoothly changes its instrumentation to harpsichords, flutes, strings, and more depending on which character Will is speaking with. In the depths of the procedural dungeons, haunting adventure themes grow more intense during the descent, until coming to some of the most epic crescendos this side of a Final Fantasy boss battle. David Fenn deserves a ton of praise for his work on this truly excellent original soundtrack.

Charming graphics and addictive songs are only part of a proper game recipe. Moonlighter’s mechanics boil down to four simple components: dungeon exploration, inventory management, crafting, and shop management. On the surface, this promising layer cake of an RPG looks like a sure sell for genre fans. However, this dungeon crawler’s core gameplay wavers on the fine line between simple and shallow – causing Moonlighter to sometimes feel as stale as last week’s donuts.

Each of Rynoka’s five dungeons appear to be made up of a somewhat limited amount of premade rooms and secrets. Each floor includes a pool room (which can regenerate health) and a stairway down (usually blocked off until the defeat of the room’s hostile occupants). Will stands face to face with a huge boss creature upon reaching the third floor stairs, and laying waste to this massive guardian opens the way to the next dungeon. During your dive, you may also encounter hidden treasure, challenge rooms, pit traps, and falling floors. Take care not to spend too long peeking in every nook and cranny, as a fearsome invincible mucous beast is watching your every move and waiting for its chance to chase down the unwary adventurer.

Moonlighter’s combat initially requires a decent helping of skill for enemy encounters. Having more in common with Dark Souls than Zelda, Will’s moveset contains a primary attack combo, a strong attack (or shield block, in the case of the sword and board weapons), and a dodge roll that allows him to pass through attacks and enemies unharmed. This simple set of tools, combined with the variety of five weapon categories, theoretically creates a flexible amount of combat variety.

In practice, fighting boils down to either giving monsters a couple of good smacks and rolling out of the way before they retaliate, or dancing out of range and firing arrows until they finally drop. While the simplistic combat does have an addictive and enjoyable feel due to tight controls and weighty weapons, Will’s window of opportunity to move out of the way after he receives damage is also a very small one. It is fully possible for an enemy to hit multiple times before a player can compensate. A single wrong move or improper positioning in a crowded room can find Will surrounded and killed almost instantly, and a couple more invincibility frames after taking a hit might have made this feel more fair.

Adding to the simplicity of combat, Will lacks any sort of upgradeable combat skills or talent trees – the lifeblood of any deep RPG. Many enemies are simple reskins with similar abilities from one dungeon to the next – fighting strategies that work in the first dungeon will also largely work in the later dungeons, and this can make loot runs feel like a grind.

Downing enemies often releases a satisfying shower of sellable monster parts, but the more valuable items are usually found in chests. Defeating all monsters in a chest room will cause the chests to unlock, putting Moonlighter’s looting mechanic on display.

Chest items are always cursed in some way, and curses can be a benefit as well as a hindrance. For example, an item could be cursed to destroy an adjacent item, or cursed to teleport an item straight to the shop. Therefore, manipulating the curses becomes a sort of miniature inventory puzzle. Mastering the profit of runs by way of this backpack minigame seems at first like a great spin on looting, but the limited variety of the curses make this more of an inconvenience than a puzzle element. Overall, this struck me as a tragically half-finished mechanic that reduced an interesting idea down to an annoying chore.

A successful dungeon run ends in two ways – by teleporting to safety, or by Will’s demise. Teleportation costs varying amounts of gold depending on the dungeon, and loot items can be consumed on the spot to get a smaller amount of gold if Will comes up short. A later item also allows for a temporary town portal to be created in the dungeon at a greater cost, allowing Will to return to town one time without losing his place or resetting the run. Will’s death causes all items in the backpack to be lost, but this loss is softened by the fact that he still retains any loot placed in his limited pocket space. I largely tend to avoid games with roguelike elements since losing progress and grinding the same content over and over (and over) is NOT fun, but I positively loved the way Moonlighter’s more forgiving approach to progression meets in the middle.

Will doesn’t rest upon looting vendor trash from monsters and chests. Unlike other action RPGS, Moonlighter also puts the player into the boots of a vendor reselling this trash. True to the title, Will spends his nights moonlighting in dungeons and his days selling his findings by taking on a true hero’s challenge: the hellscape of retail management.

This mostly consists of two things – stocking loot and goofing around with pricing until the items head out the door, A handy in-game notebook serves as your automatic price guide once you find out how much Grandpa Cranky is willing to pay for that golem eyeball, so there’s little challenge or mystery once you figure out a selling price. The item values did not appear to change over time in my playthrough, and there isn’t much customer interaction other than warding off the occasional shoplifter or taking on dull fetch quests.

This gameplay element is prominently featured on all the advertising copy, but it feels like a  shallow missed opportunity. Some sort of fleshed out item economy or the ability to speak and barter with customers during a sale would have made this feature feel more important, but as it stands, the shop management seems to just be an overly complicated way to sell off unwanted dungeon junk.

Bringing this review full circle, we come to Moonlighter’s crafting system. I found crafting to be disappointing, as well as the single largest limitation to Moonlighter’s combat. For a game that boasts around 50 different weapons, the weapon types themselves lack variety and have only limited differences in speed, reach, power, and effect. In fact, in my opinion, there are truly only three weapons in the game: the sword-with-shield and bow were the only ones that differed significantly in playstyle, and the spear, big sword, and glove were all too functionally similar to each other. After tooling around with several loadouts for the two weapon slots, I finally settled on the sword and shield with a bow in my second slot. This combination served me better than any others in the game due to the ability to both block and attack from a distance, so I used it for the rest of entire game.

Crafting and enchanting is the only path for Will to get stronger in combat. Each weapon or armor piece is a clear-cut tier above the last, with stats meant to coincide with the currently unlocked dungeon. While pieces can be enchanted for a smaller boost to base stats, there’s an upper limit to how much this can be done. Therefore, players have no choice but to replace their weapons for those in the next tier upon reaching the next dungeon. Finding out I was forced to  replace my stun bow for one that poisons over time felt like a major backstep from the advertised claim that you can “develop your own battling style”. In addition, there is little effective choice between the upgrade trees. Limiting upgrade paths for weapons that either deal chance elemental damage over time, or more top end damage overall plays out fairly similar.

The game’s difficulty is also a mixed bag. I played on hard mode, as the developers suggested.  The beginning Golem dungeon was a fair challenge, but I steamrolled the second dungeon only to run into a large difficulty spike diving into the third. Balance issues popped up again when I was able to easily accumulate a gear bankroll and steamroll the final three bosses on my first tries.

Even more unfortunately, Moonlighter ran into occasional performance issues and game breaking bugs during my playthrough. Some unusual game hangs would happen on occasion when opening the various journal entries. An issue in the dungeons occured when a monster became unable to move, attack or be damaged, wobbling in place until I was left with the choice of either dumping loot to teleport out or killing myself with repeated falls into a nearby pit. The worst offender occurred when a sound issue caused me to need to force quit the game, and upon relaunching I found I had lost THREE FULL HOURS of gameplay – my save had vanished without a trace. While likely not a bug, the game also appears to wipe your save upon completion – a major blow to completionists. To Digital Sun’s credit, much appears to have been addressed in recent patches, but this was unfortunately too late to keep these issues from clouding my playthrough.

Overall, Moonlighter would be a fun romp as a pick-up-and-put-down title for ten to twenty minute stretches, and its overall design lends itself more to handheld systems or mobile devices. The claims proudly splashed across the game’s website and Kickstarter are hollow and unfinished in comparison to its promises. I did have a decent amount of fun throughout the first half of Moonlighter’s 12 to 16 hour length before it descended into a grind and diluted the challenge. I could recommend Moonlighter as a casual experience for rogue-lite fans that want something more forgiving, provided the game slashed off half of its twenty dollar asking price. At the end of the day, I could not help but wish for more – and imagine all it could have been – had its systems and concepts been fully fleshed out. Despite the game’s missteps, Moonlighter is a promising start, and I hold high hopes that the team at Digital Sun can add more depth and innovation to future releases.

 


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bawss Sawss (Twitter: @BawssSawss)  is a lifelong mediocre gamer with an embarrassingly huge Steam backlog. He also is a fairly skilled hobby chef and hot sauce addict as well as half of the 2 Headed Hero gamer duo on Youtube.

 

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