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Moonlighter: An In Depth Review for a Paper Thin Beauty

Moonlighter: An In Depth Review for a Paper Thin Beauty

 

Before I start my review, I’d like to get one thing straight: I am not the biggest fan of Rogue Likes.

Yes, I just played through 13+ hours of Moonlighter, a Rogue-Like, and now am writing what I hope is an unbiased review based entirely on its merits, but this is where I stand. I’m not a huge fan of procedurally generated dungeons, and – while I do enjoy a challenge – games that leave me pounding my head through a wall out of frustration turn me off thoroughly. Still, when I found out Moonlighter was going to be the first game we reviewed at Hearts and Barrels, I found myself fairly excited. Though I now know this was more of a “don’t judge a book by its cover” moment, the gorgeous visuals and catchy soundtrack had me looking forward to an enjoyable experience.

Moonlighter casts you in the role of Will, a young shopkeeper with delusions of grandeur, and curiosity that can’t be satiated by the day to day grind of a shop owner’s life. After some quick exposition, revealing you as a rather important member of the currently dilapidated town of Ryker, you are plopped in the first of the nearby 5 dungeons, a mysterious group of labyrinths teeming with baddies ripe for the slaying – as well as loot just begging to be sold to the highest bidder. The begins rather with a tutorial, as you use your trusty broom to put beasties to the slaughter and progress from room to room. But, you are quickly overwhelmed, spat out of the dungeon, and rescued (unconscious) by passerby Zenon, an odd – and angry – old man who proceeds to lecture you on the danger of the dungeons and the responsibility you, as the owner of the Moonlighter shop, have to stay alive.

This sets the stage for the game’s central mechanic, a back and forth slog characterized by the shift between fearless spelunker by night, and unremarkable shopkeeper by day. The deeper you go into the everchanging dungeons and the more powerful baddies you slay, the better loot you farm and the more you can invest in your town and gear. This simple but unique system continues throughout the entirety of the game.

Progressing means delving deeper into each of the nearby dungeons, parsing out the mystery set by Moonlighter’s early exposition, increasingly cinematic boss beasties, and selling your loot to the highest bidder. All the while, you’ll use the money earned while keeping shop to upgrade your weapons and armor, and even attract new shops to make your journey just a bit easier.

While playing through the first few dungeons, I found the appeal of this system engaging to say the least, even with my initial predisposition against Rogue Likes. Not only was the action-RPG style combat fluid and entertaining, the gorgeous sound effects, unique and expertly crafted pixel animation, and interesting premise truly made me feel like I had found a Rogue-like that was more my speed.

Moonlighter smacks of creativity, with a promise of something more than the same old grind that you expect from procedurally generated dungeon crawlers. Unlike other games of the genre, Moonlighter offers a potentially robust shop keeper system that breaks up some of the grind of fighting through enemy after enemy.

This dynamic was actually one of my favorite parts of the game. It’s not a perfect system by any means, but it kept me entertained to an extent. Once I allowed myself to fall into the flow of the system, a certain hectic-ness kept me occupied, and was entertaining for a decent amount of time – particularly at the beginning of a new dungeon (before basic prices were common knowledge). Its simplicity certainly has the propensity to keep one at an arm’s length; however, if you allow yourself to enjoy the basic, emoticon-based, risk reward system that honestly results in just more loot for you, it can serve a decent distraction from the “kill this, don’t die” framework that Moonlighter follows.

As for the actual combat, it is at times punishing, but fair, with no perma-death mechanic that I’ve come to expect from Rogue-likes. Instead, Moonlighter employs a somewhat enjoyable puzzle-like inventory system – as well as a forgiving 5 slot “safe” so you don’t lose all of your items – that makes death feel more an inconvenience that you can circumvent, rather than the end of the line. Cinematic bosses also expand the genre’s boundaries, providing a fun change of pace from fairly bare bones dungeons. Each boss is distinct enough where determining strategy is necessary and enjoyable – if you’re willing to forego obvious cheese methods.  The game is also – and I really can’t oversell this – truly beautiful. From a masterwork composition that will have you humming even the menu music from time to time for weeks, to stunning animation that strikes you the moment you boot up the game, Moonlighter offers a visual and auditory experience that truly shouldn’t be missed.

In other words, Moonlighter seems like a rogue-like for those who don’t necessarily enjoy the intricacies, infuriating quirks, and repetitiveness that many rogue-likes list as positives (hence my initial optimism).  With all this said, it isn’t long before gameplay grinds to a halt, and you realize that Moonlighter falls short of almost all its potential – all while providing a taste of what should have been, and what could have made us fall in love with more than simply its aesthetic triumphs.

After you pass the first two dungeons, experiences become far too familiar. Enemies, while creative and challenging at first, become palette changed has-beens far too quickly. You do run into some interesting new enemies in the final few dungeons, but by then you’re already too far into the game to really forgive it for that transgression.

Furthermore, even with a seemingly robust crafting system, combat really doesn’t ever evolve. You start the game slashing and defending, and most likely will end the game slashing and defending – with perhaps a bow to keep annoying close-range enemies at bay. This is perhaps one of the most disappointing failings to the game. While its basic action RPG mechanics are enjoyable for a while, the game never entices you to use weapons outside of those that do the highest damage. In fact, I only found myself changing weapons once I was gifted elemental items later on – just to see if it was worth it (spoiler, it wasn’t). With no other advance in gameplay to speak of – besides improving your town – fighting your way through barely-descript dungeons becomes a chore far too quickly.

Speaking of town building, I found this system too to be lackluster, at the very least. Beyond the potion/enchantment shop and blacksmith, there were no shops that were worth creating – like, at all. A shop you unlock later on, which allows you to purchase crafting items to avoid grinding for particular weapons or armor, was nice. But, it almost felt like an admission by the developers that revisiting dungeons, just to improve your gear, was not worth the time and effort.

Even the shop running mechanic lost its luster as I delved deeper into the game. Setting prices and satisfying customers and your wallet was enjoyable for a time. But, with little in the way of shop progression, and a central strategy that was much to simplistic to gain any lasting satisfaction, manning the Moonlighter shop – like almost all of the game’s central mechanics – just stopped being fun after too short a time.

All in all, by the end of the game, I found myself fairly disappointed. While its various machinations piqued my interest and kept me entertained for the first few hours of my experience, its weak depth, bland town building mechanics, and overly simple character progression caused my initial entertainment to wane rather quickly. I found myself second guessing myself the entire game, wanting to love the mystery, the beauty, and its ambitious designs. But, after a few hours, the entirety of the game felt known, and I found myself trying to just finish the game, rather than enjoy the world it attempts to create. I won’t say Moonlighter is a terrible game – and I honestly would love to see what the sophomore effort from this developer winds up being – but, I won’t recommend it either, except for maybe at a discounted price.

 

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