Wot I Think: Moonlighter

It took a little while to get going, but goodness me I’m hooked on Moonlighter now. Take a good dose of rogue-lite action-RPG, add in permanence of equipment, and then delicately smother in a shopkeeping sim. It’s a game about raiding dungeons at night, then working in the days to sell the loot from your store.

I’m not one for shopkeeping/gardening/tax-form-filling, or any of these mysteriously popular boring-job-sims that you kids love. So let that be the words of relief needed to anyone else put off by the idea. Stick with this.

You play as Will, a young adventurer stuck with the task of running his late father’s shop, Moonlighter, in the failing village of Rynoka. Your grandfather’s hope is that by rejuvenating your store, you can help bring back prosperity to the town, encourage other businesses to open, and for goodness sake, stop trying to open the Fourth Gate because that’s what got your father killed.

But in order to find goods to sell, Will is going to have to visit the mysterious dungeons that recently opened up on the edge of town. Rynoka has been visited by respawning, randomised, thematic dungeons, and no one knows why. Which is Moonlighter’s rather sweet way of making this staple of such games part of the narrative. Everyone knows they’re randomised, everyone knows you can revisit them and all the monsters and items will respawn in new ways. In fact, you’ll find the notes of previous adventurers who have tried to fathom these peculiarities, to find patterns within them.

As you charge through a dungeon’s rooms, on each of its three levels plus a boss fight, you gather so, so much loot, which you must store in your 4×5 inventory spaces. Items stack, but it gets more complicated than that. Due to multifarious curses on many of the items you find, both as drops from the combat, or in chests opened when rooms are complete, there are very particular ways some can be stored. Something might have to go on the left or right of the inventory, for instance. Or top or bottom. Or it might be a curse that causes whatever’s to its left when placed to be destroyed, so make sure that’s on the far left. Maybe it’ll be something that only destroys an adjacent item when you return to town, so it’s fine anywhere for now, but for goodness sakes don’t forget. And then there are many more variants to discover as you progress.

The aim is, see how much you can squeeze into your pockets on any one run, and indeed see how far through a dungeon you dare go before you chicken out, or get killed. Die and you’ll lose everything except for the top row of your inventory, and that’s brutal. Go back to town using a magic pendant and it’ll cost you a sum of gold. Get to the end, beat the boss, and you can head back for free. So all that must be weighed up too.

Then, when you’re back, it’s time to put these items out on the tables in your shop (expandable through expensive upgrades), and choose how much you’ll charge for them. That’s a tricky bit, because at first you’ll have no idea what anyone’s willing to pay. Experimentation is the solution. Is this old pot worth 10 gold or 1,000? Price it at the latter, and when you open the shop and customers come in, they’ll look at it and weep if it’s far too high. Far too low and you’ll see their thought-bubble expressions glint with greedy delight. Get it just right and it’s a happy face, just too high and it’s a glum and reluctant face. The game stores which prices got which reactions for each of its hundreds and hundreds of items, so you can see whether you went criminally low before and bump that price the next time.

I’ve found myself thoroughly enjoying these shop antics, surprising myself. I think mostly because it’s not a case of pricing up and pressing GO. Instead it’s a lively experience, where you run between tables re-pricing things after people’s horrified reactions, or re-stocking tables with new items on the fly, then dashing back to the sales desk to take customer’s money. On top of all that, you need to keep a look-out for thieves, and intercede their attempts to half-inch items from your store. There’s a limited time during which the shop’s open, so you try to sell as much as you possibly can, before night falls, and it’s time to spend your cash and head off adventuring once more. Or, as it happens, sleep in bed and do some daytime raids for an easier time, but with slightly poorer loot.

None of this would be worth anything if the combat were no good, so phew, it is. It’s a pleasing mix of weapon types to suit your desires – do you prefer a slow heavy sword with a long reach, a shortsword/shield combo, bow and arrow, spiky pole, or rapid vicious gloves? You can take any two on a raid with you, and switch between to suit the millions of distinct enemy types, which are all really superbly different, each requiring their own ideal approach to be defeated. There’s also a rolling evasion mechanic that is not only fun to use, but mercy me, actually allows you to move more quickly than standard running – none of the peculiarly mean movement delay that seems so ubiquitous in these games just now.

Then you can invest your cash into enticing other stores to open in town, who’ll sell you new equipment and potions, enchantment upgrades, that sort of thing. And these too will rely on recipes formed from loot you’ve retrieved, as well as payment. Meaning you also need to think about what loot you don’t want to sell at any given point.

So hopefully you can tell, there’s an awful lot going on here, much, much more than the “oh another pixel roguelite ARPG” the screenshots might suggest. It’s also worth noting that the screenshots don’t do it justice, either. Moonlighter stands out by the astonishing fluidity and detail of its animations, which are sumptuous and stunning.

There are, however, some issues. It takes far too long to get going. I began to wonder after a few hours for how long exactly I was expected to grind that first dungeon until I could start making the sorts of money needed to open up more interesting aspects. It turns out it was pretty much straight after fatigue had set in, but sadly, after. With two dungeons open, a larger shop with many more customers, a bunch of other retailers, quests from customers on top of your current goals… the game really starts to shine. That’s as far as I’ve gotten, and I really don’t want to stop. There are at least two other dungeons, and that big gate I’m forbidden from opening. And indeed the next sword, which requires one more loot type I still haven’t found, and I want to get the bank open, and see if I can get the tens of thousands of gold I need to upgrade my store yet again, and…

It definitely needs more variety earlier on, but when Moonlighter gets going, it’s tremendously compelling. I’m playing on Hard, because the game said I should, and I do have some concerns that it’s becoming a little bit too easy at this point. I think perhaps some balancing of difficulties might still be needed. And there are some bugs in there, most annoying being the map opening up blank on random dungeon spawns, as well as some spelling mistakes. But not so many, and none particularly important.

It completely has me in its grips now. I want to know what it means that the later dungeons are for adventurers only, not merchants, and I want to know just how big a store I can run, and will I ever get security guards to deal with these bloomin thieves? It’s very charming, very beautiful, and both its comprising halves are enjoyable in their own ways.

Moonlighter is out now on Windows and Mac, for £15.50/$20/20€, via Steam, GOG and Humble.

14 Comments

  1. anHorse says:

    Okay then.

    I was kinda put off by people’s initial impressions in the news post for Moonlighter’s release but I pretty much like everything that John likes so I’m probably going to check it out now (once Cultist sim gets it hooks out of me that is)

    • AbbieDuffy says:

      I’m making $85 an hour working from home. I was shocked when my neighbour told me she was averaging $120 but I see how it works now. I feel so much freedom now that I’m my own boss. This is what I do… Click Here And START

  2. kemo says:

    The store mechanics and the combat mechanics both feel far too simple for me and it is very repetitive but there is something about it that is making me really enjoy it. I’ve been playing it as much as I can since I picked it up yesterday

  3. Midi_Amp says:

    I have tremendous fun with the game. Some bugs indeed, but not game breaking. After the first dungeon, money comes easy, those second dungeon drops are quite the money maker. I thought the game going to be quite the rinse and repeat experience, but it’s not. The satisfying Battle mechanics makes going back to the dungeon fun rather than a chore. I wish there are more things to do in the game, but for the price on offer, I really can’t ask for more… I even wants a DLC for this game down the road. I don’t know, new town maybe, new activities in town or so, a rivalry system perhaps, some new equipments. It’s a fun game.

  4. geldonyetich says:

    I’m ever-dwelling on a problem in RPGs and Survival games where success is rewarded with higher and higher numbers in an increasingly apathetic world, to the point where I’ve begun to dabble in finding solutions… and mostly gained a greater appreciation for how difficult it is to find them.

    Moonlighter factored large on my radar, because it’s an RPG with a higher layer, your upgrading of a shop. But is this a satisfactory solution?

    It’s hard to say, even amongst mixed reviews, because it seems that the core game loop too drawn out, the grind a tad too demanding. It’s a hard balance for a developer to nail because tolerance for the grind will vary from player to player, so it’s a shot in the dark at the middle of a target audience.

    Then you get to the end of the grind, and we’re back to that problem I was talking about.

    • arexsvn says:

      Thats always bugged me as well. Generally games will have a frustrating start as you learn how to play and then become easy w/ mastery of the mechanics and superior gear at which point its just grinding for the sake of it (of course some games keep you interested with reward for exploration or a great story).
      It seems like flipping that progression would be ideal. You start off with relatively straightforward gameplay that layers mechanics to ramp up difficulty with your skill. The ‘feeling’ of difficulty would stay constant even though you’re playing a much tougher game by the end.
      Of course as you noted this is easier said than done as everyone’s skill level is different as well as ability to learn new mechanics.

      • geldonyetich says:

        The difficulty curve definitely drains the air our of a progression system that endeavors to make the players feel more powerful by making fights easier.

        But an alternative of monsters that scale to the player ended up with backlash as well, because those players were expecting to feel more powerful and were disappointed when they encountered tougher fights instead.

        That’s probably not the only alternative though. For example, the “pressure cooker” like you see in Don’t Starve, where enemies get tougher over time instead of with your character, so a good player is rewarded with a higher chance to survive.

        What I’m speaking about is not specific to flow, though. More to do with how progression ends of being done for progression’s sake. Nothing more than a power fantasy that abruptly deflates when you get high enough levels to see the man behind the curtain.

      • Gaminggumper says:

        I think that the curve is largely dependent on the patience (or stubbornness) of each player that can determine if later play is ‘too easy’ or ‘just right’. Personally, as a collect everything sort, I find that I end up pushing to the ‘too easy’ quickly. This is because I tend to prevent moving on until I’ve milked every optional content before moving on. God of War is a perfect example of this, I was always a tad overpowered for all but the Valkyrie fights, because I had made sure I had a choice of armor and upgrades that I could access at the time already gathered. The randomness here prevents this to some degree, but I find myself grinding for the gear I want that I can access before pushing deeper in the dungeon.
        As others have mentioned, if you try and tune it so all enemies are equally challenging, then leveling becomes fruitless and underwhelming. Sure the numbers went up, but ultimately there is no difference in the level 1 enemy and the level 20 enemy.

    • Fishslap says:

      It is. But a grind is better than no grind. Otherwise you don’t feel as if you’ve really earned things I think. And balancing end games is always close to impossible. If the player is too weak he gets stomped, too strong and it’s cake and boring.
      Only if the player hits them just right are they the perfect challenge, like with me the first time I finished Homeworld. I lost 75% of my forces in a harrowing ambush battle and scraped by with good micro with my last remaining ships. I actually got a sting from playing a video game for the first time. But the second time I did it a few years later I was massively OP by the last mission, and what I had remembered as a tough final challenge was disappointingly easy.

      You can’t really design your way out of this without reworking the entire game from the bottom up. This is just the hardest thing to do as a dev, while at the same time having player freedom and exploration, which you want. Even if you want to do it and are trying to do it, the game might still end up falling short in this area. And then it’s too late to do it again. You just have to release it and try to do better next time.

      Anyway, I gave this a miss exclusively because of the tired JRPG look it had. Can’t people do something original, or at least pretend to? But reading this review has made me buy it anyway. I like rogues and I like shop managers in theory. There are just so many bad ones that it’s hard to tell. Coating the game in JRPG visuals is a bad move with me. It’s one of my triggers for not buying games usually. Blue hair and enormous eyes? OK, I’m clearly not the target audience here.

  5. khalilravanna says:

    Very interesting. May well have to check this one out if I can peel myself away from Ni No Kuni II (just beat my 5 year old save from the original!).

    The description alone makes me think it *had* to on some level have been inspired by Recettear which was an absolutely fantastically original game. I actually spent some time converting my long-term game project into something revolving around shop-keep mechanics before bailing out as my social life had disappeared.

    Either way, very cool will check out…some day.

  6. Jandau says:

    I’m gonna disagree here – The game lacks things LATER ON. Early game is great, but once you get going there’s nothing to do. By the time you finish the second dungeon you’ll have unlocked almost all the upgrades. What’s left by that point are just numerical increases and no new gameplay. The game is very frontloaded, with a tedious lategame.

    Furthermore, the store management side is horribly underdeveloped. It’s simply down to figuring out the perfect price for an item (which is done quickly and easily) and then just dumping stuff on the shelves. The whole system is horribly static, with very little variance of any kind.

    And finally, once you figure out how to use the item sorting mechanics and stack cursed items properly, you’ll get stupidly rich in short order.

    In short, the game looks nice, is fun for a bit, but is horribly undercooked and somewhat shallow. It needs more meat on the bone, more things to do, more variables to tweak and play around with. As it stands, it’s a poor man’s Recettear with nicer graphics.

    • John Walker says:

      It’s literally impossible to unlock many of the upgrades until after you finish the second dungeon, and equally impossible to unlock the equipment upgrades until you reach the dungeons that offer the drops needed to create them.

      I agree that it would be better if pricing became more complicated as the game went on, perhaps with a rival store competing for prices, or demand for certain items actually rising and dropping with time.

      • Jandau says:

        But that’s the thing. By the time the third dungeon rolls around, all that remains is making the numbers bigger. Yes, there are still two tiers of equipment upgrades, but they literally do nothing interesting with it. No passive effects, no new abilities. It’s literally the exact same gameplay you’ve had for two dungeons already, only you need to push through two more.

        As for the town upgrades, once you get the Hawker, that’s it. The Banker is pointless and adds nothing to the game. There should have been more things in the town, more interactions with the people. I’m not saying it should have been all Stardew Valley, but SOMETHING would have been nice.

        In all, it felt like someone started making a really good game, but then stopped halfway through…

        • John Walker says:

          As I say in the review, I was only on the second dungeon. I’m now on the third, and still completely delighted with it. But yes, I can see the grind becoming a problem if there’s no meaningful changes by the fourth. I’ll report back.

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