It's so stormy where I live that a house in the town next over lost its roof this morning, which must mean it's the season for cosy life sim games. After having fun in Fae Farm recently, this week I've been taking Moonstone Island for a spin. The twist for this Stardewlike is that it has collided the farming and having a nice house business with Pokémon-style death battles involving whimsical Ghibli-esque Spirits. After a few scant hours I think I sort of... like it...? But I also have some problems with it.
The capital M Moonstone Island is where the little village is. As you'd expect from this type of farming game, there are various different shops to teach you how to smelt metals, go fishing, or add new rooms to your home. The whole game is disgustingly lovely to look at, and there are many secrets to find and weird biomes to explore. You can sell excess stuff by tossing the billion stones you picked up while in the mines into a crate by your tent (which you can upgrade to a house of increasing luxuriousness). The idea is that you're now the local alchemist, and brew potions to improve everyone's lives.
All the islands are floating in the sky, and until you fix your broomstick you have to float between them on a single balloon (the animation for which makes me quite anxious). They hold unique plants and, crucially, one moonstone each. These you need for crafting story-relevant or otherwise necessary items, like the aforementioned broom. You also have to go into the dungeons on each island to collect the shards of a wizard's memory that form a mirror - look, we don't have time to get into all of it, but it's cute, I promise.
You can't avoid the islands, is my point, even early on. Said islands are randomly generated for each playthrough, so no version of your game will be exactly the same. This is cool, and supplemented by frequently finding treasure maps leading to goodies on the islands. It makes it feel bespoke. But this is also a noticeable point of tension.
These islands are full of Spirits, appearing and disappearing and stomping about seemingly at random. I like the designs a lot, and they're Ghibli-inspired enough that one of them is a little soot ball holding a rock over its head, and it will use the rock to batter the hell out of your nice lopsided dandelion rabbit thing. My MVP is a slime called a Coolslime, and it is wearing a cap backwards. That's amazing! But some of the Spirits that attack you will be, like, level 4, and others will be level 25, and you will run into them within yards of each other. There is no gradual level gating as in Pokémon, where the boistrous and bloodthirsty children who challenge you increase in strength only slightly faster than you; there is no long grass marking what to avoid if you want to minimise the risk of a fight with a monster either. You get what you get when you get it.
It makes it hard to enjoy levelling your team of Spirits, and you'll often default to trying to taming hostile ones, simply so they'll stop attacking you. However, this introduces a number of other friction points to its turn-based battles, as you can only keep tamed Spirits if you've got room for them in your party, or you've built a barn - and after four hours, the latter still hasn't materialised for me. As a result, I've fallen into a pattern of just taming-and-releasing Spirits almost instantly, as I can't even replace older, weaker Spirits with the newer, stronger ones I've just caught or tamed. It's frustrating, and it makes exploration early on feels like a chore, when it should be at its most exciting!
You're also the only person who has Spirits, which means there's no Spirit-related economy to profit from; you can't train up and sell a particularly strong Spirit, or flog your Spirit-buffing crops for extra money if you bother to haul arse to a special Sprithusiast shop, or whatever. This further silos off the Spirit battling half of the game from the crafting and homesteading half, because each requires a not insignificant amount of effort, but neither pay dividends in making each them more enjoyable. So you grow to sort of resent it quite quickly - even though the combat itself isn't bad.
It's pared back, and card-based, with Spirits having different scores in Armor, Speed, Vitality and Power (which mean defense, turn order, health and attack, respectively). Levelling allows you to increase one of those, and add a new card to your deck for the next fight. My slime-in-a-cool-backwards-cap levelled up and I chose Brawl, an attack card that deals 9 damage to all enemies, but I could have chosen Bite (1 damage dealt twice) or Patience (put a card in your hand in the draw deck for the next round). These all cost energy to play in a battle. It's simple, but effective.
Yet I still try to avoid it, because so often I'll get whomped by an almost literal brick shithouse. On the other hand, the crafty life sim stuff is way easier to engage with. You can flirt with the locals, you can build a bunch of cool stfuff, and I'm really keen to upgrade my house. But engaging with all that stuff requires you do more of the unwieldy other half of things. Plus, the Spirits you have equipped follow behind you, which was magical when Pikachu did it in Pokémon Yellow. Thing is, in Pokémon Yellow I wasn't trying to increase the size of my crop field. Get out of the way! Get out of the bastard way!