Moonlighter is a dungeon crawler with a twist – you’re not a hero, you’re a merchant with a shop to run. As the name implies, dungeon crawling is something you do as second job, a way to fill up your shop’s inventory with items pilfered from chests.
It’s a neat twist. We’ve had games before where you play as a shopkeeper selling items to adventurers, like Weapon Shop de Omasse on the 3DS, but I can’t think of a game that combines retail with dungeon diving. And the good news is that this genre mash up works really, really well.
The plot sees a series of mysterious dungeons suddenly appear in the landscape, and adventurers flock to raid them for their treasures. Your father, Old Pete, becomes lost in the dungeons, so it’s up to you to run the family shop, as well as to find out what happened to your dad.
There are four dungeons that you unlock in order, and each dungeon has three levels. The dungeons rearrange themselves on each visit, so the layout will be completely different every time you explore – a good thing, as you’ll be returning multiple times. At first you’ll be too underpowered to make it very far, but you can take the items you find back to the shop and sell them to get money to buy better weapons and armour.
So we come to the shop running part of the game, which is far more fun than it has any right to be. You place the items you’ve found on display and set a price for them – but the trouble is that you don’t know how much they’re worth. Your notebook lists the items in each dungeon in order of value, but you have to find out the ideal price for each one by watching the customers in your shop. If they grumble and walk away, the price is too high; if they’re eyes twinkle with delight, they’ve got a bargain and the price is too low. And all the while you’ve got to watch out for shoplifters and make sure the queue for the till doesn’t get too long, causing people to give up and go home. It’s brilliant.
You can also upgrade your shop to give you more display and storage space, as well as adding special items that do things like attract more customers to your shop or repeal thieves. And the town itself can be upgraded by investing in other retailers to get them to set up shop. I loved gradually improving everything and getting my shop ticking along nicely.
The dungeons are fun to hack and slash your way through, and there’s a neat mechanic whereby you can teleport out at any time using a pendant, but it costs some of your hard earned cash to use it and you’ll have to start all over again after you leave. It encourages you to press on as far as you can until you’ve collected enough sellable items to make it worth leaving – and the further you go into a dungeon, the better the items get. There’s also an item that lets you teleport out and return to the spot you left, but it’s very expensive to use.
I liked the risk/reward mechanic of pressing further on for better items – if you die you lose everything in your backpack, but you keep the five items you have on your person, so it’s worth rearranging your stuff to make sure your most valuable items are in your pockets, just in case. There’s also a neat mini game involved in arranging the items in your backpack. Some cursed items can only be stored at the edges of the pack, and others might destroy the item next to them when you return to town. Some cursed objects cause the item next to them to be turned into the same object, so there’s potential to turn worthless items into expensive ones. I was constantly rearranging my stuff to try the get the best possible haul of things, discarding the cheap stuff to make way for the rare valuables. Some might hate this bit of inventory admin, but I found it fascinating. In fact the whole game is just damn fun.
It helps that Moonlighter looks utterly gorgeous. The pixel art style is wonderfully colourful and vibrant, and the enemies are beautifully animated. I particularly loved the music as well – I found myself humming the tunes when I’d stopped playing, and there’s a really neat aural trick whereby the main town theme changes slightly to reflect the personality of the merchant you’re talking to. A hammer hitting an anvil works its way into the melody when you’re taking to the blacksmith, for example. It’s up there with in my all time list of Neat Touches in Video Games.
The only two grumbles I have about Moonlighter are that the crafting system limits your options for changing your play style, and the game lacks a decent New Game+ mode. There are various weapon types in the game, from massive swords to a sort of combat glove, but they’re extremely expensive in terms of items and cash. That means I basically stuck with my big sword through the whole game, gradually upgrading it as I went – it was too costly to think about switching weapons, and the sword seemed to pretty much plough through everything, so I didn’t feel the need to try another weapon.
When I finally finished the game, I was keen to keep playing – and you can, but nothing really changes after you beat the final boss. It would have been nice to see some additional challenges or longer, more challenging dungeons. Speaking of which, the game provides three difficulty options – Normal, Hard and Very Hard. Hard is the recommended difficulty, but I chose Normal because I wanted a bit of an easier time – in hindsight I would have gone for Hard, just to eke out the game for a bit longer. Because it really is a delight to play.
If you haven’t worked it out already, I thoroughly enjoyed Moonlighter and would heartily recommend it for fans of rogue-likes – as well as budding entrepreneurs.
Moonlighter is available for Switch, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PC and Mac. We reviewed the PS4 version.
Disclosure statement: Review code for The Moonlighter was provided by Evolve PR. A Most Agreeable Pastime operates as an independent site, and all opinions expressed are those of the author.