You’ll spend a lot of your time in Moonlighter running a store. In this store, customers get mad when they find things too expensive, they knowingly and gleefully rip you off when you accidentally mark something too cheaply, and they steal things all the time. As someone who’s worked in retail for a significant portion of their adult life, I can tell you that this is a very accurate representation. There is also an annoying bug in the game where customers will refuse to leave the store, which makes closing up or going home impossible. This is accidentally also very realistic.
Will is the newest in a long line of merchants to run the Moonlighter, the store from which the game gets its namesake, in the town of Rynoka. A town built entirely to facilitate trade and commerce thanks to the endless riches to be found in a group of four ancient dungeons nearby, Rynoka has suffered something of a recession thanks to the closure of said dungeons out of concern for public safety. More interested in seeking adventure than running his underperforming shop, Will sets out to explore the dungeons and find the secret to unlocking a mysterious fifth dungeon in which no hero has ever set foot. When I started my journey in Moonlighter I thought it was cute that the story was so transparently just a means to the dungeon crawling/shopkeeping sim hybrid gameplay. Between the small pieces of in-game worldbuilding to be found and the wonderfully left-of-field ending though, the game proves itself to be as deftly meta as it is shockingly addictive.
Is that an exclamation mark above your head or are you just happy to see me?
Moonlighter is a game of two halves, one half shop (and town) sim and one half dungeon crawling action RPG. Exploring the four main dungeons is a top-down, retro-style affair that feels a little like The Legend of Zelda and The Binding of Isaac had a baby and then broke up and Dark Souls helped look after it on custody weekends. Each dungeon is comprised of a series of procedurally-generated rooms across three floors followed by a menacing boss at the end. Combat is fairly simple hack-n-slash stuff with a variety of weapon types where constant movement and well-timed dodges are key to surviving against tough enemies that love to swarm Will or suppress him with bullet-hell projectiles. Staying alive is tough, at least on the default ‘hard’ difficulty that the game recommends playing on, but it’s pretty important. Outside of fighting baddies and reaching the boss monster, Will’s main goal in dungeons is to fill his bag with sweet, shiny loot to sell in his store. Once he’s picked up all he can carry, Will can teleport back to town with his spoils at any time by donating his hard-earned cash to a magic pendant. Should he fall in battle though, he’ll lose everything in his bag for good. Unlike some similar games, he can’t go back for the dropped items either, because the dungeons change their layout and contents on every single visit.
A giant carnivorous plant. Where’s your god now, vegans?!
When Will does make it out with a bunch of swag, it can be used to craft all manner of weapons and armour, make potions and enchantments or most importantly, sell for gold at his store. Running the Moonlighter is fairly straightforward, but there’s a definite art and skill to doing it successfully. Items need to be placed on display and priced up, but figuring out the value of each object is a puzzle in itself. Price something too high and customers will scoff at it and move on, price it much lower than what it’s worth and they’ll gladly take the deal but it’ll hurt your bottom line. Figuring out just what things are worth is a careful game of pricing everything, gauging your shoppers’ reactions and adjusting accordingly. It’s daunting at first, putting out your merchandise without knowing its value and potentially letting priceless artefacts go for a pittance, but play it right and you’ll make a killing. Once you start building up some capital your shop can be upgraded and fitted with decor that adds passive stats like increasing tips from customers and deterring pesky shoplifters. Will might not be super stoked on his gig as a merchant, but he’s going to have to make serious bank to bring the town back to life and attract armourers and other merchants to buy gear from, thus increasing his odds when diving into those perilous dungeons.
It’s a supremely addictive cycle, plundering the randomly generated mazes for precious loot and then flipping them for cash with which to improve your odds of plundering further. Progression is strange though not unwelcome, in my 12-15 hours with Moonlighter I found that the game gets progressively easier once the money starts rolling in. While I ventured into the first dungeon what seemed like dozens of times before I felt equipped to handle the imposing end boss, the following ones required less and less work. By the time I hit the last proper dungeon my town was fully upgraded and Will was rocking the best armour available, so I steamrolled the three floors in no time and the boss felt like a pushover. While it could be considered a negative that the game gets easier as time goes on, it does help to impart the feeling that everything Will does both in his exploration and in building up Rynoka really comes together and allows him to succeed where others have failed.
If you can spot the cameo(s) in this screenshot I love you <3
All of this is wrapped up in one hell of a gorgeous, retro-styled package. Sure, the whole SNES-inspired pixel art schtick is more than a tad overdone at this stage but Moonlighter’s intricately detailed sprites and backdrops are animated beautifully and dripping with personality. A super-catchy soundtrack adds even more flavour to the experience too, with the tech dungeon’s backing track still stuck in my head now. The only real letdown is the presence of some annoying and persistent bugs that really hamper the experience. Multiple times customers would freeze up in my store, unable to leave, which forced me to hard reset the game and start from the most recent save point. Will would also get stuck in scenery or doors in dungeons from time to time and I had the game crash on me more than I’d have liked. None of these issues set me back more than maybe ten minutes of gameplay per occurrence but they were frequent enough that it soured the overall experience.
Moonlighter is a gorgeous, addictive amalgamation of grindy dungeon crawler and economic sim with a lighthearted but intriguing tale and a definite “one more go” vibe. The later half of the game can be over a little too quickly if you find yourself a dab hand at the merchant biz but it’s a satisfying progression nonetheless. Pesky bugs get in the way of the fun though, so hopefully the developers can iron those out soon enough.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro | Review code supplied by publisher