Moonlighter on PlayStation 4
For indie games, the core gameplay experience is incredibly important. It needs to draw the player in and propel them through the experience, even if it heavily draws its inspirations from other games. Moonlighter is an indie RPG that wears its inspirations on its sleeve, but manages to compile its myriad systems into one unique experience. At first glance, it seems like Moonlighter could get repetitive quickly, but its gameplay loop is surprisingly engaging and keeps you coming back hour after hour.
Moonlighter sets its story up quickly, with your character being the young inheritor of a merchant shop named Moonlighter in the city Rynoka. Years ago outside of Rynoka, mysterious dungeons popped up out of nowhere, filled with monsters and treasure alike. Not only did heroes begin to traverse the dungeons, but so did merchants, searching for valuable treasures to sell.
You’re one of these merchants, and this idea essentially splits Moonlighter into two different gameplay segments. Whenever you want, you can head just outside of Rynoka to enter the dungeons, which are Zelda-like top-down labyrinths filled with enemies to fight and items to find. The dungeons are generated randomly in terms of their layout, meaning each time you enter them they’re different. You can use five different types of weapons and carry up to 20 types of items in your pack.
At any time you can hold down the circle weapon to use your amulet and return to Rynoka; however, it costs gold to do so. While exploring the dungeon you need to be careful, as if you die you’ll lose any and all items in your pack, forcing you to replay it again and make a new run. At the same time, you can use an item called the “Mirror” to instantly turn any of your items into gold. Of course, the amount of gold that you get is significantly less than what you could earn putting the item up for sale in your shop.
Moonlighter’s exploration gameplay is pretty typical for a top-down RPG, but it certainly plays smoothly. A lot of the combat system deals with positioning, and you need to find out how to take advantage of each enemy’s attack patterns, and how that plays into your own weapons. A quick dodge roll mapped to L2 also lets you spring out of danger when needed. It’s a quick and responsive system that helps encourage the idea of quick dungeon crawling.
All of the items you find in dungeons can be brought back to your shop and sold to villagers. You set items on displays, decide the price of each one, and open your shop up. Customers will react to the price of each item with four different emotions, and you can use these emotions to deduce if you’ve priced an item too high or too low, and adjust it accordingly. Everything in Moonlighter revolves around making money. You can use your hard earned cash to upgrade your shop, bring new merchants into Rynoka, purchase weapons and equipment, upgrade your items, and more. You can even get enhancements for your shop that do things like encourage them to leave large tips, spend more time in your shop, or purchase items faster.
Of course, while your shop is open you can’t just idly stand by. You need to watch customers and see how they react, then ring them up for their purchases at the counter. If you take too long, people will leave and drop their purchase. At the same time, ruffians will occasionally wander into your shop to steal something, and you’ll need to tackle them before they can make it out the door to keep your hard-won items intact. Shopkeeping encourages you to be quick and aggressive with your pricing, and there’s a progression to everything that has you earning more money with each new dungeon, but having to spend more to upgrade yourself and your shop. The shop upgrades, in particular, feel incredibly worthwhile, giving you the option to take on customer requests for gold and eventually get your own assistant to help out.
These two core systems combine into a gameplay loop that proves to be incredibly fun. Once I got the hang of everything, I couldn’t wait to jump back into a dungeon and get a new load of items, only to head back to my shop and finagle my way into making some quick bucks. Moonlighter has four different dungeons all leading to a mysterious fifth door that’s locked. Each dungeon is made up of three floors and a final boss. A healing spring on each floor also helps give you brief respite, while also pointing the way forward. Bosses are decently challenging, but finally finishing a dungeon after jumping into it (and possibly dying) countless times gives a great sense of accomplishment.
While Moonlighter is a little short on story, there are cryptic notes scattered around each dungeon dropping a breadcrumb trail on what’s going on. There’s much more to the dungeons than meets the eye, and there’s a story behind them beyond just being places to explore. During your dungeon delving, you’ll discover bits and pieces while you head toward the end goal. I definitely could have done with more context to everything, but there’s an air of mystery to Moonlighter that helps pull you along. There’s also a number of secrets you can find along the way, with hidden rooms accessed by diving down holes in the ground.
The dungeon-crawling and shopkeeping systems work in harmony, but it does take a while for things to really set in. My first hour or two with the game initially felt with a slog, as learning the ins and outs of everything took a while. Losing all of your items from dying in a dungeon is a harsh punishment at first, but it’s all part of learning your limits. Before long, I found myself getting into a groove with Moonlighter, and the hours just fell away. These opening hours can, however, be daunting for some players who want to jump right in.
The game’s strengths are only bolstered by its fantastic art style and music. There’s a ton of detail packed into each dungeon especially, with little insects crawling on the ground or sand seeping through holes in the ground. A whimsical soundtrack helps set the tone, while adding some charming personality into the mix as well. Moonlighter is also rife with references to other games. While running my shop at one point, a hero walked in that was the spitting image of Auron from Final Fantasy X, while another resembled Link from The Legend of Zelda.
Despite the fact that Moonlighter doesn’t do anything incredibly new, it still feels like a wholly unique experience. The combination of dungeons and shopkeeping creates a great gameplay loop that encourages exploration, and the game’s aesthetic really helps drive everything home. There’s definitely a bit of micromanaging to do with its myriad systems, but it all connects into a surprisingly satisfying experience.
Score: 4/5 – Great
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