Good gear can save any camping trip, but it can also save you when you're mutilating monsters and grabbing loot in one of the many dungeons the gaming landscape has to offer. It's always a good idea to visit the villages that often reside right outside of monster-infested caves. The items you can buy in the shops in these villages will often be essential for a successful adventure nearby. And it's precisely a shop like that which represents the centrepiece of Moonlighter, the new top-down action-RPG from Digital Sun Games that comes with roguelite-elements and plenty of 16-bit retro-style.
You are Will, a man who daydreams of becoming a hero but who also has to work at the "Moonlighter". A shop he inherited from his parents. At night Will searches the nearby dungeons for items to sell in his store, items that other adventurers can buy on their way to the very same dungeons. It's this duality between dungeon-crawling and shop-simulation that forms the backbone of Moonlighter's gameplay.
In the darkness of the dungeon you'll defeat vicious foes and collect valuable items that you'll then be able to sell in your shop the following day. There are four dungeons that you unlock as you progress and a fifth that plays host to the final boss fight. They're procedurally-generated and will be built differently every time you visit them, but every dungeon (except the fifth) is consistent in the sense that it has three levels and a boss. In every level there is a healing fountain which also works as a guideline, showing you that you're on your way to the next level.
The variety in the dungeons isn't overwhelming, but the procedurally-generated caves are at least entertaining. That is mainly because there's a rich tapestry of adversaries where each enemy type offers different challenges, forcing you to vary your approach and make clever use of the environment. Even though the combat system is relatively simple the different attack and movement patterns for each type of enemy make for compelling battles - especially once you've got some different weapons that can help you change up your tactics. All in all, Moonlighter does a good job of easing you into the gameplay, slowly adding more and more elements that expand your options as you progress.
One system that unfolds as you play is your inventory. Where it can be a hassle to keep on top of your gear in games where you can never carry all of the loot you find, in Moonlighter your inventory management is a little game by itself, which makes it both interesting and fun. You can sacrifice items in your inventory with a magic mirror, but you won't be able to get as much profit from them as you would in the store. Some items have special abilities that will have an effect on an adjacent item. Suddenly finding out which loot to keep is kind of enjoyable.
It's a constant struggle to get as much out of your time in a dungeon as possible. If you lose your health points you're thrown out and you'll have to try again or go home empty-handed. It's exciting because you're always evaluating whether you should continue your adventure with low health or if you should leave with your treasures and bank your progress. It feels awful losing some quality loot because of a greedy and naive mistake. Luckily you will be able to use your pendant and, for a couple of hundred coins, you'll be able to go directly home to your store.
Back in the store you can go about selling your treasures. Your most important job is to evaluate your items. It's a question of finding a price that hits the sweet spot between customer-satisfaction and profit. If you sell too much of a single type of item they will decrease in value. Therefore a broad selection becomes integral to your success and this impacts your dungeon crawling as well. The economy-system is simple but fun and gives Moonlighter a sweet shift in terms of tempo. On top of that, new elements will slowly be implemented as you learn the nooks and crannies of keeping your store, keeping things fresh.
You'll be able to get more people to your village, Ryonka, albeit for a price. People like the Blacksmith who will make you new weapons and armour, or the witch who will craft potions. With your new weapons and health potions, your progression through the dungeons will go much more smoothly. You will therefore also get better loot which you can sell in your store and so on and so forth. We all know the loop but here it's not only addictive, it's also highly entertaining. There are a lot of possibilities to widen the gameplay, such as making your store bigger resulting in a different shop-sim experience. Having that final boss fight behind the entrance to the fifth dungeon gives you a nice finish line too, but fighting the bosses is no cakewalk!
Unfortunately, you're forced to do a lot of grinding before you can upgrade your gear enough to take on a boss. The difficulty spikes to a degree that we found frustrating. Moreover, the rest of the experience suffers under the weight of the boss fights.
Moonlighter is an RPG but there isn't a lot of story - not that it's necessarily needed. However, a village that feels a little more alive would have given it an extra dimension. Old diaries and letters are hidden in the dungeons, but once you start reading them you'll be stuck going through a lot of text bubbles and there isn't a lot of variety in the stories they tell. Moonlighter could have done with a little more polish in some places too. One undercooked example was a devastating moment when we used all of our coins on big health potions hoping to take out a boss, only too find out that we hadn't gotten them due to having a full inventory.
Moonlighter might not seem that different from your average Kickstarted 16-bit platformer, and of course, there's not a huge amount of novelty in slaying monsters or selling loot, but Moonlighter's gameplay loop is well paced for the most part and only stumbles around the minor boss fights. The 16-bit style is lovely and so is the soundtrack, so if you're looking for your next indie-gem we would definitely recommend checking it out.