It's easier to weave a good tale when given an abundance of time and space to flesh it out. The narrower your constraints, the harder it is to successfully tell a story, and the more glaring every single seam and flaw will be. In that sense the deck is stacked against Moon Hunters from the start; it has a lot of ambition in terms of the story it wants to tell, but with so little space to tell it, the game’s weaknesses become difficult to overlook.
Billed as a “myth-weaving RPG," it can be a little tricky to wrap your head around what Moon Hunters actually is. Most of your time will be spent hopping from point to point on the world map, clearing areas of enemies and encountering random events on your quest to foil the Sun Cult and return the absent Moon goddess to the sky. You’ll do this again and again, playthrough after playthrough, until you figure out what you need for a better ending and, perhaps, get lucky enough to pull it off.
Each playable character has two distinct attacks and one evasive ability, with the exception of the unlockable Songstress who weaves together musical combos instead. Skill upgrades can be purchased through merchants scattered generously around the world, and at the end of each in-game day characters can pick an action to complete at camp that will give the party a stat boost. Occasionally you interact with random NPCs and complete minor events, and the choices made during those encounters will affect your personality. That in turn affects how that character is remembered within the greater context of the game's mythology, which is represented through epilogues and unlockable constellations.
Playthroughs are short, events are randomized, and there's a good chance that many of the possible story beats encountered during your first couple runs won't make a lot of sense (or be particularly useful) until you've done a couple more. If you don't happen to meet a girl who mentions a cat that can teach people to talk to animals, then when you find a shady-looking cat hanging out somewhere you may have no idea that it has any function beyond that of any other animal. It’s seemingly one more loose puzzle piece in a random pile of loose puzzle pieces.
Such a design decision lies at the heart of why Moon Hunters left me so dissatisfied: it felt like I was always missing something, that I would never truly succeed until I had played enough to have an encyclopedic knowledge of exactly what to do if I encountered random event X, Y, or Z on a run. Even when it seemed as though I was putting the puzzle together, acquiring one condition that could satisfy another, it was often a matter of luck to actually find what I needed, with a very limited time-frame in which to find it.
It didn't help that the whole time I played I was butting up against a lot of bugs and rough edges, and although none interfered with my progress, that didn't make them any less irritating. There are cutscenes which build a unique atmosphere courtesy of their subtle animation, soft music and dreamy narration, only to end so abruptly that I thought I'd accidentally skipped ahead. I ran into a mouse at one point that just said “squ” and vanished. No capital letters, no punctuation. Just “squ”. Another bug discovered on my travels was when playing as Shaman. I was essentially able to double-up on his shape-shifting form and run at full speed without penalty because the buff kept getting stuck when it should have run out.
It goes on like this, one little thing piling on top of another little thing and blotting out a lot of the charm Moon Hunters might otherwise have.
Then there's the volcanic bull mini-boss, who had a curious habit of charging at me once before politely standing in place while I chipped its health down to nothing. An area that generated an impassable barrier between me and the exit. A bit of dialogue where my character portrait appeared on both side of the screen. When I played with a friend (the multiplayer feature is, to be fair, still in beta) the upgrades he saw equipped and the upgrades I saw equipped on both characters were different. Worse, the endings we saw were completely different, too--the history he was given for his character had only a few sections in common with the history that I was given for his character. It goes on like this, one little thing piling on top of another little thing and blotting out a lot of the charm the game might otherwise have.
A much larger issue is how much weight is placed on the story, and how little that sometimes matters. During most playthroughs, the leader of the Sun Cult will come to the player character early on and tell them that he intends to kill them. Sure enough, if given the opportunity he will attack, and if the player loses the fight then that’s that. They’ll watch their character collapse, and then read about what they did with the rest of their life.
Maybe this cultist has a really generous definition of what killing is. Maybe it was a metaphorical kind of killing. Either way, when someone swears to kill my character and succeeds but I'm still treated to a little write-up about how she later moved in with someone she flirted with once, it becomes a lot harder to invest myself in the story again, and again, and again. Playing Moon Hunters successfully depends on you doing this.
With all that said, there are two truly unimpeachable things that Moon Hunters has in its favour: its art and its music. Every character portrait is rendered in an utterly beautiful watercolor style. Every design, every detail, every color palette works together in such a way that it makes me want to frame and mount as many of them as I can fit on my walls. The soundtrack, meanwhile, sets the tone of the game perfectly. It meanders between haunting and enchanting, and does a great deal to cement the often otherworldly situations that Moon Hunters presents. I could absolutely still recommend it to fans of games with a unique aesthetic, even if I would hesitate before suggesting it to someone with a less specific interest.
Moon Hunters doesn't give you the time to truly nestle into its world in one sitting, relying instead on the idea that they’ll keep coming back to uncover more and more with each successive playthrough. I wish I could say that at some point it all started to come together for me, but it didn't. It never felt like I was getting enough out of those playthroughs to make them truly worthwhile. I was searching for more, I wanted more, but even overlooking its technical flaws, Moon Hunters couldn't meet me halfway.