Moonlighter Review: Open For Business

  • First Released May 29, 2018
  • PC
  • PS4

Crawling in the abyss.

Dulcet tones and somber notes played in time represent the curious duality of Moonlight. It is, at once, a heroic adventure and the name of the subdued storefront that you alone run. Centered in the heart of a once-bustling town, all the greats, the audacious plunderers of dungeons that were sealed long ago, have died out. The markets and the merchants of your hamlet have all but vanished alongside them. Always looking to the horizon, you see what could be--in both yourself and the town--and set out to claim your glory and bring riches back from the depths of dangerous dungeons.

On first pass, that's a tall ask, and one that doesn't necessarily fit together the way you might think. This isn't quite the same as saving a town the way you might in a classical Zelda game --though references to those nascent adventures abound. Instead, your eye is on unearthing the depths of five dungeons that lie just north of town. Each is like a world unto itself, and getting into and out of these spaces is often a feat--made that much more treacherous by the monsters that inhabit them. Still, the depths hold untold riches, artifacts, and supplies that were once essential for trade.

The balance that Moonlighter strikes then, is tasking you with battling beasts and carefully collecting trophies and supplies based on the needs of the people in your town. Instead of gathering loot and hauling it back to a shopkeep as one does in just about every similar adventure, you're on both ends of the equation and the way that your two pursuits play into one another essentially is the game.

You'll need to mindful of supply and demand and as well as good tips and gear for adventuring. Dodging monsters to jab their weak spot, before hopping away and nabbing their leavings is a regular cycle. But that, in itself, hides a lot of the nuance on offer. Prying the core of a mechanized stone golem and bringing it back to town will fetch a tidy price--but only a few times. People don't know how to use them, per se, nor do they really need that particular item. It's neat (and rare), but that's all, really.

Add to it the fact that few have seen such trinkets since heroes swarmed through these dungeons, and that immediately complicates the equation. You don't know what the value of it really is, because you're the shopkeep. It's worth what others will pay. So it falls to you to make educated guesses, learn from your customers reactions and hope that your initial prices aren't so low that you're getting ripped off or so high that customers balk and walk off.

Those same assessments follow with every item you plunder, meaning that you're always working the numbers, figuring out what you can carry up, and how it's going to affect your bottom line. This also keeps you from always gathering up the most valuable items. If you only grab the best loot, you'll quickly flood the market and bottom out your sales, and the same goes in reverse for the most basic stuff. Wood and vines can be valuable (though rarely). And all that calculus compounds when you begin examining the supplies you'll need for your own gear. Potions and new equipment don’t make themselves. Indeed, when you start, none of those types of facilities are even available in town.

This ties a lot of the game's progression directly into your choices, and gives you a powerful through line and a sense of thematic goals that tie into your physical journey. That feeling is fantastic, and grows every time you think back to the sparse hamlet you began with, and track just how far your adventure and the arc of the town itself join and progress together.

Saccharine melodies that playfully evoke the 16-bit era help sell the narrative as well. Few openers are as immediately alluring as Moonlighter’s theme. Melancholic notes blends with the sweet sounds of your hamlet, filling you with a sense of loss--for what your town once was. Because of the aesthetics, many of those feelings also get blended with kernels of nostalgia, particularly for those fond of the Super Nintendo era.

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Bright colors, and a sharp aesthetic are backed with crisp animations that not only sell the world, but help it breathe. Fireflies drift about town, settling near trees, illuminating the wooden giants. Down in the dungeons, spiders and moths flitter to and fro, while your battles with golems and monsters play out.

Now at this point you may have noticed that there not much has been said about the combat. And sadly, that's because it's the weaker half of this outing. There are five distinct dungeons, each with their own environments, foes, and array of tricks and traps to throw your way. But across them all, you use the same core movement--and it consists of two types of moves and a dodge. If you've got finesse, you can string some actions together, though. You can attack with one weapon, dodge, quickly switch, and then resume the onslaught. Or switch between a sword and shield for defense (where the secondary "move" would be a block), and a more offensive weapon. But that's generally the sum total of your combat choices. Combat, then, is thin and there's only so much that can be done with massively varied environments and a limited pool of combat techniques.

None of this to say that battles in Moonlighter are bad. Far from it. What it manages with those limited sets is quite impressive, and there will be plenty of moments when you dodge over bottomless pits that line a snaking path to approach an enemy from a novel angle. But they aren't common enough or varied enough to really get the full potential of what's here.

In some ways, the same could be said of the keeping the shop running at peak efficiency, but there's enough interplay with managing your limited baggage space and just enough anchored in supply-and-demand systems that it comes together nicely. It's a shame, then that Moonlighter's also a bit on the short end, as some of these ideas would do well with simply more--but then the combat would like thin out even more. Still, what's here is refreshing, and the balance struck between crawling through dungeons and working with the economics of the town are a good combo while it lasts.

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The Good

  • Balancing the needs of your shop and dungeon crawling is surprisingly fun
  • Great score and 16-bit animations stand out as some of the best in an overcrowded aesthetic field
  • Watching your town grown alongside you as an adventurer creates a powerful thematic thread

The Bad

  • Repetitive combat
  • Little depth to the world and mechanics

About the Author

Dan Starkey cut his teeth on 16-bit adventure titles as so many did, with Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. Enjoying Moonlighter as a loving send up of the genre, he eagerly dipped 12 hours into the maintenance of his shop and countless trips to the depths on PC, and further testing of the PS4 version was handled by GameSpot staff. Complimentary codes were provided for this review.