Available On: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Nothing irritates me more than seeing the smiling faces on happy customers. It means I priced an item too low and they scored a sweet deal. A begrudgingly crestfallen customer, one who’ll pay just enough to purchase my stock, is exactly the kind of oil that keeps my dungeon crawling machine going.
Moonlighter provides an interesting premise. What if, after exploring a Zelda-like dungeon, our loot-filled hero had to sell all that loot in their own shop, without knowing how much it’s worth?
Moonlighter offers a unique and fun combination of both action-RPG and merchant sim, but doesn’t provide nearly as much depth as games that specialize in either one.
Merchant by Day…
In the town of Rynoka lives a young merchant, Will. Will owns a humble shop called Moonlighter, and a magical pendant. The pendant gives Will the freedom to explore the dangerous dungeons just outside of town, as it lets him teleport out of them with his hard-earned loot.
That loot must be sold in Will’s shop by placing them on counter tables. The shop starts out with only four such slots but can be expanded throughout the game until you have a sizable storefront with decorations, display cases, and even an assistant.
The shop can be opened during the day, which sends in a cavalcade of customers willing to buy your goods, depending on the price. A compendium includes the prices of each good, ranking them from a great deal (boo!) to way too high that it will sit on the shelf forever (oops). The catch is that you have to discover these prices yourself, so the entire merchant sim boils down to a series of trial and error.
Once you’ve found the sweet spot for each item in a dungeon, the thrill dies down and you settle into the routine. I wish there was more involved in this process. Once you’ve tackled the first dungeon you’ve seen most of what the selling portion has to offer – though merchant quests are a nice addition about halfway through the game.
With cash in hand there are plenty of ways to spend your money, from adding new merchants to town to upgrading your shop, weapons, and armor. The money sink feels just about right; just when I felt like a damn millionaire I’d soon spend it all on a fancy new fire spear. You’ll need to spend that money often, as you constantly unlock progressively more challenging dungeons.
…Adventurer by Night
After the shop closes (or simply during the day, if you like), you can head over to the dungeons. The ultimate goal is to unlock the mysterious fifth dungeon by journeying through all three levels of the previous four, in order.
Each dungeon has its own theme, monsters, and loot. The dungeons are randomly generated, featuring very combat-heavy single-screen Zelda dungeons – there are no puzzles whatsoever.
The one bit of puzzling the game does, and does well, is inventory management. That’s often a disparaged aspect of RPGs, but Moonlighter gives it a unique spin by including items that affect other items, depending on where in your backpack you place them. An adjacent item may be destroyed, or sent back to town, or an item could duplicate another item. It’s brilliant and innovative, and I wish there were far more than just the handful of modifiers.
Will can equip up to two weapons, which need to be crafted and upgraded from found materials. I found the bow to be indispensable throughout my adventure. Unfortunately since each weapon takes a significant amount of resources, I had to eventually settle on just two choices. There are five different weapon types that all feels different, but don’t really afford Will any new abilities.
Combat mostly consists of rolling around with the generous dodge button while swiping at enemies. It’s very basic if you’ve played any kind of top-down action-RPG. The biggest challenge comes from learning the enemies within each dungeon and reacting to the situation that each room puts you in, like the giant boulders that spew lava in two different directions.
The gameplay isn’t necessarily challenging. Instead it acts as a tax on your resources. The third level of each dungeon is significantly harder, forcing me to upgrade my weapons and armor before taking on the boss. The boss fights were fun but surprisingly easy. I defeated most of them on the first or second attempt.
Moonlighter has been rated E for Everyone with Fantasy Violence. You can talk to NPCs in town but otherwise there’s little dialogue or story, and the simple controls are intuitive.
Moonlighter is good but not great. It provides a solid entry into merchant sim gameplay, but don’t expect anything near the level of a Stardew Valley or Recettear in terms of resource management. Likewise the dungeon exploration portion is fun but very simplistic, lacking a lot of the more interesting tools and abilities found in rogue-likes or pure action-RPGs. It’s a solid recommendation, but also one to temper your expectations on.