Moonlighter by developer Digital Sun is what you get if you take the typical roleplaying game formula and flips it on its head. Instead of questing, getting loot, and selling that extra gear to a shopkeeper, Moonlighter puts you in the role of the shopkeeper. But as the title suggests, you don’t just run a shop—you’re a secret hero, gathering materials in dungeons at night to sell to adventurers.
You play as a shopkeeper, Will, who dreams of being a hero—and indeed, moonlights as one. He does this not only to seek adventure, but to learn the secrets of the dungeons. Adventurers come from far and wide to Rynoka village—built around the dungeons, the village serves as a final stop before the dangers of adventure. As a shopkeeper AND adventurer, Moonlighter is basically broken down into two different scenarios: running your shop, and adventuring in the dungeons.
As a roleplaying game, Moonlighter is okay. It’s fun, a little difficult, and absolutely gorgeous. I’m not kidding when I say gorgeous: Moonlighter has some of the best pixel art animations I’ve ever seen. All of the animations are extremely detailed and smooth, and absolutely everything is visually appealing. It’s unfortunate that the gameplay loop itself tends to feel a little tedious.
Moonlighter’s adventure parts work like most isometric roleplaying games: you dungeon crawl, and fight numerous enemies in a themed dungeon until you’re strong enough to tackle that dungeon’s boss. The dungeons themselves change layout each time you enter them, and if you are defeated while in a dungeon, you don’t die—instead you’re expelled with most of your loot missing. As a shopkeeper, your goal is to not only gather materials to sell in your shop, but to also get materials necessary to make your own gear more powerful.
Combat is serviceable—there is a dodge roll that makes you invincible to damage, as well as a few different weapon archetypes that you can use, and upgrade. There is the sword and shield, bow, two handed swords, etc. You can find weapons in the dungeons, but you’ll most likely be using the blacksmith to craft your gear, and the witch to help enchant it once you get back into town. The combat never feels particularly good, or exciting—and most enemies, though beautifully rendered and in good variety, never quite stand out. This is the same with the boss encounters. Each dungeon as a boss at the end, but none of them are particularly exciting. Each has only a few moves, and feels more like a gear check than a test of skill.
The dungeons themselves are never that interesting to explore, either. They’re procedurally generated series of square rooms, reminiscent of Binding of Isaac and definitely in the style of early Legend of Zelda games, but they’re missing the pace of the former and the thrill of discovery of the latter. Each time you enter a dungeon the rooms are arranged differently, but it’s always the same few rooms, just in a different order. There are lore tidbits, and other discoverable parts, but they’re the same each time you visit, though the lore itself is interesting and does a good job establishing the world of Moonlighter.
Since the whole concept of Moonlighter revolves around your character being a shopkeeper, you would expect shop keeping to be a massively fun, major part of the gameplay, right? Well, I did, and I was disappointed. The shop system is horrible and a HUGE missed opportunity. Being a shopkeeper in Moonlighter doesn’t work much differently than selling items in a traditional roleplaying game–it just takes longer and the huge amount of tedious item management makes it way worse.
The loop looks like this: you gather items from the dungeons, and then set them up in your shops to sell. You don’t know the prices, so you have to set the prices yourself. You can tell if you’re selling something at a good price, or if you’re getting ripped off by your costumer’s reactions—if the price is too high, they’ll let you know, too. This is an interesting idea in concept, but holy crap do I hate it. You not only have to figure out the price, but you have to keep track of the best selling price for potentially hundreds of inventory items. There is a ledger that helps you keep track of it, but Moonlighter doesn’t have optimal prices listed when you place an item for sale—you HAVE to refer back to your book if you want to know if you’re going to get ripped off or not. Mercifully, it remembers the last price you sold whatever item at—but that doesn’t mean you’re not being ripped off for it.
Not only does it suck keeping track of all of the items for ONE dungeon, but each dungeon has its own set of inventory to find and sell. All of these different dungeons have their different price points, with each new item’s optimal price yet to be discovered. Not only are the items you find work once you get back to your shop, you can’t even collect them without tedious inventory management: random items can have curses on them, breaking other items or having other effects that you have to consider. Some items can only be placed in certain places in your bag, for instance. Do you like super tedious inventory management? Moonlighter is all about it.
Once you have your inventory out, and ready to sell, you still have to man the register, talk to customers with specific requests, restock shelves, and even act as loss management as people try to steal your items. Yep, if you turn your back you can lose your super expensive rare item you’re trying to sell. I guess that’s the danger of being a shopkeeper.
Not only do you need items to sell, but money and the different materials you find work towards making your character more powerful so he can venture into more dangerous dungeons. This means EVEN MORE inventory management. There is a wish list that allows you to mark certain items so you don’t sell them, because it’s necessary to be able to keep track to the vast amount of random crap you’ll be forced to pick up and sort through.
You’re not the only shopkeeper – as mentioned before, there is a blacksmith, and an enchantress to start, with several other shops you can unlock that help you out by either providing you with items (without having to go running back into a full dungeon run) or by selling items to further entice people to come to your shops. You can also spend money to upgrade your shop in numerous ways—storage, better cash registers that yield tips, and more space for item displays (among several upgrades). Eventually your little shop can become a mega store of sorts.
I wanted to very badly like Moonlighter, but it’s a chore. If going to dungeons, collecting items, pricing them, and managing money to upgrade your own items sounds like a lot of work, that’s because it is. Moonlighter IS gorgeous, though, and absolutely chock full of charm. I can’t recommend it, because I couldn’t find the fun, but it is not totally irredeemable. It does fulfill its promise of putting you in the role of a fantasy shop keeper–unfortunately, that role turns out to be solidly not fun.
Moonlighter is available now on Windows, PlayStation 4, Mac OSX, Linux and Xbox One.