A Dissertation on Moonlighter (Nintendo Switch)

I grabbed Moonlighter off the shelf on one random evening when I was passing a Gamestop. I bought it used, and with my membership I got a nice little discount, plus they have an excellent policy where you get a week to return used games. This little “gamble” yielded me Dead Cells last time, so surely something good would happen again!

I wrapped up the game the other day and I can say that it was definitely a nice experience. But before I get into that, I want to say some words about gameplay loops in these types of games.

Moonlighter is a part simulation game, part top-down Zelda-esque randomly-generated dungeon crawler. It does neither of these things particularly well. Either one would stand alone somewhat, but what really drags this game down, as well as many other simulation games, is the gameplay loop.

Every simulation (and just about every game in general) has a loop. Rinse, lather, repeat, in gaming terms. Just about everything you do in the game in a typical gameplay session will have you doing things, on repeat. It’s not inherently a bad thing of course, that’s just the nature of simulations – but it can absolutely ruin a game if it lacks enough “random” or is exploitable. I ran into this issue with Prison Architect when I got heavily into the game many years ago. Of course, at the time, it was still in Early Access, so it’s understandable and has since been fixed, but I figured out how to exploit the gameplay loop to never fail. The trick behind a good simulation is that stuff happens, and you just have to deal with them.

Hell, SimCity had a goddamn robot monster that would just appear and destroy everything. But once you master a simulation, it no longer becomes fun. What separates a good sim game from a bad one is whether or not it’s possible to master it so that all variables are removed from gameplay.

The Gameplay Loop

Moonlighter has you playing as a shopkeeper, who operates a shop during the day, and runs dungeons by nights, killing monster and collecting loot to sell at the shop. This is a really cool idea and I was sold on it instantly, as I was craving both a simulator as well as a fun action adventure.

Dungeon crawling is all done in true rogue-like fashion. Randomly-generated, very challenging, and dying means you lose all your stuff. In this case, it’s all of your loot (or whatever wasn’t on your “belt”). That loot is also your only ticket to progression in the game, so dying is absolutely not a good thing to have happen.

When you are ready to leave the dungeon, you can activate a necklace that will teleport you back home, where it will be the next day.

And, you get a neat little screen to show you everything you picked up, as well as the enemies you’ve vanquished.

You then place and price all of your items, and run the shop, operating the cash machine and attempting to tackle the occasion shop thief while they attempt what eventually becomes grand larceny as your items go up in value. The thief acts as the sole disrupter to the gameplay loop as far as the shop goes, which really just gets annoying after a while. Either way, you make a fair bit of coin selling all of your loot, thievery aside.

What you do with this money is craft and upgrade all of your gear, helmet, chest plate, legs, shoes, and weapons, so that you can progress further into the dungeon, eventually taking out the boss. This unlocks the next dungeon.

You also buy other things, like upgrades for your gear, decorations for your shop that provides perks like +% of tips added to checkout prices, etc.

This is the gameplay loop. It is immensely satisfying and absolutely challenging. Losing all of your gear is very heart-breaking, for the obvious reasons but also for other reasons which we can get to later. Over time, this loop gets very tiring, and as you figure out how to crack the code, unfortunately you can tend to run into a big, unsolvable issue: boredom.

Thoughts on Shopkeeping

Instead of going off on a rant, I want to talk a bit about each of the two dynamics of the game, as I think it will more accurately portray my thoughts as not complaints, but minor frustrations.

To start, let’s talk about the gameplay of playing the shopkeeper during the day. You open your store and then must play counter-jockey for every sale that takes place. Patrons wander in, walk around, inspect your item, occasionally attempt to steal them, and then it happens: the thought bubble. A little thought/speech bubble pops up after they inspect the item and the price you set for it, signaling that the item is priced too low, too high, just right, or a little on the pricey side, but still worth picking up.

This is the core of this half of Moonlighter, because it is a direct reaction to your price. None of your customers (with the exception of rich people, denoted by a difference icon) will buy an overpriced item, so you need to go back to the drawing board immediately and adjust the price.

There are some ways to do this more efficiently, especially as the items become worth thousands a piece, but there is a massive amount of extremely tedious guesswork that goes into this. If someone thinks my leaf being sold at 100 gold is too expensive, then what do I do? Make it 90? 50? 5? Your guess is as good as mine.

Welcome to Who’s Line is it Anyway, where the prices are made up and the numbers don’t matter!

The only thing that alleviates this is that your item menu is sorted by price, and has certain thresholds, so the 1-1000 gold items are at the bottom, the 1000-5000 gold items are above that, so on and so fourth. But this still requires a tremendous amount of repetitive, boring work to find what I eventually referred to as “the golden number.” Especially because each of the 4 dungeons has their own respective items, which is like starting your reference guide of “golden numbers” from previously sold items, from scratch.

This isn’t the only issue, however. There also is hardly any explanation to these mechanics. The game is severely lacking in tutorials, which is something that simulations really need.

Customers can sometimes come to the side of the checkout counter and ask for specific requests. If you carry out the requests, usually in the form of “collect 20 x by Thursday”, you earn a large premium. The problem is that there’s nothing ever really explained to you. Like, will the person come BACK on Thursday? What if I sleep through that day? Do I get the money automatically or do I have to wait around for the customer to come back?

Taking on a customer request. These are not very easy to track and could have used some more attention.

Overall, Moonlighter struggled to hit a point where the shopkeeping mechanic was varied enough, but still simple. It ended up just being super basic and without any real skill aside from guessing numbers.

Thoughts on Dungeon Crawling

Of course, the flip-side to the shopkeeping is the dungeon crawling itself. Very clearly taking inspiration from Zelda’s top-down entries, while employing an aesthetic not dissimilar to Kamiko, the dungeon crawling sections have the player traversing randomly-generating dungeon floors, three in total for each of the four main dungeons. While the shopkeeper begins with a trusty broom as a long-range weapon, you can eventually craft swords, spears, and bows, bringing a maximum of two options to a dungeon at a time, with the ability to shift between via a hotkey.

Personally, I found the sword/shield and the bow to be a good combo, allowing me to deflect enemy projectiles as well as take out enemies from afar. Thinking about it more, the bow is absolutely an indispensable part of the arsenal, as the later dungeons end up chock-full of enemies room to room, and getting overwhelmed is practically unavoidable at times without it. Picking off enemies long-range is much preferred to just ramming in at blinding speed, as you will die, and you will lose all of your items!

Unfortunately, this is the best screenshot I took, due to the frantic nature upon entering a room.

The controls are fairly tight and feel good, but one of the main issues is that there are a lot of “invisible walls” that seem to snag your arrows in mid-air quite often. Sending a flurry of arrows across the screen directly at an enemy, only to miss or have it get stuck on an obstacle that doesn’t really look like it was in the way happens quite often, and it can get mildly frustrating.

No matter though, because the swordplay is quite satisfying, to say the least – and managing to block projectiles with your shield (assuming you went with a sword/shield combo) feels great when you actually remember that you have a shield on-hand. Keep in mind that this is much less “Zerg rush every enemy in the room” type of combat, and more of a “sit back and let the enemies come to you” deal.

In terms of the dungeons, the gameplay loop has you, the shopkeeper, attempting to make it through all three floors, before reaching a boss fight. You will get quickly overwhelmed on your first run, most likely not even making it to the second floor before having to use your necklace and return back to the shop, but as you sell the items you find and make some moolah, you can visit an on-site witch, or the blacksmith, both of whom offer upgrades and new gear for sale. You can then return to the dungeon, and attempt to get a little bit further, eventually pushing fourth to the boss.

The boss fights are largely a focal point of the whole dungeon experience, and while I don’t want to spoil any of them, they are very challenging but absolutely fair. It may take a bit of learning in terms of the “tells” and what-not, like any proper action adventure, but taking each one down is extremely rewarding, and you get some nice loot that sells for a fortune, perfect for financing new gear to get you through the first floor of the next dungeon.

Just listen to that synth ripping in the background! The action for the boss fights is absolutely dialed in.

Now, there’s a whole system of collecting loot that I have neglected to mention thus far, and it’s this system that I believe drags the experience down a fair bit. And that is, the inventory management.

While collecting massive amounts of loot is a part of every run, rather than just throwing it into an inventory grid, there is a little “mini-game,” to give it a description, whereas you must position your inventory items in a specific way. Some items that you pick up from treasure chests are cursed, and on the loot icon, there is an arrow pointing in a direction. Whatever item is in that direction will fall under that curse.

For example, some items have a “destroys item upon returning to town” curse on them, and if it points, say, to the left, then that item will get destroyed from your inventory upon using your necklace. Another example of a curse is “turns this item into that item upon returning to town.” A more beneficial “curse” will remove the curse from the item in the direction the icon is pointing.

While this may sound intriguing in theory, it quickly becomes an exercise in frustration as you struggle to maintain a clean inventory, and inevitably get overwhelmed with dozens of drops that you end up having to scrap for pennies. It gets old, quick.

My dungeon-running modus operandi eventually shifted to one of two different possibilities upon entering a dungeon, and this is one of my major recommendations that I would make to new adventurers: decide whether the run will be about loot hunting (and specifically, which floor), or whether it will be about taking down the boss. Always have a clear goal in mind, or you will end up staring at an inventory screen for 3 minutes every time you find a treasure chest. For loot runs, you want to collect the bulk of your loot on whichever floor you can comfortably fight on without risking a 3-hit kill that’ll render your run fruitless. It’s all about speed in these cases. For boss runs, dodge-roll everything you possibly can to preserve as much health as possible, and throw all your pickups into the “recycling mirror” to at least get some cash for it.

This technique ultimately helped me get through the game more efficiently, rather than turning every dungeon attempt into “well, I might as well teleport home with all this loot…”

What I Liked about Moonlighter

What made Moonlighter a memorable experience that I saw through to the end was it was clearly made with a lot of love, and what resulted is one of the most charming experiences I’ve had on the Switch since its release.

Of course, there is the soundtrack. Oh my god the soundtrack – I’m in love with it. In fact, I’m listening to it right now as I write this review! There was clearly a lot of passion that went into this game to create the charm that is present from start to finish.

Listen to it yourself!

Pacing issues are can plague Moonlighter, but things like gorgeous visuals and terrific music makes it feel like the gameplay itself is secondary, with participating in the world being the primary purpose of its existence.

The sense of progression is palpable as well. If you linger about too long, trying to make as much moolah as possible, it can eventually feel like a slog, but in reality it takes just about the right amount of time between upgrades that it isn’t trivially simple, and each new upgrade feels like a job well done. The game doesn’t overstay its welcome, and by the time I finished it (between 15-20 hours), I felt perfectly content with it, denoting it worthy of a place in my sacred collection.

How Would I Improve Moonlighter?

I don’t particularly like criticizing any type of art, particularly without suggestions for improvement. I didn’t go into any detail on the assortment of little bugs that I found during my 15-20 hour stay in Moonlighter, because those can be fixed and are pretty irrelevant as nothing actually broke the game permanently. But there were some core gameplay issues that I felt could use improvement.

  • An option to automatically trash items under a certain price threshold to avoid constant inventory management.
  • Higher item stacking amounts, or just make it unlimited. Item stacking can be such a pain in the ass in games, and it’s almost always unnecessary.
  • Eventually, you unlock an accountant in town who can invest your money for you. There is almost no explanation of how it works, however, and it feels more like a random “give me money, then take it out later, when it’s hopefully worth more”. It could definitely be improved.
  • There just has to be a better way to guesstimate your way to the “golden number” when pricing items. I don’t know what that is, but it has to exist somewhere.
  • You continue to unlock more chests in your house/shop, but there is almost never a reason to hoard anything. Most of my chests remained completely empty the entire game. What are we supposed to be stashing?
  • There are different types of gear you can craft, with multiple tiers. Some are physical damage based, some are magic damage based. There doesn’t seem to be any different between the two, and if there is, it’s negligible.
  • A reminder or notification system of when requests and investments are ready would be great.
  • Armor and weapon enchantments all cost the same price, despite offering very different armor and attack bonuses. Ex. +5 and +20 defense cost exactly the same.
  • An option to pay a premium amount of money to send items straight back home while you are in a dungeon would change the whole dynamic of dungeon exploring, for the better.
  • Due to the random nature of dungeons, customer requests where you need to kill x amount of a specific enemy can become a huge pain, because it’s very possible (and highly likely) that not enough with spawn. Typically you need 10 or so, and I only managed to complete customer requests a handful of times because of this.
The investor screen – most confusing thing ever!

Do I recommend Moonlighter?

Do you like store simulations? Do you like top-down Zelda games? Do you like killing things for loot, and playing little mini-games to carry items home? If you answered yes to at least 2 of these questions, Moonlighter is definitely worth checking out. Since I played it a few months ago, there has been a DLC pack released with tons of new content which may have even fixed some of the issues here. Check this one out if you need something to hold you over until Link’s Awakening.

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