Sometimes a premise is enough, and Moonlighter has a great one. As the owner and proprietor of a store that sells odds and ends in a small almost deserted town that was once a hub of adventure and heroes, it’s up to you to return both to glory. Like the visiting heroes passing through in search of treasure, after closing for the night or simply when you run out of stock - you need to delve into nearby dungeons in search of, well, inventory. And thanks to an underlying mystery, adventure too. From small indie team Digital Sun Games, Moonlighter is a resounding success.
The sort of experience that takes concepts, settings, and established mechanics and manages to create something that feels both new and special.
One reason, of many, that adds considerable weight to its success comes down to the simple fact if you were to subtract the shopkeeper stuff and view it from a dungeon perspective – Moonlighter still works. From the top-down perspective to the old-school Zelda-like layouts where you traverse through rooms descending deeper into more difficult levels to reach the boss - the progression of the action itself is sound. The combat has a great feel, the animation exceptional, and both enemy variety and design feel spot on. But what happens when you take a well-executed action-RPG and then add in the potential motivation that you’re simply there to find new and potentially exotic items to sell? Well, you get a literal game-changer.
Using a magical pendant at any point during your adventures through a dungeon you can teleport and return to your store. Doing so before you die is key, because if that happens you lose all items in your backpack and are spit out of the green-portal glow of a dungeon’s entrance. With little choice but to try again. It’s important to re-iterate just how well the storefront mechanics work in conjunction with the rogue-lite dungeon crawling. Randomly generated they may be, with the added incentive of finding the right crafting materials to get access to better weaponry and armour sets, being there for stock first and foremost is a brilliant touch. Where, heading back to town to open your store to sell a fresh batch of goods takes precedent over a boss battle or completing a themed dungeon to move onto the next.
But, one could easily play Moonlighter with an emphasis on the action-RPG side. Thanks to the depth of the customisation and the ability to continuously invest in abilities, over say, the idea of investing in a bowl of fruit to place next to your cash register. Set in the picturesque but rundown Rynoka village, there’s an element of Stardew Valley to both the presentation and the intoxicating blend of things to do, and then do again because they’re so much fun. Visually a treat, the animation is also reminiscent of classic LucasArts adventures from the ‘90s including The Dig and Full Throttle. Where character detail extends to environments with no tiny plume of smoke or gentle waving of a cloth in a breeze too small a detail.
Using money earned to invest in the town of Runoka brings all manner of new shopkeepers and visitors, from blacksmiths to potion makers and enchanters and bankers. Expanding your store to include more retail space to facilitate growth, a new bed to give you a defense boost, decorations that include items to ward of shoplifters, there’s no feature or design element that feel superfluous or inessential. That bowl of fruit mentioned earlier? Well, it incentivises customers to leave a generous tip. And so that stack of Golem Crystals you sold for 1200 gold now nets you a sweet 30% bonus.
This commitment to detail and meaningful reasons for all these things to be, well, things carries over to the mechanics of running a store. Those with real-life retail experience will be aware of the prevalence of shoplifting, where it’s unwise to place expensive goods near the entrance. Thus giving thieves the opportunity to make a quick getaway. In Moonlighter, keeping the more expensive stuff close to the register is a must for this very reason and another example of the sheer charm and personality that can be felt throughout the experience. Also, like in real-life, you'll be able to spot a thief from a mile away.
A key design element and one that plays into the very idea of capitalism in a charming fantasy world, is how you’re not really given any indication as what an item may be worth. Left up to players to set the price, watching people’s reactions is key to ensuring an item remains popular. Like with everything Moonlighter the learning curve is brief thanks to simple and different states represented by immediate emotional and visual customer reactions. A smiley face with shiny gold coins for eyes means that it’s a bargain so you would do well to raise the price next time. Managing and keeping track of prices is both dungeon-specific in terms of memorising what’s trash or not worth it in the long run and a handy journal that keeps track of the pricing history according to customer response.
In the end this is only scratching the surface of not only the type of experience you get but also the many systems that work together to create what is an experience that grows and develops alongside your hero and store. Moonlighter, like many classic action-RPGs or fantasy blends like Harvest Moon or Stardew Valley, is a grower. With masterful touches. No interest in unlocking the next dungeon? Well, that ties into the greater wealth to be had and how if you just this once make a beeline to the boss you’ll be able to afford the next upgrade a lot quicker. Finding the combat too difficult? You can focus on enchanting your gear, investing in upgrades to make even the most difficult challenges a breeze. Perhaps herein lies the genius of Moonlighter’s simple, intricate, and intoxicating design. Choose the prices, choose the gear, choose your upgrades, choose the dungeon, and choose the loot to sell.