If you’ve read me before you may be aware that I sometimes struggle with rogue-like elements. Whilst I’ve enjoyed a host of games in the style, I also have been distinctly frustrated with many of them, especially those with little to no progression outside of the runs. The much discussed classic, The Binding of Isaac, is the benchmark which many games of this type are judged against; and one of my personal favourites, and there are more than a few comparisons that can be made with Moonlighter.
Moonlighter combines a few different elements to make it a unique experience; one part Legend of Zelda, one part Binding of Isaac and one part auction-house. The premise of this adventurous dungeon crawler is simple; you are a merchant in a small town and have to find things to sell. You play as Will, the proprietor of the Moonlighter. Whilst he is dedicated to being a great merchant, he has always had an urge to go deeper and really explore the nearby mines. Not content to skim its top, he dreams of searching for the four keys which will open the final door to some great treasure. You spend about two-thirds of your time in the dungeons and the rest tending to your shop. I’ll cover these two aspects separately as we ask whether Moonlighter has a bright future or if it should just go back to the day job.
For the most part, you’ll spend your time in Moonlighter exploring the different dungeons. There are four main dungeons each filled with a variety of thematically appropriate items to sell. Like in Binding of Isaac, as you enter you are plonked in an empty room and have to find the door to the next floor. The rooms are procedurally generated and filled with a mixture of monsters, loot and hazards, which you have to clear before accessing the piles of sellable junk. Every dungeon has three levels and culminate in a boss, but you shouldn’t be fooled into thinking you have a chance of getting to the end on the first try.
The whole idea is to build up your arsenal through repeated runs, and luckily you have a few different ways to get out of there with your booty intact. Your amulet allows you to escape; for a levelled cost, and later you gain access to a tool which also allows a return journey; for a much, much bigger cost. Runs at the start of each tier require careful timing to maximise your potential profit yet avoid death and the loss of your loot. Eventually, this becomes less of a worry in each dungeon, allowing you to get deeper and face the boss. There are a variety of interesting weapons with different speeds and styles to experiment with, and whilst I stuck to the basic sword and board combo the other options are just as viable as any. It’s almost reminiscent of the 2D LoZ games in how the combat is handled, and to me, that’s a fantastic place to start. Enemy variety is pretty wide, and whilst certain creatures have shared inspirations there are very few reskins between the dungeons. I particularly loved the design choices in the third dungeon, as you are presented with a range of geometric creatures which all have different AI patterns and skill sets. The gameplay in these sections is rather difficult at first, but this spurs you on and gives you a really satisfying feeling when you finally overcome the boss. It’s also incredibly fun to wander around and discover the varied items, and whilst some have cursed properties this only encourages you to shuffle them around and figure out the optimal arrangement of destruction curses and multiplication curses to earn the most money.
Once you have your loot, you return to your shop and arrange your items. You begin with no understanding of what each item is worth and have to learn their optimal price through clever guesswork and judging the reactions of your customers. At its heart, that’s what these sections are all about, and whilst you will eventually find yourself adding display cases for your more upper class clientele and tackling thieves, this loop remains satisfying and engaging throughout. Seeing the results screen at the end of a day is always gratifying a la Stardew Valley and I couldn’t help but get excited about what I would be able to spend all that moolah on.
That’s what it’s all about at the end of the day; commerce! Once you have your cash and items, you can them begin to craft, upgrade and enchant your armour and items. There isn’t a huge amount of possible customisation, with only two upgrade paths per weapon, three styles of armour and one enchantment per item, but it arguably isn’t that needed, as you upgrade at a rapid pace. You always have the next step up to take, and you will need all of those upgrades to take the bosses.
The aesthetic of Moonlighter is flawless, with clear inspiration taken from similar titles executed flawlessly. The sound is also nicely put together with tunes that never truly become repetitive. It also runs spectacularly on the Switch and is a great fit for the console. It’s a good pick-up and play game, as each run only lasts 10-30 minutes and is time limited by the green blob monster which can insta-kill you for taking too long.
In conclusion, Moonlighter is a spectacular compromise between procedural roguelike elements and progression mechanics, leading to a wonderful mix which is satisfying on so many levels. It’s a great chance to indulge your inner looter whilst also giving the opportunity to puzzle out prices, and it’s perfectly at home on the Switch. It’s also proof that having a distinct length and a definite end-point isn’t always a bad thing. Yes, you won’t get hundreds of hours from this, but it’s high-quality and I love it.