The story of Will, the Merchant Hero, is a simple yet charming tale. After the passing of your grandfather, Pete, you were left a shop called Moonlighter. In order for your shop to flourish, you must venture into the depths of various dungeons to collect items that you can sell. The town of Rynoka, where you set up shop, is a lively little place filled with other merchants, heroes, and townsfolk going about their days. Part of the reason Moonlighter feels so energetic is because of the excellent animations. Pixel art has been around for 30-plus years; almost every evolution of the style has been explored. But in Moonlighter, the details in the animations are what lend spirit to the art. Flags blow gently in the wind, critters scurry around the dungeon floors, treasure sparkles, and NPCs move with fluid purpose. All of this, paired with an equally wonderful and melodic soundtrack, make spending time here an absolute treat.
Moonlighter marries two game types into one: dungeon crawler and shop management. The gameplay loop is pretty simple. Explore dungeons to collect items, sell them to upgrade your shop and character, then repeat. It works surprisingly well, and only falters because of a few gameplay missteps.
Familiarizing yourself with the game can be a challenge. Dungeon crawling for items to sell is an easy concept to understand, but the progression system is not communicated well. Much of the information is tucked away in menus which makes the early hours feel unproductive. Figuring out the best progression path can be frustrating. You feel like you’re spinning your wheels when not spending your gold in the right places. But once you get a grip on how the systems work, the game starts firing on all cylinders. And, believe it or not, all the action takes place in town.
The most fun you’ll have is building up and managing your shop. You can invest in other vendors, like a Hawker, where you can buy decor for your shop to entice customers. You can expand your shop’s physical selling space and add items, like a new cash register to increase sales. Once the doors open in the morning and the customers start flowing in, it’s a lot of fun to oversee everything. Monitoring visitors’ “happy levels,” adjusting prices, restocking items, taking special orders, beating up thieves, and ringing people up is challenging—but never overwhelming. You can burn through a lot of items in one day, and before you know it, you’re out of things to sell and it’s back to the dungeons. It would have been nice to see the split between shop management and dungeon crawling be more in favor of the shop.
There are five dungeons: four themed (Golem, Forest, Desert, Tech) and a final dungeon. Every dungeon has three floors and a boss room. They are randomly generated with branching paths, but only one path will take you to the next floor. Each dungeon is more difficult than the last, and requires you to defeat the previous boss to move forward. The disappointing thing is that each new dungeon just feels like a new coat of paint and doesn’t offer any new gameplay mechanics. Dodging and hacking at enemies until their health bars deplete is all there is to it. After the third dungeon, you realize that you’ve seen everything there is to offer and the grind loses much of its appeal.
The lack of combat variety later on is what stifles the core gameplay loop. There are a handful of weapon types to choose from: sword & shield, spear, bow & arrow, etc. But, once you choose a weapon type and upgrade it far enough, there is almost no going back. To upgrade another type of weapon, you’d have to grind older dungeons or spend a boatload of gold at the Le Retailer craft store for materials. The novelty of your chosen weapon wears off as you get further into the game, and once the repetition sets in, the grind becomes tedious.
Moonlighter is unforgiving. If you die, you get kicked from the dungeon and lose everything in your backpack, with no chance to recover any of it. Teleporting is a major aspect of the gameplay loop. You can choose to teleport out of a dungeon at any point for a small amount of gold, but when you re-enter, you’ll be back on the first floor. The other way is to open a portal that allows you to warp out, unload, heal up, then warp back to your last location in the dungeon. It’s a handy tool, but the cost for opening up a portal is pretty steep, and you’ll only use it if you feel you’ll be making a run for the dungeon’s final boss.
There were a few unfortunate bugs during my playthrough of Moonlighter. Once, I teleported back to a dungeon and my character was stuck between a treasure chest and a rock, so I had to restart the game. On several occasions I was stuck at a loading screen and had to close the application, losing all of the unsaved progress and items, which left a mark on the overall experience.
Moonlighter is a beautiful game that combines simplified versions of two game types into one. It’s a novel attempt that plays it too safe on both fronts, and is held back from being something truly fantastic because of its lack of variety.