Moonlighter, from Digital Sun Games, is a methodical rogue-like dungeon crawler that, while borrowing from games like The Binding of Isaac and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, manages to incorporate a new and addicting gameplay mechanic: trying to rip people off in your shop. Oh, how the tables turn.
I was able to play Moonlighter this week in a closed demo during E3 2017 and my experience went beyond the tutorial. I found myself addicted to the unique gameplay loop within minutes and I could tell that the designer giving me the demo, David Fernández, was taking pleasure in seeing the game work its magic.
To begin, the game’s art style is right in line with the games that it emulates, but make no mistake, the animations and depth that the pixels possess are beautiful. From working behind the counter at the store, to traversing the randomly generated rooms of the dungeons, Moonlighter‘s looks have me hooked.
This dynamic between menial labor and (for me) being defeated in dungeons by strange beasts felt satisfying, unique as far as games go, and familiar in the way that it tells the story of an average Joe…errr, Will. The game constantly references other dungeon crawlers in which the heroes are granted unique powers or weapons: “It’s dangerous to go alone, take this!” But the player in Moonlighter isn’t given any real privilege. You, a boy named Will in a long line of merchants, need to work to make money to afford the classic upgrades to armor or weapons to eventually prove to everyone that you’ve got what it takes to be a hero. Making enough money to afford a health potion though is humbling.
To make money I needed to explore the dungeon, find materials and goods, and then bring them back to my shop and price them accordingly. This pricing mechanic is a game in and of itself because the player needs to gauge customer reaction in order to know what a fair asking price is. If you price objects too low, customers buy your items off the shelf and you lose money: if you set something too high, customers get pissed and storm out. Each item in this economy has its own values. There are four different reactions from customers and being the best shopkeep requires the player to learn them in order to get the most for their hard work and exploration.
As stated before, there are upgrades to be had of course: it’s a dungeon crawler. But upgrades can also be made to the shop. Buying a nicer cash register means customers will tip more; a larger store will allow players to multiply their potential gains. All of these options mean that the player is free to play the game the way they want to. If you’re bad at the game’s content, you could find a few items in a dungeon and spend more time trying to get the biggest profit. If you’re a dungeon slayer, then you can spend time combatting the evil forces that dwell within and just throw up items for cheap in the shop. You, in becoming a hero, must play to your strengths.
Now for the dungeon part, greed drove me to die over and over again while playing Moonlighter. Health potions are expensive and treasure is always one room away. Smart players are given the option to sell items for very little while in the dungeon so that they will be able to afford a portal out of the dungeon. This option starts at 300 gold, and becomes more expensive the deeper you go. Alternatively, for more coin you can get a two-way trip out of the portal, do some preparations, and then return now ready to take on the boss. Managing your money becomes the real challenge and my failures early on were a direct result of not being able to do so.
Certain elements of Moonlighter feel familiar, while the unique gameplay-loop keeps players progressing through dungeons, purchasing upgrades, and trying to save up the most coin. You start with a broom and a general store and the rest is up to you.
Moonlighter is currently in beta and is being published by 11 bit Studios, with its release planned for PS4, Xbox One, and PC later in 2017. If the unique visual design doesn’t reel you in, the gameplay will. We’ll be following this game as it moves towards its official release.