We love a good dungeon. All that loot to gain, and all those monsters to beat. And even if you think you know what to expect when you step through that stone gateway, what you find on the other side is never quite the same. That’s why we keep coming back. Predictable gameplay delivered in unpredictable ways.
Truth is, gamers have been dungeon crawling since Alf was cool, and the roguelike genre has flourished during the indie renaissance. But Moonlighter (PC, XBO, PS4, Switch) by Digital Sun still manages to make a strong, pixelated case for your time. Its simple aesthetic and joyous charm hide a multi-layered roguelite that asks, “what happens if you’re not just the town’s adventurer, but also the town’s merchant?”
Giving a dungeon back its spark
The little town of Rynoka has fallen on hard times. Not that long ago, it was a booming commercial hub. The discovery of mysterious dungeons in a nearby archaeological dig had seen adventurers and treasure hunters flock to the little town. Inside an endless supply of artifacts from strange lands were being discovered, and four of the five doors into the labyrinths were soon unlocked.
But the pursuit of the key to the fifth door began to lead too many to their doom. Eventually the dangers of the dungeon overwhelmed peoples’ fascination. Hope of ever seeing what lay behind the fifth door and perhaps solving the mystery behind the dungeons drifted away on the winds. By the time our hero Will arrives, with dreams of conquering the dungeons, there is only one little shop in town – and he runs it!
It therefore becomes Will’s goal to reignite passion and interest in the dungeons. This will bring the adventurers back. And in doing so, he can not only save his little shop from financial ruin, but attract other merchants back to Rynoka.
And what better way to do make the dungeons attractive again than to gather up his courage, head into their depths and return with some epic loot. Maybe he’ll even come out the hero he always dreamed of being.
Don’t let the retro style fool you
If, following a glance at the game’s screenshots, you figured you’d played many games like Moonlighter before you’d be half right. This is a top-down dungeon crawler with mechanics that stay close to the scripts first written by the likes of Legend of Zelda and Nethack.
The top-down perspective fits like a glove as you move little Will around his little town. You talk to the townsfolk, walk until you hit barriers (rocks, trees, fences) and as soon as possible venture out to the dungeons.
Once you’re underground, the dungeons are randomly generated. Each room fills the screen and requires the defeat of all baddies before you can delve another room deeper. You’re armed with two simple attack buttons and a handy dodge roll, with most of the gameplay driven by inventory management and keeping obstacles between you and enemies.
Moonlighter has three difficulty settings, with normal offering the right balance for those who want to progress more than be challenged. Some rooms can quickly fill up with various enemy types zeroing in on your position and projectiles flying about. In fact, it can often feel a bit like a bullet hell shooter, and both the game – and your humble writer – suggest playing with a gamepad over a keyboard as a result.
If this had been all the game had to offer, it would still have been plenty of fun. The way that the dungeons can shift between environment themes simply by walking through a door can offer fun surprises. It’s also neat how you can find notes from previous failed explorers to flesh out the world. Plus the little tally of achievements you get when you depart the dungeon is rewarding.
Then there is that fifth door dangling like a carrot; a compelling reason to keep venturing forward. There are four tiers to each of the four initial dungeons, with a big boss at the end. Getting the four keys from these bosses will unlock the fifth door and grant you access, of course.
But the game does offer more. It’s the journey outside the dungeons, back in town, that gives Moonlighter its edge.
What to do with all that loot
The addictive game loop in Moonlighter’s dungeon crawling is filled out by your need to run a shop back in the village. Not only do you choose when the shop opens and closes, but also the prices for the items you’ve discovered. Setting prices requires you to think about supply and demand, and watch customer’s reactions – defined by an emoticon – in order to adjust your prices.
It’s similar to the “tycoon” games or a SimCity in the way this rather simple system sucks you in and gets you seeking out loot. In a smart addition, you carry into the dungeons an amulet that allows you to transport back to the village on demand. This allows you to raid the dungeon, fill up your inventory, and jet out before you’re killed and lose everything you have discovered.
But what truly ties it all together is what you do with the money you make. You invest it back into your town, funding the arrival of additional merchants or upgrading the buildings already established.
These additional merchants then use resources you’ve discovered to craft better equipment, items, and other improvements, which in turn allows you to get deeper into the dungeon. Which allows you to get even better loot. Which makes you even more money. That brings in new shops. Which gets you even better gear…. you see where we’re going.
It’s these multiple layers that help this roguelite blossom into a more fulfilling experience. There’s depth here that’ll hook you and keep you playing.
The Sun is Rising
It’s worth noting that Moonlighter is published by Polish outfit 11-Bit Studios. This little indie developer and (now) publisher has been steadily building a portfolio of classy titles. It made its name with the Anomaly series, and caught plenty of attention with This War of Mine and the recent Frostpunk.
In extending its reach into the publisher space, 11-Bit is showing fine taste in backing titles like Dead Mage’s Children of Morta and Digital Sun’s Moonlighter.
There’s no doubt each of the game’s 5,229 Kickstarter backers, and anyone else who invests some time in this game, will walk away hours later very happy with the way they spent their time. Moonlighter is a little gem.