When Moonlighter released earlier this year, I was immediately intrigued by its look and gameplay because, well, it seemed an awful lot like Stardew Valley. It’s stupid and reductive to compare the two, but I am a human being, and anything that even remotely resembles Stardew will always find a place in my “Holy S**t I Need To Play This” list. Nevertheless, as much as I wanted to play it, I was convinced that it would eventually be released on the Switch, so I shoved my wallet under my pillow and stopped myself from buying it. You know what they say, “This game is good, but it would be even better on the Switch”.
Alas, the Nintendo Gods, both old and new, have smiled on me once again, and my wish has been granted. Moonlighter finally made its way to my beloved Switch, and I am whole once more. As I predicted when I first watched footage of the game, Digital Sun’s Moonlighter is a delight to play and behold. Between the colorful visuals and gameplay loop that smartly implements on rogue-like mechanics, I had a blast pummeling through dungeons and enjoying the cute aesthetics — at least, for the first ten hours. Unfortunately, as I got deeper and deeper into the game, I realized that it had already shown its hand within the first two hours, and there wasn’t anything left to experience save for item and shop upgrades. By the end of my adventure, I found myself mindlessly pushing through each dungeon and boss fight just so I could make enough money to enhance my weapons and ultimately beat the game, which is a bummer, considering how charming and lovely the game can be, especially at the beginning.
In Moonlighter, you play as Will, an unexceptional shop owner who finds himself drawn to the mysterious gates on the outskirts of his town, Rynoka. Members of the town soon find that the gates lead to various dungeons replete with riches and danger. Naturally, Rynoka becomes a hub for merchant activity as people all around the world rush to get a slice of the newfound delicacies and potentially massive profits. You know, capitalism. As more and more venture out to find their treasure though, even fewer return, lost to the expanse of the unknown. Thankfully, Will is inexplicably good at combat, so wading through the depths of the dungeons is no skin off his cheeks.
When you first take control of Will, his shop is a modest storefront in the center of town. He barely has any shelf space to display his wares. let alone actually live. Equipped with a wooden broom, and the chastisement of the town elder — who, by the way, is totally not related to Will at all but will continue to provide his unsolicited and condescending advice to you throughout the whole game — I made my way to the first gate and quickly got my ass kicked. The game was not so subtly explaining to me that things can get pretty hairy in the dungeons, so it’s best to come prepared.
Fortunately, and unlike other roguelites, Moonlighter offers progression quickly, and it’s not terribly difficult once you get the hang of the combat. The crux of the game is to acquire loot from dungeons and then sell that loot. At the end of each dungeon, there is a boss who will open up a higher dungeon when beaten and drop better loot. After you beat the boss, you go to the next dungeon, acquire even better loot, sell that loot at higher prices, and do it all over again. Rinse and repeat. If it sounds like I am bored just talking about it, I promise I’m not. I loved the gameplay loop. While it’s a bit shallow and repetitive, the core gameplay loop is fun, and — as I mentioned before — it cleverly redefines roguelike mechanics by linking progression to loot rather than death.
Whereas in other roguelike games you progress by dying, or rather the knowledge you obtain through death, in Moonlighter, you advance through selling all of that sweet, sweet loot. The more items you sell, the better weapons you can craft, and the more luxurious renovations you can make on your store. Though the loop is simple, the lack of permadeath lowers the stakes and makes the moment-to-moment gameplay more enjoyable. When your health bar reaches zero, the biggest consequence is that all of your loot will be lost, and you’ll find yourself back at the beginning of the dungeon. Sure, it was a pain when my backpack was full of high-value items, but since half of the game revolves around selling, finding those items again is easy. In no time at all, I expanded my shop so I could bring on an assistant. I also acquired tons of product space, as well as a giant sword to defeat enemies. Admittedly, though the ease at which I acquired items and weapons was thrilling at first, the simplicity started to feel monotonous.
As I stormed my way through dungeon after dungeon, hour after hour, the pleasure of seeing loot drop and defeating bosses warped into tedium. Item drops turned from excitement to dollar signs. Defeating bosses no longer filled me with satisfaction, but rather curiosity, to see if anything would change in the next dungeon. After I beat the final boss and the credits fell down the screen, my latter question was answered with a resounding no. The central conceit of the game — finding and selling — was, essentially, the entire game. It’s something I have had a tough time digesting since beating Moonlighter and subsequently writing this review, because I don’t want it to be read pejoratively. Simplicity is and can be a good thing and, for hours of playtime, it absolutely was. There were plenty of secret rooms, funny lore entries, and adorable character art that kept me distracted from the repetition along the way, but at the end of the day, it was mere window dressing. Behind every secret room are more monsters to kill that drop more loot and, in turn, give you more money. Most of the diary entries you find along the way talk about certain monsters or items that can be sold for more money. The majority of the character interactions are hinged on taking or giving you, wait for it, more money. Now, after beating the final boss, I was allowed to freely explore and sell my goods until I have a bonafide empire, but I have no motivation to do so because I’ve seen what the game has to offer and what it wants from me: finding and selling.
Moonlighter is a charming game that will no doubt engross players with its beautiful visuals and welcoming gameplay progression. It’s an interesting and unique riff on roguelike mechanics that takes the pressure away from losing. Not to mention, it plays extremely well on my little Switch (told you, Nintendo). Sadly, after a few hours of play, the repetition of the core gameplay loop becomes just that: repetition. With that said, this was a strong debut for developer Digital Sun, and I am excited to see what they do next. If they happen to read this and are open to suggestions: Add even more Stardew elements.
This review is based on the Nintendo Switch version of the game. A copy was provided by 11 bit studios.
Moonlighter is a cute -- if not overly repetitive -- dungeon crawler that puts a unique and much-needed spin on roguelikes.