Review: Moonlighter (Nintendo Switch)

Reviewed by Prans Dunn, posted Nov 13, 2018, last updated Nov 13, 2018
Nov 13, 2018
  • Release Date (NA): November 5, 2018
  • Release Date (EU): November 5, 2018
  • Publisher: 11 bit studios
  • Developer: Digital Sun
  • Also For: Computer, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
  • Single player
    Local Multiplayer
    Online Multiplayer
    Co-operative
This hi-bit Zelda-like RPG with rogue-lite elements now hits the Nintendo Switch after being released for PC and other consoles earlier this year. Does Moonlighter hold its own or is it just another Zelda clone cash-grab?
Prans Dunn

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Make Rynoka Famous Again

Moonlighter is the name of a shop in the small village of Rynoka. The shop is run solely by Will, our protagonist, who inherited it from his grandfather, the shelves filled with artefacts found in nearby dungeons. In the past, adventurers from all over would rush to these then-newly discovered sites for adventure, treasure and what not. With time, the adventurers’ interest dwindled as the dungeons proved to be quite perilous, many who entered never coming back. The dungeons mostly deserted, their neighbouring town Rynoka suffered a similar fate. Nowadays, the occasional visitors keep things running, but just barely.

Rather than just run the family business and collect simple artifacts, Will has more ambitious goals. He aims to venture deeper in the dungeons which are said to hide ancient passages leading to otherworldly realms and host ferocious monsters, all the while trying to rekindle the adventurer's flame and bring back Rynoka's lost shine.

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Link-in Capitalism

From the get-go, Moonlighter looks very much like a GameBoy era Zelda-clone; top-down view, silent and adventurous protagonist, dungeons crawling with monsters - it’s all there! The whole game is even beautifully animated in hi-bit to fuel the nostalgic appeal. Nevertheless, these do not make Moonlighter a shameless clone. Quite the opposite in fact, as the game holds its own with an original (but rather thin) plot, complemented by some soothing tunes quite unique to the title. Moreover its gameplay is a rather unique one, revolving around two different mechanics that equally form its core: dungeon clearing and economy management.

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The latter aspect is quite emphasized in this title. It’s not only the shop Will has to maintain, but also his home village. As he acquires enough capital through the sales of his wares, Will, ever the entrepreneur, can invest in other ventures like a blacksmith, a bank, expanding his shop, employing an assistant, accepting side quests, or even bringing in a direct competitor from whom he can buy (overpriced) items he might need in a pinch to craft an item. As more shops open and more dungeons are cleared, more adventurers come to Rynoka, breathing life in the village and the game as well. There is a sense of satisfaction for the player here to witness first-hand how their efforts, through Will, bear their fruits.

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However, to reach that point, the player has to go through quite a steep difficulty curve. The dungeons themselves aren't particularly tough, but the bosses at the end will prove to be quite the challenge when you face them. This is because when you first do, you are most likely to be under-equipped and/or won’t have enough life points. To tackle this, you will have to drag Will through some good ol’ grinding. A welcome feature of the game is its procedural generation of its dungeon levels  (there are 5 dungeons in all, with 3 levels in each) which help bring some change to the stale repetition of the basic battle mechanic (more on that later).

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As you might expect, grinding involves Will going through the same dungeon levels to battle monsters. What you might not expect is that grinding will not earn Will experience, but rather he will collect items the creatures drop after being defeated. Rarer, and pricier, items are more abundant at night but the opponents are also tougher. In the morning, Will can then open his shop and sell whatever he found to his customers.

Sales are initially done on a guesstimate basis. You can read the description of an item and gauge its worth and then wait for a customer to check it out while paying attention to his/her reaction (shown in a bubble). The basics of economics, demand and supply, are of essence here, and you can influence the market accordingly. Thankfully, customers’ reactions to the price you put on each item is recorded in Will’s diary for future reference.

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It can be fun managing the collected items and the Moonlighter shop, especially later on in the game as Will acquires more valuable artefacts and you can see the profits reap. As the game progresses and Will expands his shop, wealthier customers visit and readily buy items others would dismiss as too expensive. There will even be thieves who Will has to catch before they flee with valuable items! Moreover, while inside dungeons, you will have to manage Will’s backpack space to pack it with the items you need for crafting and the most valuable ones for sale, while taking into consideration some cursed items which can destroy adjacent ones. If our protagonist dies in a dungeon, all the items collected will be dropped and he will respawn outside the dungeon. As such, the player has to be weary of being greedy for items and know when to use the option of paying a fee to safely return to the village with all of what has been hoarded. There’s also a ‘Merchant’s Mirror’ that allows you to trade any items for coins and while this might not give you the best deal, it can help you out with cursed items or if you are in need of some money quickly. This aspect of managing the backpack contents as an integral part of the game makes for quite a distinctive gameplay aspect, even if it can prove to be time consuming at times.

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However, the sheer number of times I've had to loot a dungeon at night, teleport to open the shop and sell items and repeat until Will collected enough money to buy/upgrade his equipments felt too repetitive, borderline boring. And this will be the case in all of the dungeons unless you've amassed a ton load of cash at the very beginning that will help you buy off whatever you need in the following dungeons.

To tackle the dungeons themselves, Will starts off with a broom and slowly upgrades to a sword and shield and when he’s well off enough, he can commission the blacksmith to forge quite a variety of weapons and gears. He can equip two weapons at once which can be swapped on the fly in battle. There are short swords, long swords, spears and even bows and arrows, to name just a few that can all be upgraded to improve Will’s stats. But in practice, I’ve found it better to stick with a buffed up long sword for heavy hits and a spear for long reach and decent damage. There’s not much to write home about the battle system as it mostly revolves around Will hitting and dodging, with successive hits dealing more damage until the opponent is struck down. Given that this is what Will will mostly be doing aside from managing his store, the combats easily feel redundant. It’s the bosses that are the highlight of every battle, posing as some welcome change with different and unexpected attack moves. Do note that once engaged in battles, Will cannot access his inventory, so best assign health potions to a shoulder button before facing a foe.

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(Dimly) Moonlit Village 

Moonlighter is quite an original title, having a unique combination of inventory management, adventuring, and a shop to run, with a rather challenging beginning. The steep difficulty might appeal to the more masochistic among you but it does feel a bit heavy-handed and potentially hostile to others, especially considering the grind and repetition that appear to be embedded in the gameplay. The plot also feels shallow, with only snippets of past adventurer's diaries adding to the lore, and the mandatory old, wise guy of the village chipping in. Nevertheless, witnessing Rynoka's evolution from a quiet, remote village to a lively, touristy one and seeing Will's prowess as an adventurer develop can all feel very rewarding to the player and makes the protagonist somewhat more relateable.

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Moonlighter - Nintendo Switch Release Trailer

Verdict
Pros
+ Colourful and vibrant universe
+ Music score
+ Interesting economy and inventory management mechanic
Cons
- Need for grind
- Simplistic and repetitive combat system
- World outside of dungeons feel limited
- Can’t use backpack items while in combat
8 Presentation
Moonlighter boasts a retro look with some well-crafted animations. Pay attention and you will see the wise Zenon stroke his beard while talking to Will as tents flutter with the wind and smoke drifting off distant chimneys, all with a soothing melody playing in the background.
6 Gameplay
There's just too much grind and one of the core features of the gameplay, the combat, is not varied enough.
6 Lasting Appeal
If you can stick with the game despite the need to grind and repeat actions like managing the backpack items and selling artefacts until you have enough money to progress decently, you will find a solid 15 hours to sink in.
6.5
out of 10
Overall (not an average)
Moonlighter is Zelda with a shopkeeper twist. Balancing beautiful animations and soothing tunes against an underwhelming plot, a thin combat system, and plenty of grinding, there's plenty to like and dislike.


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