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May 2019


Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Genre: RPG/Action
Publisher: Merge Games
Developer: Digital Sun
Release Date: May 29, 2018


PS4 Review - 'Moonlighter'

by Cody Medellin on May 31, 2018 @ 1:00 a.m. PDT

Moonlighter is a 2D action/RPG with rogue-lite elements following the everyday routines of the aforementioned Will, Rynoka’s ambitious shopkeeper that dreams of becoming a hero.

By strengthening the relationship it had with various independent developers, Sony has ensured that the PS4 has become a prolific home for indie games. The system has become a great platform for everyone who wants to play RPGs, whether Western or Eastern. Few have seen a game like Moonlighter, and RPG fans are lucky to have it available.

The story will seem both familiar and new to genre fans. A long time ago, a series of dungeons materialized out of thin air, and treasures hunters and adventurers alike flocked to the area for possible riches. The constant flow of people meant that building a town nearby was a good idea, especially since the monsters never left the dungeons. That town boom soon became a bust, however, as too many people kept dying in the dungeons, and the few who escaped had little to show for their troubles. You play the role of Will, the last in a line of shopkeepers who's trying to keep the family business alive. At the same time, he's obsessed with becoming a hero that's strong enough to unlock the mysterious fifth dungeon.

The setting effectively splits the game into two distinct mechanics. The first is the action portion, which plays out like the classic, The Legend of Zelda. Dungeons are single-screen affairs divided by doors, and those doors won't open until every enemy in the room is defeated. You start with the ability to attack and block things with your shield, but that has to be timed well, since attacks have a wind-up time, and defending with a shield doesn't guarantee that you won't take damage. Aside from those abilities, you can use potions to heal, and you can perform a roll to get through some enemies, go over some chasms, and generally avoid damage if you have room to tumble.

The game also sports some interesting mechanics that have to do with the items you've pick up in dungeons. While most are benign, some are complete mysteries until you leave the dungeon. Some items are actually cursed and can affect other items in the backpack. To counteract that, you need to find items in the dungeon to dispel the curses, so there are some light puzzles in what is generally an action-focused game.

Unlike Zelda, the game takes on some roguelike principles. Dungeons are randomized, so your dungeon layout and enemy placement differ with every run. That also means that you can get lucky in a run and visit healing pools or get stumped by rooms where you have to traverse areas with a thin ground. You can use your amulet to escape a dungeon — provided you have the cash to do so. Otherwise, you'll have to sell off some items to raise the cash, or you'll die and lose it all.

Losing all of the items is perhaps the most devastating part of the experience, since those items feed into a major gameplay mechanic: shopkeeping. Every item you pick up in the dungeons can be sold in the shop, and it's up to you to set up the quantity of items sold and their prices. Each customer has one of four facial expressions, depending on the item they're looking at and the cost, so you'll have a good idea of whether your prices are too high, too low, or just right. You can adjust prices on the fly and restock items when a shelf is empty, so there's more to do than waiting for customers to buy something. You can also stop thieves from stealing your goods.

The earned cash is good enough to ensure you can escape from a dungeon, but you'll also use that cash to bolster your town and yourself. By checking the bulletin board in the center of town, you can invest in blacksmiths to craft new weapons or chemists to make new potions. You can also invest in bankers to keep your cash safe or other shops to obtain goods, which are useful for making those aforementioned weapons and potions. You can also use the cash to invest in shop improvements, such as cosmetic touches or more shelves to store additional inventory.

With those two mechanics, Moonlighter falls into a nice little loop that can seem tedious on paper but is far from it in practice. Progression in a dungeon can seem slow, but you'll see improvements every time you jump in. The slow progress means that more valuable items pop up, which, in turn, net you more money for better weapons and a larger backpack. You may forego those improvements so you can sell more stuff and get better at setting prices for items. Yes, there is a narrative, but that falls by the wayside because you're obsessing over the pursuit of dungeon progression and discovering new items. More importantly, the pacing never feels too fast or slow, so the game is quite relaxing for both short and long gameplay sessions.

In a way, Moonlighter serves as a good alternative to the PC-only game, Recettear: An Item Shop's Tale, which had a lighter anime-inspired story to go with the dungeon-crawling and item selling. This game has a much simpler take on the core mechanics, which may or may not sit well with some players. The simpler decisions are with the shopkeeping aspect. There's no opportunity to haggle or have a disappointed customer return after you've changed the prices. While you have the chance to see which items are selling well, you don't have a record of customer reactions to the prices, so unless you have a notepad or a good memory, you can't tell which items you've been constantly discounting. Again, it's nothing too disappointing, but you have to curb your expectations if you're expecting something with tremendous depth.

As far as presentation goes, everything is gorgeous and lighthearted. The music is absolutely brilliant; from the whimsical town and shop melodies to the more adventurous ones for each dungeon, every piece does its job. Graphically, the game takes on a newer sprite style, where everything is animated while occupying a place well beyond what's expected from the 32-bit days. It's clean and colorful without any elements getting lost in the noise. It is quite a looker in its class.

Moonlighter is many things: charming, fun, and well designed. The gameplay loop is brilliant and addicting, and the pacing feels just right. The enemy and item variety is wide, and the combat feels tight. Despite some hiccups with the shop management system, it works well due to its simplicity. Overall, Moonlighter is a great RPG for those looking for something a little different in the genre.

Score: 8.5/10

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