Hearing the word “moonlighter” conjures up several mental images, some of which venture into the risqué while others are more anti-heroic. In this top-down adventure game from developer Digital Sun, however, the word takes on several different meanings. Not only is the titular Moonlighter the name of the shop in which our protagonist, Will, inherits, but it also describes how Will—and, in turn, the player—comes by his wares to begin with. What makes Moonlighter unique is that the items you find during nightly dungeon-diving exploration are what fuel your daily merchant activities, and what ensues is a refreshing dichotomy that changes things up just enough to keep things interesting, but unfortunately there isn’t much to the game beyond its main campaign.
Right at the onset, the player finds Will being handed the mantle, so-to-speak, of his family-owned shop, Moonlighter. After a brief combat and shop-keeping tutorial, the player is thrust into the world, set to simultaneously run Moonlighter while also…moonlighting for items to sell at the shop, all while progressing through each of the game’s five available dungeons.
While the game’s combat evokes A Link to the Past and is rather simplistic overall, enemies are no pushovers. Two or three good hits can end your adventure, so being able to craft new weapons and armor is crucial to survival, especially against the game’s stalwart bosses. After you make enough money and expand the town a bit, you can hire a blacksmith you can create new weapons and armor to help you get through the games dungeons and acquire better loot. That loot can then be either sold or used to create better weapons or armor.
Dungeons in Moonlighter are randomly generated, however not procedurally; each room is pre-built with set enemies, so while some rooms can be predictable, the order in which they appear and link to other rooms is entirely random, making it so the player can’t just memorize a dungeon’s pattern, which is a great way to keep things fresh.
One issue in particular I had with the game’s combat is that, much like earlier 2D Zelda titles, there are only four directions in which your character can face; however, enemy attacks—particularly projectiles—can hit at eight directions, meaning projectiles coming at an angle are much more difficult to block with a shield. Because of this, I really wish character movement and position also allowed for eight directions, as many potions were wasted healing after an unsuccessful block attempt.
Another feature to note is the fact that, upon death, you drop all of your collected items. I’m usually not a fan of this roguelike feature in games, but here it gives you all the more reason to either play defensively or warp out of the dungeon and make do with what you’ve found up until that point.
While the dungeoneering aspect of Moonlighter is one of the game’s main draws, the mercantile side of things is another. What starts out as a small shop with a single table expands to a fully-fledged storefront as you progress through the game. You set the asking price for each and every item you offer up for sale, and this is where I faltered in Moonlighter at first. When you first open the shop, the game tells you nothing in terms of setting prices, nor anything about the game’s economy in terms of what is considered a fair price for a certain type of good. The only metric you have to go by is your customers’ reactions to your prices, and at first, having no idea what constitutes a fair price feels rather overwhelming. Set too high a price, and your customer will leave in anger; set too low a price, and you could miss out on potential hundreds—or even thousands—of coins for your coffers. Fortunately, the game keeps a log of the latest customer reaction to any given good sold, so you can use actual data to inform future pricing. Additional features, such as being able to hire staff to help run the shop as well as shoplifters to fend off, keep things fresh during the day-to-day of the shop.
While the yin-and-yang relationship between dungeon diving for goods during the night and selling those goods during the day keeps things fresh, it unfortunately doesn’t venture far beyond this balance. Sure, you can expand your storefront and invest in other businesses to help the town of Rynoka grow, but once you get through all of the game’s five dungeons and roll the credits, that’s really all there is to Moonlighter. I never felt compelled to spend any more time with the game after putting it down, but that’s not to say my time wasn’t well spent.
Equal parts dungeon-crawler and merchant simulator, Moonlighter strikes a peculiar balance between two very different games and ultimately succeeds. Though it lacks a compelling endgame, Moonlighter on Nintendo Switch take two ultimately dichotomous genres and mashes them together delightfully. I do wish there was more to explore, so here’s to hoping Digital Sun is only getting started with this property.
Disclaimer: A review code for Moonlighter was provided by the game’s publisher.