Merchant by day, adventurer by night

Danial Norjidi

While indie action role-playing game Moonlighter released in 2018 – first on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC in May and later on Nintendo Switch in November – it wasn’t until last year that I finally got around to playing it.

To put it simply, Moonlighter is fantastic, and is easily one of the best experiences I had on the Switch in 2019.

Developed by Spanish indie studio Digital Sun Games and published by 11 bit studios, the game is presented with a beautiful pixel art style, and its story speaks of a land where mazes full of extraordinary treasures and deadly creatures appeared. These ever-changing ruins were called dungeons, and over time, a village named Rynoka grew nearby.

As the game’s introductory cutscene explained, “Among the settlers, two groups shined brightest. Heroes and merchants. Glory and riches. But the dungeons proved too dangerous. They were soon closed as too many lives were lost in their depths.”

Life became hard for the village, especially for Will, the young owner of Moonlighter – the oldest shop in Rynoka.

Indie action role-playing game Moonlighter. PHOTO: DIGITAL SUN GAMES
Moonlighter played on Nintendo Switch. PHOTO: DANIAL NORJIDI
ABOVE & BELOW: Screenshots of the gameplay. PHOTOS: DIGITAL SUN GAMES

“Players take on the role of Will, who has long dreamt of opening the mysterious fifth door of the dungeons.

The game sees players manage the shop during the day and explore the various dungeons at night. During these expeditions, players face monsters and traps as they try to make their way to the gate that leads to the next level down, each of which is usually guarded by a boss.

During your expeditions, you will fill your pockets and backpack with a variety of items and loot collected from treasure chests or dropped by defeated enemies, which can be brought back with you to be sold at your shop for gold. You can then use those funds to purchase various upgrades, be it a new sword, helmet or even a building extension to your store for more shelf space.

While expanding your store and the town requires gold, crafting items such as weapons, armour and potions also require some of the materials you find along your travels in the dungeons. The game’s inventory management and notebook systems do a pretty good job of helping you know what loot is safe to sell and what you need to hold onto for that next weapon or armour upgrade you’ve got planned.

What Moonlighter creates so successfully is a satisfying gameplay loop.

At night you venture into a dungeon, explore as far as you can go and return with your collected loot.

During the day you sell what you collected and proceed to make improvements to your character, before preparing to go do it again.

The game has a great sense of progression, where you can see your character getting stronger as you manage to craft and buy better gear for yourself. Your shop improves as you buy more expansions for it. The town also becomes livelier as you invest your gold in bringing in more characters who provide various services, ranging from blacksmithing and alchemy to investments and shop decorations.

There is a lot of risk and reward involved in exploration. Should you happen to lose all your health while in the dungeon, you will lose all the items you’ve collected, except for those in your pockets, and have to start the whole dungeon from the beginning, at the first level.

However, as you progress further, the loot gets better too. As such, deciding when to make a tactical retreat with your loot and when to push on to the next level in the dungeon is a major part of the game.

A big part of Moonlighter is item management. While out exploring a dungeon, your storage capacity is limited to a total of 20 slots – five from your pockets and 15 from your backpack. It’s easy to run out of space while on an expedition, but as you progress, more options become available allowing you to teleport back to the town to offload your treasures and return back to the dungeon to continue from the spot you left off.

The mechanics are pretty straightforward for the shop-managing side of things. You have a certain number of shelves, depending on your shop’s level of expansion. On these shelves, you can place your various wares for sale at a price of your choosing and, once ready, you can open the shop for business for the day. As customers come in, those who find something they want to buy will pick it up and queue up at the counter to make payment, which the player has to manually receive.

Players can keep track of customers’ reactions to the pricing to find the sweet spot – if an item is priced too cheaply you’ll miss out on profit, and if it’s too expensive, and interest in the item will wane and people will refuse to buy. While managing the stocking of shelves and payments, players also have to keep an eye out for thieves, and tackle them before they walk out of the store with stolen goods. With enough upgrades, players can also eventually hire a part-time worker to help sell things during the day.

In terms of exploration, dungeons are procedurally generated, so the layout of each floor is different each time you enter. As you discover each room, you’ll fight off various monsters, open treasure chests and eventually move down to the next floor, each more challenging than the last. At the final floor of each dungeon awaits a boss fight with a guardian.

When it comes to equipment, there are multiple options to select from, depending on your intended play style.

Weapon options include various types of short swords and shields, spears, bows, fighting gloves and great swords. The game gives you to two equip slots, enabling you to switch between two weapons with a single press of a button. My go-to pairing was the combination of a great sword and a bow. Each weapon can be further upgraded with various abilities and stat boosts, and they change appearance depending on what upgrade path you choose.

For armour, there are three types: fabric, which provides a small health increase as well as a speed boost; iron, which offers a balance between speed and health; and steel, which gives a large health enhancement at the expense of speed. Each armour type can be further upgraded to enhance their defence ratings.

Moonlighter is a great game with a rewarding gameplay loop that hooks you in. Being able to see your upgrades make a difference as you play makes each dungeon excursion meaningful. All in all, this action RPG is a worthwhile experience and one that fans of the genre should definitely try.