Sunday, December 3, 2023

Moonlighter (PC, 2018)

 I've played a fair bunch of roguelites and even at their worst they always offer a few hours of fun. At best they manage to find exactly the right balance between challenge and "just another go" to keep you hooked for hours. So which one is Moonlighter? 

Moonlighter is a roguelite with a pretty straightforward concept - go into dungeons, get loot, sell loot, improve gear, go into more dungeons and get more loot. It's a loop that we're all familiar with at this point. The tiny twist to Moonlighter is that instead of selling your loot to some store, you are the store, selling your loot to other people.

It's a minor difference, but it's a fun idea. You own a store that you can improve in different ways, allowing you to make more money off the stuff you have pried from dead monsters in the dungeons. With the money you can also invest in your hometown - purely for your benefit of course. This is how you get access to a potion-maker and a blacksmith for instance.

You decide what to charge for your items, but the people who come into your store aren't willing to pay just anything for your stuff. There is a sweet spot where the buyer thinks it's worth it and you think you're getting enough. The game gives you a well designed system for keeping track of what different items are worth. It also helps you keep track off items you might want to keep to use for potions or gear for yourself.

The dungeons are comprised of rooms spread over three levels with a final boss at the end. While the dungeons are randomized in layout, they all contain at least one pool that restores your life, and an abandoned campsite of unknown purpose. The dungeons, at least as far as I have gotten (five or six levels down) aren't overly difficult, as long as you keep your focus and learn how the different enemies work. The enemies themselves are mostly bibs and bobs of this and that - meaning they don't really look like anything other than pieces of rocks, slime and sticks put together. Disclaimer here though, I haven't seen everything yet, but the enemies do repeat in style and for the first two dungeons they are mostly the same.

You find these tents, but they serve no purpose. Just like real tents.

There are clever systems that allow you to get in and out of the dungeons. If you die you lose everything you've collected in your bag, but this means you get to always keep your gear and stuff that you have in your 5-slot special bag. To get out of the dungeon you have to pay money and there is a system that allows you to vendor items inside the dungeon, but to a lesser price than you would've gotten for it in your store. As you progress through the game you get more options with how to deal with your items and how to get in and out of the dungeons that I thought were well thought through.

The graphics are endearing neo-pixel style, the music is unobtrusively mellow even in the most heated battles - definitely nothing that will neither stress you nor get your blood pumping here.

Curiously, for a game that overall has a lot of smart design choices, the game is not playable with a mouse on PC. It took me a lot of web browsing and reading of angry and frustrated forum posts before I understood this. Instead you have to control your character with WASD as typical, but also with IJKL. I can honestly say, I have not played a game from after 1990 that has required me to control anything with IJKL.

Why am I fighting this guy? I don't know.

I will say however that I don't understand the hate towards this. As soon as you understand that this is how you do it, it works perfectly fine. I never missed my mouse or thought I failed a run because I didn't have it.

As mentioned the challenge for any roguelite is to make people want to go "just one more run" - there needs to be something that keeps that feedback loop going. The best games (a lot coming out of the Blizzard studios for instance) do this to the point where it's almost addictive. Worst case the player feels what they are doing is pointless.

Moonlighter has a lot going for it, with smart systems for handling items and a lot to tinker with and upgrade, a well balanced difficulty and a little twist to make it a bit more unique - basically all the ingredients of a great roguelite. But after ~10 hours played I definitely feel like something is missing. It doesn't take me long to figure out what it is. I am missing a story.

You start off small, but with big dreams.

The game starts out with a short introduction to the concept of the dungeons and gets you wondering if there is something more to explore in there besides finding loot. In the dungeons you find scraps of paper and some times corpses left from other explorers that have come before you. They talk about (the papers I mean, not the bodies) the mystery of the dungeons and why they keep changing. But this never evolves into anything, you quickly notice that the pieces of paper are more for show than to continue a story. The people of the town don't have any personality either and don't interact with you in any other way than to do business. I am curious, I want to know more!

There is lost potential here, but maybe the developers were worried that people aren't interested in this kind of gameplay anymore and put their focus on a well designed dungeon crawler instead. There is sense in that, but to me it makes the game feel empty and repetitive pretty quickly. While some of this might come later in the game and I just haven't seen it yet, I see a discrepancy between the nice flow of improvement in game systems and complete lack of story development.

Moonlighter reminds me so much of a game on the Playstation called Azure Dreams. Your character goes into a monster tower to find items, to gain money to improve their home town in different ways. More crucially however, there is a lot of interaction between you and the other people of the town and in true mid-90s fashion you can get into romantic relationships with some of them, There is also the mystery of the final floor of the tower that constantly beckons you to try to get higher. In Moonlighter that enthusiasm quickly wanes when you get the feeling of "oh, was this it?". Even Steamworld Dig, another great game with a similar concept, made me feel like every dig was important.

To be fair to Moonlighter, I haven't played Azure Dreams for 20 years and maybe I would feel differently about it now. Maybe I am simply too old for games that just make me do things for no other reason than doing them. But if you are after an otherwise well designed dungeon crawler that lets your obsess over loot, you could definitely go worse than this game.

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