Ever been curious about how the shops in RPG’s obtain their wares? Moonlighter aims to answer that burning question. The game stars Will, a shopkeeper with big dreams of becoming a hero. When he’s not running his business during the day, he “moonlights” as an adventurer, exploring caves, fighting monsters, and collecting treasure. Moonlighter’s design reflects Will’s double-life, dividing its gameplay into two disparate halves: top-down, action-adventure and market simulator. So far, it seems that developer Digital Sun has managed to weave both ideas together in a harmonious and fun way.
The dungeon crawling sections sport elements of roguelites, with procedurally generated room arrangements and the loss of your loot upon death. Will wields two weapon types, which can include swords, spears, and bows, to hack and slash his way through monsters in search of treasure. Traps litter certain rooms, and others house special portals that teleport players to different, more challenging levels. While moment-to-moment gameplay features little out of the ordinary for genre enthusiasts, the various systems around it help Moonlighter stand out.
Inventory management features a lot more than just shoving stuff into a bag. Multiple rows can hold items, but only stuff stored in the top row (representing Will’s pockets) will stick with him should he fall in battle. Thus, keeping your most valuable stock up top is highly recommended. Warping out of dungeons requires players to sell a certain amount treasures on the spot. You’re giving up some loot, but the hefty cost of death might make a speedy escape worth the cost, especially if you’re sitting on a good haul. Like a good businessperson, you’ve got to spend money to make money.
My favorite menu element are special “cursed” items that come with various effects and create a near meta-game out of inventory. Some stipulations are relatively minor, like object that can only be kept in the bag’s bottom row. Others can be very useful, such as a curse that transforms itself into 10 duplicates of a nearby material. Curses can even work in conjunction with each other. One curse masks an item’s identity until you exit the dungeon. Another curse can dispel the ability of another, adjacent cursed object. When I moved a hidden item near a curse-remover, its identity was revealed, saving me from having to make the trip outside. Not since playing inventory Tetris in the Resident Evil series has dinking around my baggage felt this engaging.
After getting my feet wet with combat in the brief prologue, Moonlighter began teaching me the ins and outs of running a storefront. Collected loot can be put up for sale at whatever price you deem appropriate. However, a product’s worth won’t be determined until customers scrutinize your inventory, so determining prices creates an initial guessing game. Cute emoticons express whether customers feel something is too cheap, too expensive, or priced reasonably. My personal favorite emote is a sort of pouty face indicating that an item’s expensive but they’ll begrudgingly buy it anyway.
If a patron turns their nose up at something, you’ll need to lower the price. If someone bites the bullet on a big ticket item, you can continue charging that fee since you know people will drop the dough on it. I got a real kick out of seeing patrons open their wallets to my sometimes hilariously lofty prices. Once a sale has been made, a helpful ledger records the values for sold merchandise for future reference, eliminating that early guess work. Additionally, the book orders inventory by price, giving you a clear idea of the values of stock compared with each other.
My immediate concern with shop gameplay was that it would eventually grow repetitive once the values of most goods were established, but the developers assured me that Will’s business, as well as consumer demands, evolve over time. As profits increase, the store can expand, allowing for a larger stock of merchandise as well as letting more customers visit. You can even decorate to create an atmosphere of fanciness, which might allow you to charge higher prices (the team cited the presentation of Apple stores as a humorous comparison). As customer tastes change, a once-hot commodity may not fetch a passing glance. Conversely, a cheap material could suddenly skyrocket in demand, justifying a price hike. Furthermore, some customers may even ask Will to carry certain goods, creating sidequests. It remains to be seen if these scenarios occur often enough to shopkeeping interesting in the long run, but it’s reassuring to know the same motions won’t be repeated ad nauseam.
Will’s business isn’t the only game in town. The town of Rynoka is home to a blacksmith that sells and improves armor/weapons, as well an “overpriced” item store. A witch’s shop is the only business that remains open at night, selling potions, weapon enchantments, and holds nightly sales. Certain materials are better left off the show floor and used to trade at these stores. The devs stated some players even use the inventory of merchants as a point of comparison when determining how to price your own stock. I was definitely amused by the idea of intentionally undercutting the expensive item shop, for example.
After business concluded for the day and I dove back into a dungeon. Moonlighter’s primary loop became clear: explore labyrinths, gather treasure, sell said treasure, purchase better equipment/upgrades, visit tougher levels, repeat. More difficult floors open up after several runs with richer rewards. But you’ll need superior gear to survive, but new equipment generally sports high price tags, providing incentive to maximize profits at the store. I realized Moonlighter’s hooks were digging in when I entered a typical combat room in which clearing its enemies would normally cause treasure to appear. However, nothing did, but instead of feeling slighted, the materials left behind by the slain foes was reward enough. I excitedly thought “Oh cool, I can sell these in my shop!”
As a Zelda fan, it doesn’t take much to get me on board with similarly designed experiences. Engaging in the doldrums of managing a business, however, was a different story. When I learned Moonlighter was as about selling goods as it was exploring dungeons, my initial enthusiasm dropped a bit. Setting prices, waiting around for customers–it all sounded rather dull. By the end of my hour-long session, my tune changed.
Moonlighter has the potential an engrossing and enjoyable spin on the action/RPG. The shop mechanic is a neat angle that’s backed by solid roguelite gameplay, all wrapped in a charming pixel art presentation. I look forward to opening up shop when Moonlighter arrives later this year for Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PC, and Mac.
Edited by Marcus Stewart