Developer: Digital Sun
I often have indie games recommended to me as "Zelda-like" indies. As much as this does draw my attention, I have some reservations about games that get categorized as such. Being a Zelda-like game means your game will get compared, perhaps unfairly, to some of the greatest games ever made. It's no use to be a less-good clone of a Zelda game - there's got to be a unique spin. Moonlighter is described as a Zelda-like, however, it's obvious right away that there's mechanics that makes it a completely different game. Moonlighter is a combination of an adventure dungeon-crawler with a store management game.
In Moonlighter you play as Will, a young man who's inherited his family's shop but dreams of being a dungeon adventurer. He lives in a small village that happens to sit next to an area of mysterious dungeons. The job of the "merchants" is to travel into these dungeons, as quickly and safely as possible, only to acquire artifacts to sell in their store. However, there are also "heroes", people who travel deep into the dungeon for glory or exploration. Despite being constantly told to play his role as a merchant, Will continues to travel deeper into the dungeons. Starting off, you set it up your small and humble store with the items you find in the dungeon. It's difficult to stay alive in the dungeons at first, especially as you go deeper and deeper in the depths. Once you start selling more items and helping bring business to your town, you are able to upgrade your equipment and weapons. It becomes a cycle (of a person who doesn't sleep, I guess?) - work the shop during the day, explore the dungeons at night. Zenon, an old man who was a friend of your grandfather, acts as your only family and constantly advises you to stick to your role as a merchant. You get bits and pieces of backstory about the village and your family from Zenon, but your world is pretty small as its limited to your small town and the dungeons.
The roughest part of Moonlighter is definitely the beginning. I would say the first hour of playing it, I was starting to feel like it wasn't a game I was going to enjoy. Although I received a few instructions from old man Zenon about how to safely travel to the dungeons, I found myself trapped in a dungeon my first going in. I'm not sure if there was something I could've done to get out that I missed, but in that moment, I got frustrated and decided to just start over since I was only 30 minutes in to the game. Also, the items you sell at first aren't worth a whole lot, and learning to price items is pretty tedious. However, once you understand the rhythm of dungeon-crawling and shop management, it starts to get really interesting. When I reached the second dungeon, I felt like I was really invested and was excited to keep going. Each dungeon brings new challenges that involve adapting how your fighting style, but also much more valuable items. It feels really satisfying to get that final upgrade on your shop and have it turn into a full-out emporium. You also start making a wild amount of money once you're bringing in items from the harder dungeons and doing quests for villagers, so much that dropping money on upgraded equipment is no big deal anymore.
I didn't expect to like the repetitive dungeon crawling very much, but the way the dungeons randomly generate and therefore change every time you go keeps you on your toes and looking for patterns within your exploration. The enemies also have different techniques they require to take them down, and making good use of the rolling mechanic (feels a little like rolls in The Minish Cap but more fast and smooth) can really help you make it further in the dungeons by avoiding attacks. Unfortunately I didn't get a good screenshot of the dungeons, but I also wouldn't want to spoil the style of the future dungeons and how much they vary in enemies and elemental attacks. There's secrets in the dungeons, too, and if you spend too much time there they can turn on you in a very aggressive way. You can choose whatever fighting style works for you when you decide what weapons to bring. Personally, I'm a just-rush-in type of person, so I equipped a big two-handed sword, but the sword and shield weapons work very well too if you're more of a strategic and defensive type of person. You might not need it all the time, but it's safe to keep a secondary weapon on hand too that can cover the weaknesses of your main weapon.
There story is subtle in Moonlighter, and a lot of what you know about the dungeons and their origin will come from notes you find inside from a previous adventurer, "Crazy Pete". Even putting those notes together, however, all I really gathered is that the dungeons operated in a supernatural way and had forces in them to try to keep people out. I do wish there'd been more characters to learn about and interact with other than Zenon, as most of the villagers just seem to address you as the local shop-keep, or perhaps more non-dungeon areas to explore. I will say the ending was surprising and strange, in a good way, but I felt like there wasn't enough leading up to it to make it feel resolved.
Moonlighter might be the indie game I've put the most hours into so far (not including Stardew Valley), having finished it around 25 hours. I definitely didn't expect that going in, but it was a pleasant surprise. I spread out my time playing this on my Switch for the last two months. It's a perfect game to play handheld mode, so Moonlighter accompanied my on family trips and even a long graduation ceremony. You can play it on TV mode, too, but I don't recommend it - the text is a little too small. I definitely took my time with it, but regardless it involves a lot of time to both build up your shop and make progress in the dungeons. Moonlighter also has a "New Game +" available after beating the game which adds some special items and changes the prices of all items.
Moonlighter manages to combine two different types of games into one seamlessly. I don't usually care for store management games, but I got invested in making my store successful in order to get the best armor and weapons for myself. Despite repeating a daily pattern, this game doesn't get repetitive and lets you move forward at your own pace. It's hard to call it a Zelda-like since it has so many unique gameplay aspects, but it does capture the fun and exploration of dungeon crawling. I definitely recommend it on the Switch, as well, since I personally got so much use out of having this game with me on-the-go. Once you get past a slightly bumpy beginning, you'll be all in running your business and pushing through those dungeons.
Moonlighter is available on PC, Nintendo Switch, PS4, and Xbox One.
Played on: Nintendo Switch
Playtime: 25 hrs