It's pretty difficult to be original these days, and in some ways, Moonlighter could be seen as rather derivative. Rogue-lite dungeon crawling, management sims, pixel art action RPGs -- we see these all the time nowadays, but this game's trick is smashing them all together. The result is a title you'll feel like you've played before, but that also feels wholly original.
Will, the proprietor of the titular retail store, longs for adventure. The village of Rynoka was formed near five mysterious dungeons, which adventurers explored and plundered for treasure and materials. These heroes would return to the settlement to rest up and to sell their wares, and it's this heritage that Will aims to maintain. With many of the dangerous dungeons closed off and Rynoka a shadow of its former bustling self, it falls to you to bring trade, community, and life back to the village.
The genius of Moonlighter is that it asks you to carry out and balance both sides of Will's life. By night, you'll head to, say, the Golem dungeon to defeat monsters and search for valuable items. By day, you'll open up shop, pricing and selling your finds to the residents of Rynoka. These two core aspects of the game couldn't be much further apart, but the link between them makes total sense. It results in great pacing, with the dungeons offering challenge and action, and the shopkeeping providing a more sedate, almost puzzle-solving experience as you figure out what items people want and how much they're willing to pay. As you might suspect, it's also very addictive.
The dungeons are randomly generated, meaning the layout changes every time, and there's no guarantee you'll find exactly what you're looking for. There are some things you can rely on, however: there are three levels to explore each time, followed by a boss room. On each level, there's one room that contains a healing hot spring, usually on the way to the next floor. Enemies become tougher as you delve deeper, but items in chests and dropped by baddies are rarer, more valuable ones. Finally, death means losing everything you've collected, but you can always warp back home with Will's pendant for a few hundred gold.
With a backpack full of goods, you can begin your career as a merchant. Approach your display tables to place the items you want to sell and set prices for them, then open up shop and watch how your customers react. Setting prices too high will mean you won't sell anything, but cut your prices too much, and you'll hardly make any money. Customers show one of four expressions when viewing your merchandise, and it's important to get the balance right between keeping people happy and earning a decent day's takings. At the end of each day of business, you'll get a rundown of what you've sold, how much you've earned, and how the popularity of certain items has changed. If you oversell something, its popularity will go down, so fewer customers will fork out for it. The economy of Moonlighter isn't very complicated, but it has just enough to it that you need to give some thought to what you're selling, when you're selling it, and for how much.
Of course, once you've saved up enough, you can expand your experience in a multitude of ways. You can invest in the shop so you can sell more at once or hire extra staff, or bring new businesses to Rynoka via the message board. Once you unlock the blacksmith and the witch, you're able to start thinking about upgrading Will, too. The former can craft and upgrade weapons and armour, and the latter can conjure up useful potions and enchant your equipment, buffing stats or adding elemental effects to your weaponry. This then loops back into the dungeon crawling, where your new loadout will obviously allow you to explore further, or even face the dungeon's boss. Defeating these giant creatures unlocks the next dungeon, and they're tough cookies.
Combat is your basic slashing and dodge-rolling, but there are several weapon types that all play differently, and you can switch between two, allowing you to change up your approach on the fly. It can feel a little rigid at times, but it gets the job done. Perhaps your greatest battle will be with the menus and UI, however. While it all looks good, it's more fiddly than it should be when you spend a decent amount of time navigating menus. There's a lot to keep on top of in Moonlighter, and slicker menus would've made life a little easier.
That said, the interplay between all the elements this game brings together is very well thought out. Everything you do feeds into something else, resulting in an endless, satisfying loop of slaying monsters, gathering loot, running the shop, and putting your savings into upgrading the village, the store, or Will himself. That it all looks and sounds splendid is the icing on the cake, with a charming art style and some lovely music that'll be in your head long after you put the controller down.
Moonlighter is a delightful mix of action RPG, rogue-lite dungeon crawling, and shopkeeping sim with an ingenious gameplay loop that'll have you hooked. The way the game's contrasting parts blend into one another means you're always making progress, and it feels great. Exploring the dungeons is challenging and fun, and managing the shop is addictive, thanks to an intelligent economy system. There are some rough edges, such as complex menu screens and one or two minor bugs, but when this game gets its hooks in, you won't care. Shopping around for your new favourite indie? Look no further.