Game review: Moonlighter (Epic Store version)

First, yes, I know it’s been a long time since my last review, and you would not believe the technological hell I’ve been through in the last few months. It was like Murphy’s Law decided to ride all my electronic devices at the same time. I’ve finally started to get everything replaced and working mostly properly, so now I hope to get back to some nice reviews and shtuff for y’all.

Up first is Moonlighter, which was free on the Epic Store. Let’s just get this out of the way: yes, the Epic Store sucks. It will someday stop sucking, just like Steam and GOG did, but for now, all I really use it for is downloading games that I was iffy on until they were free. Moonlighter certainly fit into that category, and as it was free, almost akin to a review copy, I will be as nice as I possibly can be while at the same time still being honest.

So, Moonlighter tells the story of a shop owner, Will Moonlighter, who by day sells stuff taken from a mystical dungeon, and by night plunders his merchandise from said dungeon. At first, only one dungeon is available, but by reaching the third floor boss and defeating it, a key is found to unlock the next. There are four real dungeons in total, and a fifth door that is unlocked with all four keys to reach the end-game boss.

There’s a lot to like initially in the game. The graphics are fantastic, evoking any number of old school top-down dungeon crawlers. Enemy animations are lovely and smooth, as are the moves of Will. There’s a good variety of weapons, though I admit once I found the big ass sword and bow, I didn’t really look much at the others. I tried them, yes, and found them adequate. But they weren’t a big ass sword and a bow. That’s my jam, y’all.

The music too is very good, the kind you can set the controller down and just listen to appreciate it. The controls are…mostly good, though I sometimes found the dodge roll/jump to be a bit finicky in crossing gaps. Aside from that, it was good enough to get me to the end with a minimum number of shouts like “ARE YOU KIDDING ME?”

Then there’s the shop keeping side of the game, which is interesting at first. As you lay out items on your shop table and price them, customers come in and appraise them. You have to watch their reactions in the form of a thought bubble forming over their heads. After a few seconds of thought, the cloud will either show some kind of happy face, meaning your prices are good, or a sad face, meaning you overpriced your stuff. One of the smiling faces indicates that the customer thinks the item is super cheap, while another indicates it’s the perfect price. So the goal is learning what that “Goldilocks price” is to get maximum profits out of each item.

The design of the dungeons are something like a mix between Enter the Gungeon and old Zelda games. The layout of the dungeons change with each run, but the boss is always the same, and your equipment can stay the same unless you want to try something new. One nice touch is that Will finds a pendant very early on that allows him to teleport out of the dungeon in exchange for some gold. So say for instance that you’re on the second floor with a full bag of loot but with low health and no healing potions, you can bug out without risking your haul.

After opening the second dungeon, the enemies get a lot tougher. Will’s weapons and armor can be upgraded by using materials found in the dungeons and turning them over to a blacksmith, who has to be unlocked by paying him to come to town and set up shop. It’s here where I started to sour on the game. After bribing new merchants to come into town, I found all their prices to be astronomically insane. The costs are so high that I needed almost two days of grinding to afford upgrades to all my equipment for every upgrade cycle. For the first three dungeons, I ended up just saying screw it and going to the final boss fight with under-leveled gear. Then with the loot from the next dungeon offering better profits, I did the upgrades.

But the fourth dungeon, the Tech Dungeon, had enemies launching electrical attacks that drained my health so fast I couldn’t make it to the third floor without depleting my stocks of healing potions. (Which have their own insane price structure, so you don’t want to be chugging them like Kool-Aid.) I ended up having to grind in the lower dungeons for four days to get all the upgrades, at which point the newer insulated armor was able to take a lot of the sting out of the enemy attacks.

Before I get to the end game boss, I want to talk about the bosses in the four dungeons. The main bosses on the third floors are cool, but once you beat them, their area is filled with an assortment of regular enemies. The two mid-bosses on each floors are the same, and that’s what makes the grind get stale very quickly. The first time you fight a golem, it’s cool. Then you get to the second floor, and it’s the same boss, except now he can teleport. It’s not any harder, so even on the first run, there’s a bit of disappointment before getting to the Golem King, who is VERY different, challenging, visually appealing, and most importantly, fun. But once he’s gone, you won’t see him again until new game plus.

Likewise, the angry tree, flaming…dice(?), and Plasma Globe of Dhoooom all come in two flavors, and those flavors are the same as the first golems. There’s a need for variety to make the grind more compelling and for me, these bosses aren’t doing it for me. They’re too easily beaten, and the rewards they drop are the same junk I can take off most common enemies.

I got into this pattern of trudging grudgingly through the grinds so I could reach those third floor bosses, and without exception, they were great fun. Were they worth 48 freakin’ hours of grinding to reach them? Well…no, not really. I think if the folks making this had cut out the grind and just made a shorter game, I’d look at it more fondly. Or alternately, if they wanted to stick with the random loot grind model, they should have developed more bosses and made the boss encounters random like Enter the Gungeon or The Binding of Isaac. But fighting the same two bosses and doing a “horde mode” over and over to earn cash for upgrades is so tedious that it pulls down everything I found appealing about this game.

Then there’s the final door, which calls itself a dungeon, but is really just a long hallway that leads to the last boss. And that last boss is underwhelming because I beat him just by standing in one spot right next to him while spamming the charged attack. I looked at his health bar plummeting and said out loud, “This is too easy. He’s got to have a second form.” He does, and it’s just as underwhelming for the same reason. I didn’t have to dodge or learn a pattern of attacks like I did with the four previous bosses. I just stood in a spot where he did little damage to Will and spammed the charged attack.

Once the reason for the dungeons’ existence is revealed, I was just left asking “Wow, really?” And I don’t mean that in a good way. It’s like the game’s structure was fully fleshed out before anyone thought to write an actual story, and the big finale is…it’s like expecting a big fireworks show, only to get a sparkler, and the sparkler fizzles out shortly after being lit.

I also need to get back to the shop keeping portion of the game to talk about another problem. Eventually, lots of items become unpopular, meaning what used to be the prefect price is now too high. This happens right when you need funds the most for equipment upgrades and potions. So you’re now making less money and needing to make even more loot runs for diminishing rewards. At a certain point, I just gave up on selling stuff, using an item found in the dungeon to junk everything for money rather than waste time trying to hawk it to the locals.

I should mention that there is another way to make money late in the game, someone labeled a banker who is more like a venture capitalist. To use him, you have to wait until he’s ready to take your money. Sometimes he says “Come see me in one day,” so you go back to the shop, sleep twice, and then go back to the town center to give him your money. But other times, he says “Come see me in six days.” Yeah, because rich people would totally be like “I’m uninterested in taking a million gold pieces off of you today. Come see me next week.” Immersion totally broken.

Jokes aside, after taking your funds, you have to wait another six days to take back your money with the highest percentage of interest earned. If you miss that last day, you get…nothing. Bubkes. Again, because that’s totally how investments work. Granted, I never lost my money, but each time I got warned that if I didn’t take my funds out I’d lose everything, I rolled my eyes so hard I caught glimpses of my brain, and my brain was shuddering at how dumb this investment service is.

I often talk about how long I played a game as a benchmark of whether I consider it worth the money I spent, but in this case, no money changed digital hands. Additionally, while I might have spent 60 hours playing this, I’d say only four or five of them were truly fun. That’s why I feel like Moonlighter would have greatly benefited from being a more traditional retro game. Let me go in to play those six fun hours of dungeon crawling and battling bosses and then let me get out and do something else. But making me fight the same four bosses over and over for no good reason ruins the experience, and this could have been easily one of my favorite games without the mind numbing grind. That’s a shame because it really does check all the quality boxes in most respects.

In the end, I have to give Moonlighter 3 stars. It’s not a terrible game, but the grind built in to pad the length takes what could have been a 5 star winner and turns it into a slog with little rewards and a disappointing finale. I’d only recommend for people who think grinding is the best part of video games. For everyone else, you can find better ways to waste your time.