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Moonlighter and the fine line between a balanced and a shaky progression.

Video games are a hot commodity, at the moment; last year’s 10% increase in revenue in regards to 2016’s revenue is just the statistical proof, and on Steam alone, there were 7, 672 games released in 2017 (as per Polygon). In practice, the game industry is becoming more and more competitive and vicious for games of all sizes; while Nier: Automata, Night in the Woods and Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice are just some of the indie gems that shinned last year-making 2017 one of the best years in video game’s illustrious history- there were AAA colossal releases, that underperformed and failed massively, despite their status and marketing pull (Mass Effect and Need for Speed being just some examples). In this hypercompetitive and unforgiving market, games like Moonlighter attempt to do something different and something that feels unique in order to stand out and survive against the competition; in this attempt, studio Digital Sun has two varying results: Firstly, it accomplishes its goal of being something that feels fresh and executes its concept very well, but it also chose to differ its game from others in a way that would be difficult to balance and pace correctly, which is where it is not as successful as I wanted them to be. For those looking for a short, to-the-point answer on whether Moonlighter is a worthwhile experience, then yes it is; it’s a relaxing game, which allows for zoning out and chilling with a cup of coffee while doing something that is demanding enough to warrant some attention, but not stressful or challenging enough that it becomes frustrating or demands commitment and focus that would break the peaceful vibe of the game. However, it is extremely repetitive and, as I will detail later on, has issues in its progression and the technical performance on Xbox One left a lot to be desired; nonetheless, I was able to look past these issues and spent dozens of hours with the beautiful animation and peaceful vibe of the game, humming along with its catchy soundtrack and enjoying its simple, yet satisfying combat and merchant simulator-esque gameplay.

But, that is such a simplistic way to talk about Moonlighter, and it deserves to be discussed in more detail; first though, a bit about the story: You are Will, owner of Moonlighter, a family-owned merchant shop past its glory days. Moonlighter is the typical shop one would find, before any typical dungeon in an RPG; which is exactly the setting of the game. However, the dungeon beyond your boyhood city has been closed for unknown-or easily forgettable- reasons, and the shop-as well as the city- is a shadow of its former glory; thus, the player is tasked with restoring Moonlighter and the city to its former glory, as well as exploring and discovering the now opened dungeons and uncovering the truth behind the mysteries surrounding them. As expected, Moonlighter is a Rogue-like action-RPG, with economy-sim inspirations; the combat is simple, yet it handles really well and there are some satisfying moments to be had, while the economy-sim elements are a bit more deep and meaningful, but still fit in well with the vibe. Add to these features, the audio-visual experience of the game and the neat gimmicks like adding a versatile puzzle element to the inventory management aspect of the game (which does not “fix” that aspect if you hate it, but makes it more interesting and fun), and you can understand why this is a worthwhile experience for me; but, the game does have issues and they are mostly problems with the balancing of the experience-not the implementation of ideas, features or mechanics.

To be fair, there are certain aspects that are fairly well-balanced, like the resource gathering aspect; to make sure that the player does not get too many resources and break the economy of the game, the developers added an inventory management system, which is not upgradable-meaning that the 20 slots available at the beginning are the maximum a player can have. However, to make sure the game is welcoming and not frustrating, the developers also added the pendant system (which allows the player to sell items at a reduced price instead of dropping them, teleport back to the city for a small fee and open a gate between the city and their current location in the dungeon for a sizeable fee) and the puzzle element (items from chests have attributes that could be helpful, harmful or both and the player has to work out the optimal placement for these items). The balance is near perfect, in my opinion; I was rewarded for being smart and leaving when the time was right, as well as being bold and pushing on, without breaking the flow of progression or feeling like there was a “correct” way to play (there are some other, secret ways to accomplish some of this stuff, but I won’t spoil them here).

The same cannot be said, about the balance of progression and the pacing of the game; in order to make the game accessible and pleasant, as well as allowing the player to have that vital feeling of progression, the developers needed to place restrictions and introduce new wrinkles to the gameplay and mechanics, as the player advances and becomes better. In some aspects, the game is surprisingly deep and coherent with its relaxing vibe, like the economy-sim aspect, where the player will unlock more item slots in the shop to sell more stuff, but also unlock decorations (which grant passive upgrades to the shop, such as encouraging customers to add a tip or expanding the maximum number of customers that can be in the shop at the same time) and the ability to receive quests from customers, as well as attracting thieves which require you to be on your toes and stop them before they get away with your stuff. However, the combat and enemies never really evolve, as the enemy variety is only visual, with the exception of bosses and slight mechanical changes to some enemy types in later dungeons, which makes the game feel very repetitive (although the game does have neat gimmicks, like having a room from the next dungeon randomly appear in the previous dungeon and tease the player as well as grand valuable resources early on). Furthermore, the game uses the prices of items, gear and upgrades to gate your progression in town (as well as in the dungeon with the pricing of the pendant abilities), which leads the game to have two stages for each of the five dungeons: Firstly, you start somewhat underpowered and the gear required is slightly overcharged, which leads the player in a loop of going to a dungeon and acquiring resources-some are required to construct your gear and everything else is sold- until you can buy something new. Then, there’s the reward phase, where the player starts to feel the change and attempts to move further into the dungeon; however, these two stages had to be repeated multiple times before I felt confident in moving on to facing the boss, so much so, that by the time I acquired the available gear and upgrades, I brazed through the boss quite easily. Another important aspect that affects the balance, is that the dungeons are only 3 levels long (to be fair, every dungeon is visually distinct and has varying design both in its levels and enemies, which must have taken a lot of effort and time to nail); this means that I usually faced the boss after a couple of runs in the dungeon and got completely destroyed and only felt confident to face them again, after acquiring most of the gear-which requires acquiring most of the shop upgrades. As an example, after the first dungeon I usually sold 2000 gold’s worth of materials and the cheapest upgrade (not enhancements which are a bit cheaper) was 20 000 gold for an extra chest; the sales do get significantly raised once the shop upgrades are bought, however in the previous scenario the shop upgrade was 60,000 so it’s no easy feat. Thus, the grind is long with Moonlighter, which is not a bad thing, however considering how much grind there is, I would have appreciated more variety and a better sense of progression; there were too many times were I felt I was stagnant for too long, which is not fun. Add to these balancing issues, the pacing issues which are severely skewed in the economy-sim aspect and the technical issues, which consisted of game-breaking bugs like a bugged teleport gate that resulted in a crash and long loading times for each dungeon and each floor, and you end up with a great game let down by some issues in areas that are vital for the genre.

Overall then, Moonlighter manages to create a more friendly and unique dungeon crawler, but in the expense of making an excellent one, which is a shame because Moonlighter’s beautiful art-style and calm vibe, alongside the features that do work great and are balanced/paced correctly, are all dragged down by those features that are not; which makes the game good, but leaves a lot to be desired. If there’s anything any developer should take from Moonlighter’s successes and failures is that making a game unique, interesting and great is not about nailing some aspects of the game or just the style and gameplay; it’s about nailing all aspects and creating a cohesive experience, that is balanced and paced fairly across the board, alongside the features, mechanics and presentation of the game. Nonetheless, most of the features in Moonlighter are excellent and deliver a worthwhile experience, despite the stumbles along the way; if Moonlighter sounds like your kind of game, then it probably won’t disappoint you.

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