Moonlighter Fuses Classic RPG Gameplay with Zelda and The Binding of Isaac [E3 2017 Preview]

Indie roguelikes are dime a dozen at PAX and E3, so if you’re going to show one, it needs a worthy twist. Like Moonlighter itself, developer Digital Sun’s humble E3 demo stations (neatly tucked away within the Concourse Hall’s makeshift offices) are no-doubt unsuspecting. Once I spent some quality time with both, though, I realized I’d stumbled upon what is easily among my favorite playable experiences at this year’s E3.

Moonlighter communicates exactly what it is from the beginning – a Zelda-inspired action RPG with “rogue-lite” elements, as unabashedly happy to drop an “It’s dangerous to go alone, take this” reference within its first ten minutes as it is to decapitate main character Will at the hands of fearsome enemies shortly thereafter. Moonlighter’s visual style channels Link to the Past-era pixel art, all while looking crisp and colorful on a modern HD TV. After a brief introduction designed to demonstrate dodging, attacking, and using collectible weapons, it was off into the world I went, carrying the fate of Will in my questionably capable hands.

If you hadn’t guessed, Moonlighter’s title is a direct reference to its main character’s ambitions; in short, he works as a merchant shopkeep by day, but would much rather be a hero and pursues this goal at night. I soon learned that simple traditions govern Moonlighter’s society, in that most folks are either merchants or heroes by trade. The former possess special amulets allowing them to safely teleport from dungeons after scoring high-priced loot, while the latter brave the very same in search of fame and valor, often meeting their demise in the process.

Not ignorable is the game’s sense of humor, apparent immediately when an old man rambles to Will about how best run his shop, survive the dangers of dungeons, and avoid the sad demise of a fellow hero known simply as “Old Pete.” Crisp, perhaps somewhat vanilla pixel art works together with creative animations to lend actions personality, and as Will progresses through a typical day his goal is to run shop, hit the catacombs for loot, sleep, and repeat. What’s interesting is that ignoring your duties in favor of constant adventuring isn’t exactly an option – without the money earned from you day job you’ll be unable to utilize your merchant’s amulet, rendering your looting attempts useless and possibly killing you in the process.

As both my shop and my skills slowly improved I began to feel more like a hero at night, and this is where roguelike elements creep into Moonlighter‘s daily experience. The game’s one dungeon is located north of town but constantly reconfigures, procedurally generating new challenges and layouts in Binding of Isaac fashion each time it’s entered. I was told during my demo that a multitude of collectible weapons and crafting materials are planned, and in addition to my starting weapon (a long and fearsome mop), I came across short swords, spears, and even spotted some two-handed options purchasable from the local blacksmith in town. Materials gathered from dungeons along with pure monetary thresholds will unlock said wares, at which point it becomes very clear why Will ought not neglect his shopkeepers duties and merchant heritage in favor of constant and nonstop adventuring.

Materials collected fetch a decent price if converted directly to cash, but the game’s true strategy and revenue source comes in the form of appraising, pricing, and selling what you find as customers come and go. I was surprised to discover that many customers are actually quite shrewd and don’t easily accept being ripped off, but they aren’t unsuspicious of something inexplicably cheap either. I don’t feel as though I really entered a flow of top-level salesmanship during my demo time, but I consider that a good thing. For as aggravating as roguelikes can be, it’s nice to have genuine challenge and things to do outside of what I’m sure will eventually become punishing dungeon crawling, especially when said activities amount to more than just biding time or making an excuse.

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My favorite thing about Moonlighter is how seamlessly it fuses disparate elements – dying in the dungeon simply boots you back to town, while chatting with NPCs or wandering can be plenty satisfying and fruitful in its own right. I was told that the game doesn’t hide its influences and is happy to wear them on its sleeve, something I’d like to see far more often when there are so many roguelikes (not to mention Metroidvanias) undeniably clogging the halls of trade shows at ever-increasing rates.

Moonlighter is due out later this year, and already has a Steam page up and running if you want to keep tabs on it (there’s also a Kickstarter here). I’m not expecting anything life-changing out of the final product, but that’s hardly a problem. Games that know exactly what they are and who they’re for have a knack for being most satisfying, and if you can humanize a notoriously aggravating genre in the process, then there’s little doubt people will start paying attention.