Hi there. As some of you may know I am a recovering Stardew Valley addict. Having spent real-world money on the game three times now (PC, PS4 and Nintendo Switch if you must know), and sunk hundreds of hours into my farm, my crops and my animals, I am very, very aware of my problem. But instead of backing away from pixellated farmyard and putting down the Switch, I'm constantly on the hunt for more games like Stardew Valley.
In case you missed it, Moonlighter is one of the best games to be added to that list. Games that scratch that same “just one more day” itch that keeps me glued to a gamepad until the early hours of the morning. And until now, nothing else has quite managed to zone in on the same kind of beautifully self-perpetuating gameplay loop that has kept me with Stardew for so long. Nothing until Moonlighter that is. And especially because it's now on Nintendo Switch too.
This brand new title developed by Digital Sun and published by 11 Bit Studios is the kind of game that ticks all your Stardew Valley boxes and then some - aside from the fact it’s actually got nothing to do with farming whatsoever. Instead, you play as a chap called Will, who spends his days running a little shop in a town called Rynoka, which is actually the titular Moonlighter. It’s here that Digital Sun’s game plays out as a kind of management sim, more akin to something like Theme Park World or Theme Hospital than you might expect. During your hours as a shopkeeper, you’re in charge of setting prices for your goods, listening to the reactions of the customers and then adjusting them accordingly, like some kind of inflation simulator. But you’ll also be restocking shelves, working the till and making sure no-one runs off with your wares while your back is turned - pesky thieves. While that might sound dull, it’s actually that kind of wonderful, brain-soothing mediocrity that Stardew Valley excels at, what with all that crop gathering, watering and animal feeding. But thanks to the constant demand of the Rynoka villagers, you’re always kept on your toes - fiddling with prices and learning quickly from your mistakes as someone walks off very happy with an absolute bargain, yet again.
By the cover of darkness...
But, it’s not just the shop that’s the Moonlighter, it’s also your main character trait, because at night is where the game really comes alive. Or dead, repeatedly, if you’re anything like me in the first dungeon. The story goes that one day a set of gates were discovered near Rynoka, and behind those doors lay ancient passages to different realms and dimensions. People started disappearing down the mines in search of the innumerable treasures that lay there, but when they stopped returning, the decision was made to seal the gates back up again. Until you, that is. Shopkeepers have dreams too people, and Will wants to be a hero. And, also, where else do you think you’re going to get all that stuff to sell in your shop?
Moonlighter tips that’ll help you get the best loot and sell it for more
So it’s as darkness falls that Moonlighter transforms again. Slipping beyond the confines of the first gate into the Golem Dungeons it’s all about discovering that at night Moonlighter magically combines the procedurally generated magic / hell of Binding of Isaac’s dungeons, but with its own swathe of problematic enemies, with tongue-in-cheek Dark Souls-esque punishment. Every dungeon progresses through three levels, all filled with loot and beasties, with one final, fourth zone reserved for that dungeon’s boss. But, if you die at any point in the dungeon, you’ll lose all the loot you’ve scavenged from the monsters you’ve slain, found in chests or pried from the bony clutches of your heroic forebears (don’t worry, I’ve only rage quit like a dozen times).
It’s clear this is also a game made for gamers, by gamers. It doesn’t just tip its hat to other titles in gameplay form, it’s also littered with in-game references, from the moment Zenon hands you a broom handle and says “It’s dangerous out there, take this”, to the customers in your shop that look exactly like Final Fantasy characters in stunning pixelart.
Just one more dungeon dive...
But, it’s the quest for loot that keeps the wonderfully habitual perpetual gameplay loop moving on though, away from the fact that it’s that kind of wholesome adorable art style that makes you want to buy a tonne of merch. The loot is what you’ll need to stock your shop to make money, upgrade your various weapons or buy new ones, and eventually fulfill requests submitted to you by the Rynoka townsfolk. It’s not easy, though, especially as you pass through the various rooms of the dungeons, stuffing loot into your backpack, you’ll soon run out of space. Certain items are cursed, forcing you to place them carefully to stop them destroying other resources, while others are fragile. It’s a constant juggle that keeps you weighing up item worth, usefulness and other traits. It’s this though that keeps Moonlighter’s gameplay loop on your toes - and not just because the enemies are tricky - because there’s always just one more thing you need, a little more money to be made, and another level to progress to.
It helps that there are four different dungeons to explore - progressing from Golem and Forest, to Desert and Tech - all offering different resources to scavenge and enemies to fight. Just at the moment you start to feel like you’re getting bored, Moonlighter throws you another challenge, another quest, another goal, and teases you with going back to dungeons of before to get that one thing you need for an awesome sword upgrade. And that’s before you get close to the ultimate goal of finding out what’s behind that door with all the locks on it.
Of course, after 40 hours or so of play on PS4, I’m nowhere near that. I’m delving into the various dungeons again and again, building up my shop, upgrading my weapons, selling my wares and generally having the best time in Moonlighter. Oh, and starting the whole thing again on Switch, because yes, it really is that good, and looks and plays like an absolute dream on Nintendo's latest console. This is your new Stardew Valley. This is the one that takes its spot as the game that takes over entire weekends without even thinking about it. This is the one that you’ve got mad scribbles for in notebooks, plotting gameplans and memorising the mad rantings of dead heroes that came before you. What was it they said lay in a chest somewhere between floor three and the boss of the Forest Dungeon again?
You’ll know whether Moonlighter sounds like your next addiction, because you’ve probably already been there with Stardew or Isaac before, driving yourself to that special kind of madness. But if it sounds like it’s for you, you need to get yourself down to Rynoka stat. Will’s about to become your new best friend.
Reviewed on PS4 Pro and Nintendo Switch.