Checking the Score: Moonlighter

Dungeon crawling by night, opening up shop during the day — this is the life of adventuring merchant Will in Digital Sun’s Moonlighter. Originally released in digital formats earlier this year, the title received a re-release in physical format for PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch on November 5. We follow our protagonist as he searches for answers to the mysterious dungeons that magically appeared near the outskirts of town. Filled with dangerous monsters and high-quality treasure, these dungeons attract those who seek thrills and loot. Each of the four dungeons is procedurally generated with a challenging boss at the end. Each boss holds the key to a giant fifth dungeon that can only be unlocked after defeating the previous four.

Will is a young man known for his fascination with the mystery surrounding these dungeons. How did they appear magically? How can he open the giant sealed fifth door? With rogue-lite elements, players must make decisions about how far to go before turning back. Will also has responsibilities to run his store, Moonlighter, by selling the treasures he finds during his adventuring. It becomes a delicate balance of collecting loot to sell for upgrades that can carry us further or die trying. With a theme in each dungeon, there is a unique ambiance that players can feel as they work their way through each one. The many different musical themes help create a sense of mystery and danger while giving a deep personality to the title.

Immediately, the opening title is a beautiful medley of drums, wind chimes and harps with a sprinkle of vocals to create an inviting main theme in “Beyond the Gates”. The use of hard sounds from the drums mixed with the tinkles of chimes and strings creates a feeling of adventure. We sense our journeys will be difficult, but with the prospect of treasure. Composer David Fenn is able to make connections to the gameplay content through the use of musical composition and melody. We can almost hear the treasure we’ll find in the use of chimes to create a “shiny” sound. The harps help to create a mystical feeling to compliment the mystery of each dungeon to make them feel like a temple. This thoughtful use of composition is found through each major theme to help connect the player with the content. I found myself waiting on the title screen for a bit just to enjoy the main theme. “Beyond the Gates” is a beautiful introduction to the game.

Not only does the game itself have a memorable theme, but our main protagonist has a theme worthy of his characteristics. We don’t know much about Will. We do know he has a fascination (almost obsession) with these dungeons. He is the sole proprietor of  the Moonlighter and receives a lot of criticism from his mentor for going off into the dungeons. More than anything, he’s a young man with dreams. We can get a sense of that from his main theme. “Will’s Theme” utilizes similar components found in the main theme with some unique additions. A gentle guitar with cello and flutes form a melody of longing. It’s almost as if we can feel Will’s daydreams to become a famed explorer. He’s a bit of a loner and his theme reflects his personality to give the character more depth. It’s a great example of music utilized to add more character backstory.

During their playtime, players will have to spend some amount of time in the Moonlighter. Peddling treasures found within the dungeons will provide enough finances to upgrade gear and even help businesses in town with start-up money. It’s a quaint, wooden hut that serves as Will’s home with a bedroom in the back and the store at the front. Because of its dual purpose, “The Moonlighter” theme is upbeat and cozy. A mandolin takes center stage to uphold the theme while gentle percussion helps create an organic sound to compliment the wooden construction of the Moonlighter. Quirky sounds from castanets, guiro, cowbell and other percussive instruments give this theme an optimistic and lighthearted feeling. Its melody is light and upbeat to create a welcoming space for shoppers who come in and out during hours of business. And when the shop is not open, the theme creates a comforting ambiance for Will’s home.

When Will is not tending the Moonlighter, he’s exploring one of the various dungeons. Each dungeon has an elemental theme to it that is also reflected in its music. There are five dungeons total: the Golem dungeon, the Forest dungeon, the Tech dungeon, the Desert dungeon and a final dungeon which lacks an elemental theme. Each dungeon does have its own themes that help give personality to the overall game as well as the dungeon itself. The Forest dungeon utilizes a lot of percussion in its themes for an organic effect. The Desert dungeon themes use sitars and flutes to create a melody that could be from “Arabian Nights.” Each theme helps to make the dungeons more than just a “sand” dungeon or a “forest” dungeon. The musical composition of each theme adds depth to our adventure.

The most notable thematic element of the dungeons, however, is that the boss themes utilize the main theme’s melody as a structural component. Compare the opener “Beyond the Gates” to the “Golem King” theme. The basic construction of the melodies are similar, yet completely different in execution. We hear different instruments during the “Golem King” theme. We can hear this same melody again in the Forest dungeon boss theme “Carnivorous Mutae.” Even in the Tech dungeon, David Fenn uses some badass synths and bass drops to uphold this melody; which is an amazingly stark contrast against the organic sounds used in previous tracks. The use of the main theme melody in each boss theme is a beautiful attention to detail that creates cohesion within the soundtrack. Similar to how one would listen to to an overture in a musical production in order to recognize musical themes that appear later.

Moonlighter is a fun and frantic rogue-lite dungeon crawler with loads of personality. Much of that personality is derived from its musical themes and components. Composer David Fenn utilizes a myriad of instruments to convey the themes for each area. And while so many different instruments are used across various tracks, Fenn finds a way to connect each theme with similar melodies and composition to create a cohesive body of work. Gorgeous, chill-inducing tracks make up the whole soundtrack and could have made up an even longer article. It speaks to the overall quality of the soundtrack when one finds it difficult to select tracks to showcase. Overall, the diverse use of instruments used to create impressive themes has bumped Moonlighter’s soundtrack to the top of my favorites list.