When my boss, Nick Calandra, asked me to review Moon Hunters, he told me it was right up my alley. Firstly, since I don’t write many reviews anymore (editorly duties and all that), it was rare enough for him to ask. But for him to outright call me out, saying a game was practically made for me, was something intriguing in itself. I had never heard of Moon Hunters before that day, but my curiosity was piqued.
It turns out the aspect of Moon Hunters to which Mr. Calandra was referring when speaking of my alley was the game’s ability to allow the player to tell their own story – emergent narrative, as it’s called. I’ve harped about this aspect of games several times and I truly think it’s one of the things gaming as a medium does better than any other medium. Games are meant to make you feel like you’re in control, like you’re part of the story, and games that have elements of emergent narrative allow you to tell your own story like no other.
It turns out Moon Hunters is a little lacking in this regard when compared to other games of its ilk, but it’s an enjoyable experience nonetheless, even if I can’t recommend it to anyone looking for an in-depth experience they’ll stick with for several play sessions.
In Moon Hunters, you play a wandering hero on the first step of carving their own legend. And I don’t mean this in any abstract way – by the end of the game you will literally be a legend to the people, complete with your own constellation and everything. It turns out the moon has gone missing and word on the street is that the dastardly sun cult is responsible for her demise. Moon good, sun bad. So far, so good. I think any of us nerdy, video game-playing shut-ins can get behind it.
Turns out there may be a bit more going on than that, however. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to really find out the whole story. While Moon Hunters has a straight-forward and ultimately simple premise, it doesn’t do much to tell you what you should be doing next.
After discovering that the moon has failed to rise and hinting that the sun cult is to blame, you basically wander to three different areas for three different days. During this time you partake in the game’s simplistic but ultimately fulfilling action-RPG-esque combat, are confronted with the occasional moral choice that helps determine how you will go down in history (more on that in a bit), and come head to head with the end boss. After defeating him in a climactic showdown…that’s it. It’s game over. The game hints that there’s more afoot, that maybe there’s something else out there besides the sun cult’s villainy, but I have yet to figure out how to access that part of the game. And as it stands, you can beat this portion of the game in less than an hour.
And when I say it feels like there’s more, I’m not simply saying the game feels short (it does). I’m saying that there are narrative elements that made it seem like I was missing out on a portion of the game. As a point of pride (and professional integrity), I try never to look up information about a game while I’m playing it. But since I’d beaten the games multiple times on multiple characters, I decided to check out the community and find out what it was that I’m missing.
It turns out that Moon Hunters has multiple endings (which is easy enough to predict if you’ve beaten the game once), but accessing the “good” ending is a pretty abstract affair, one that I’m not sure the casual gamer will be able to discover on their own. I suggest beating the game a couple times yourself before seeking out help online, but in the end, you probably will need help finding the “true” ending of the game – which is to say, the rewarding ending.
The narrative overall is pretty thin as well. While the story is simplistic, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But without much in the way of exposition and no real explanation of what you’re supposed to be doing (which makes finding the “good” ending all the harder), it really feels somewhat cobbled together in the end. The ultimate premise is neat, but it’s hard to want to be a legend in a world that’s so indistinct.
Good, bad, or otherwise, whatever victory (or defeat) you win at the end of the day, your character will go down in history as a true legend. The choices you make during the course of the game – whether you chose to pray at the corpse of a man mauled by lions or simply take his provisions; charmed the comely mother of five or ditched her; turned to the stars for guidance at night or chose to hunt; etc – will ultimately determine what your character was remembered for.
The beauty of Moon Hunters is that when the game says you go down in history as a legend, it means it. The end-game synopsis of your (brief) adventures truly feel like the stuff of legends as accounts of your various choices are recounted in somewhat vague (though not uninteresting) terms, like those that might be used to describe events passed down by oral tradition over time. You’ll even earn your place in heaven as a legendary hero – although some of these endings may not be quite what you imagined. My overly-proud spellblade, for example, was so proud and brash that the gods sought to punish him by turning him into a humble throne for their immortal rears for all of eternity. Ouch.
Unfortunately, this is where the game starts to wear a bit thin. The mechanics are solid and the premise is neat, but after one or two goes, everything starts to feel pretty repetitive as you face the same moral choices again and again. On my first, second, and even third go-through of the game, I felt like I was carving my own destiny, making choices and letting the dice fall where they may. This is the sign of a strong emergent narrative game, one where you feel like your choices are made for reasons outside of the game mechanics – where you feel like you’re playing a character rather than a series of 1’s and 0’s.
Since the game is so short and the possible choices so limited, it didn’t take long before I was making decisions simply to see the various ending conditions, with no regard for character decisions or flavor text. I found myself wondering what would get me that “foolish” trait or the “cunning” trait, rather than what my character would do in a given situation. Because I’d done it all before. And sometimes it wasn’t obvious what action would have what effect on my “legend,” so I would be cursed with a rather discordant trait that I never expected given my actions, which dampens the emergent narrative aspect somewhat. You have to feel like you understand the consequences of your actions for those actions to have any meaning, after all.
On the other side of the coin, while the enemy placement can be a little haphazard and random and it can be very easy to get cornered by some pretty unfair enemies (there’s a type of enemy you can’t attack from the front that really break the flow of combat somewhat), the mechanics are simplistic but ultimately enjoyable. You start the game with four characters unlocked and each character plays fairly differently without feeling alien. Each of the four starting characters have the same basic abilities – left click for a basic attack, right click for a more devastating, unique attack, and a movement ability – but each of these abilities play out in different ways. The spellblade, for example, is a speedy guy with quick attacks and good mobility. The Occultist, meanwhile, is a bit more ponderous and tactical. You have to determine where to place her attacks for maximum effectiveness, but she is ultimately much more safe and able to position herself in spots where she’s less likely to get cornered (which will happen a lot). I enjoyed playing each of the characters.
It’s just a shame there’s not more to it. While the simplistic mechanics played well into the game’s overall short length, this is a game that is clearly meant to be replayed. A lot. But with only six characters – four basic and two hidden – and a violently limited number of random encounters (for a game that’s supposedly about replayability), I really didn’t feel the need to play it more than three or four times.
The game has a multiplayer component – which I did not explore since, y’know, this is Only Single Player – but I don’t see how it would add much more to the game. In fact, since the mechanics are so simple and the game so short, I don’t feel like multiplayer would add much of anything to the experience other than a chance to run around for awhile in a new, imaginary world with some friends. But I doubt you’d go back to it more than a couple times before you left to find a new fix.
It’s not all doom and gloom, however. At the $15 price tag, I doubt anyone would feel too terribly ripped off by the lack of content, and the devs have stated that what we’ve gotten is only the beginning.
At the end of the day, Moon Hunters is enjoyable enough for what it is, but it’s ultimately an unambitious project for such an interesting premise. I find myself feeling less like I wasted my time and more like I’ve been disappointed by something almost great that falls short. And that’s more sad than anything.
Moon Hunters was reviewed on PC with a copy provided by the developer.
Publisher: Kitfox Games | Developer: Kitfox Games | Genre: Adventure RPG | Platforms: PC (Steam) | Release Date: March 10, 2015