Well, you know how I like to roll...when I encounter a decent Indie RPG, I try to share its existence with you folks, because games made by non-AAA developers tend not to get great marketing (with a few notable exceptions, like Undertale), and that’s just not right, given that they are often quite good.
Moon Hunters is such an RPG. A Kickstarter game which I’m pleased to say I helped to back, Moon Hunters is perhaps the only Roguelike game I have ever played that appeals to me. The Roguelike subgenre of RPGs is 1 which I have barely explored at all, because, quite frankly, it’s just not a setup that encourages the only thing that makes playing an RPG a worthwhile experience, the writing. Randomized dungeon-crawling is usually the beginning and end of a development team’s focus with Roguelikes, and that is, for me, about the most boredom I can have without having Ricky Gervais present in the room.
Hell, even when a developer has good intentions with a Roguelike, you’re still not likely to get much out of it...I was promised a story and cast of significance with Dragon Fin Soup, but I’ll be damned if anything of the sort materialized in the first 10 hours of the game, and at that point, even I gave up on it. And I played Lunar: Dragon Song from beginning to end, for heaven’s sake!
But anyway, enough about a game I wish I hadn’t helped fund; let's get back to talking about a game that I’m glad I did. Moon Hunters manages, for the first time I’ve personally seen, to make a plot and cast work with the Roguelike formula, by taking it in a completely different direction than the linear storytelling style that we expect from most RPGs, and even in a different direction from the more free-form storytelling style that you’ll see occasionally in games like Baroque and the original 2 Fallout titles. And it does so in an ingenious way.
See, with a game that focuses on randomized dungeons, a game’s story usually has to either find an excuse for it, or just kind of stay outside of it, only existing outside and in set areas of the randomized dungeon. Like, in the Izuna games, the fun, quirky plots happen in the scenes outside the actual dungeon gameplay, and on specific, set floors of the dungeon (the boss floors, basically). For the most part as you play, though, you’re just going silently through the random dungeon floors to get to the next plot point, rather than having that plot be present with you, as it would be in, say, a regular RPG, which can have set points in any given dungeon where conversations and story events happen.
What Moon Hunters does, though, is to make its randomization the key, focal theme of its story. You see, Moon Hunters is a game with a motif of tribal lore, with the idea that the game you’re playing is someone telling a legend about an event in the past that shaped the world--you’re basically playing out a Native American myth. The setting and theme of Native American tribal lore is by itself a draw for me (as I’ve mentioned before, it’s a cultural backdrop I want to see more often implemented in RPGs), because it’s engaging and fascinating stuff, but beyond that, it works absolutely perfectly with a primarily randomized game, because every time you replay the game and it’s a little or a lot different, the plot explanation is that the same legend is being related by another teller, who is simply telling it and interpreting it differently than the last storyteller did. So rather than having to work around the core gameplay element of a Roguelike, this story style incorporates that as a key detail--the key detail, in fact (more on that in a moment).
Additionally, the randomized dungeon-crawling is broken up frequently by randomized story events. For every dangerous area you explore, you’ll encounter enemies and traps and whatnot, sure, but you’ll also encounter various characters and events in there, as well, that typically take the form of small vignettes that provide brief but interesting side plots to your journey. So, again, the randomization element is woven into the storytelling element, as you meet people and creatures that expand the lore of the world you’re traveling through. In these ways, Moon Hunters doesn’t just escape the difficulties that its game type presents to a plot and characters, it uses those difficulties, empowers them, makes them into strengths.
And let me just say, those randomized dungeon events that are like small vignettes? They really help to sell the theme of tribal legends. They often feel like authentic myths you might read in an anthology or something, side stories to your character’s heroic journey like the way various small stories from, say, ancient Greece tend to use or mention heroes (for example, Theseus, he’s in a ton of Greek myths in one way or another) and villains in several different, unconnected stories. I really liked one, for example, which has you find an accomplished singer from a nearby village practicing his craft at a lake, when out of the lake emerges a prince from a kingdom under the lake’s waters. The prince has fallen in love with the singer for his beautiful voice, and the singer asks you whether he should accept the prince’s proposal and leave the surface world to sing as king of the underwater lands. It totally feels like the kind of scenario you’d get from an old fairy tale, and it has basically nothing to do with anything else on your quest--it’s just its own, complete little myth that happened to involve the hero of this story for a moment. That’s what I mean--these momentary little side ventures feel like bits and pieces of other legends connecting with this larger one for a moment, much as a legend of ancient Greece might involve Odysseus during his journey home from the Trojan War, but not be a focal point of the actual Odyssey.
Actually, the game sells its tribal legend schtick in all regards, not just the randomized storytelling. The village settings cover a wide and interesting range of tribal styles, the consistent characters connect to the setting and style of tribal storytelling, the narration has a very old-myth-sounding style, and the way it speaks of your character after the game is finished is very legend-like, too. The involvement of celestial bodies, both in the form of the warring sun god and moon goddess and of the heroes’ and their exploits being immortalized as constellations, likewise sells the setting and theme.
And speaking of the moon goddess, let’s get back to that theme of storytelling interpretations. I absolutely love how much of a quiet, yet huge thing the idea of fluid, changing interpretations and storytelling is to Moon Hunters. It really portrays an interesting and very infrequently examined concept of oral tradition--the variation between tellers and the changes that occur to a story over time and distance--in a realistic and engaging manner. In fact, the game makes it the hinging point in its plot, not just through the randomization of playthroughs, but through the focal entity of the game, the goddess of the moon. Each of the game’s tribes worship the moon as a different entity...1 sees her as a maternal goddess, another as the arbiter of death, still another as an embodiment of nature and the wild, and so on. She has as many interpretations as the compass has directions, and yet they are all her, for her true self is only defined by the people who worship her--if you play right, and arrive at a point near the game’s end in which she speaks to you, you see that her ‘true’ self has no face, no identity save as a being of wisdom and love, the only traits which all interpretations of her share. It’s very cool, the way the game quietly speaks to its audience about the nature and value of variation in the telling of myths, while almost never going so far as to outright tell you its message. And even in the rare instance when the game is fairly direct (the postgame, final battle for the right to interpret and tell in new ways), it still seems no less artistic and skillfully understated.
And by the way, I don’t want to leave you with the impression that this plot and storytelling method is all about style and theme, with no substance. Though the telling of this game is understated and its protagonist silent, there is a story to Moon Hunters, and that story has some strong moments to it. I absolutely love the small but weighted speech that the moon goddess gives to you at the end of the game, assuming you’re getting the ‘real’ ending. I mean, don’t go in expecting an ever-present, solid plot like you would from a Final Fantasy or Tales of game, but don’t misunderstand my enthusiasm for the themes and mythological element of this game to mean that it doesn’t have a real story, per say.
Other, minor good points to Moon Hunters: first of all, you know I don’t care a lick for visuals, but it must be said, this game looks terrific and perfectly represents its setting with a graphical style that...hmmm, it’s hard to explain. It looks very indie, that’s for sure, which makes sense, but beyond that, it kind of looks like what a video game might have if the graphical limitations of old PC games back in the early 90s had never been surpassed over time, but rather, refined. The music, while rarely something that makes you just sit back and pause at how good it is, is nonetheless excellent at what it’s made for, which is selling the mood and atmosphere of the game. The gameplay controls well enough; nothing notably great or poor about it, really. And hey, I’d like to say that I give a huge thumbs-up to the artist(s) for Moon Hunters, because the people of the Moon Hunters world look like, well, people. You may recall (but probably don’t, given that no one read this blog back then) that 1 of my earliest rants was my appreciation for the fact that Vandal Hearts 1 had characters who weren’t all a bunch of perfect anime caricatures, but rather employed a cast who overall looked much more realistic, less cleaned up and pretty. Looking back on that rant and that game’s cast, I can see that I was giving it more credit than it might have deserved; the characters of VH1 are only somewhat less beautified than a typical game cast, certainly not to the extent I credited it. With Moon Hunters, however, the villagers you encounter simply look like a collection of human beings as you might actually see as you stroll through a village, and I really like, and even applaud, that. Helps make it feel all the more real.
Now, Moon Hunters isn’t perfect, of course. There is the fact that, well, from start to finish, the game is like, I dunno, 2 hours long? At most? It will seem, at first, not to be worth your time. When I first started playing it, I was deeply disappointed that such a tiny RPG had come about from the funding of we backers. But, the thing is, this is not, first of all, a long story to be told. Moon Hunters takes exactly as much time as it needs to tell its story, and extending the game to be longer would mostly just be padding it out unnecessarily, I think. Secondly, and much more importantly, you are supposed to play it many times. Chrono Trigger tempts you with its many endings to play through it at least once more, but Moon Hunters requires it. There are multiple endings, but more than that, you will never be able to feel and embrace the concept of varied tellings if you do not play this game more than once, and it’s not possible to see all, or even most, of this game’s story content in a single playthrough. To see each village, a good amount of the randomized side story content, each of the endings, and the possible consequences of your choices, and overall reach a point where you can feel like you’ve experienced Moon Hunters in full, you will need to play it at least a good 5 or 6 times, I’d say, which stretches your time with the game out to a good 10 or more hours, and that is a better deal for your money.* In the end, the brevity of Moon Hunters is not because it’s poorly designed, it’s because it’s designed well in a way that you’re not expecting.
Anyway, I reckon that’s enough, and then some. If you’re in the mood for a very different RPG, a short and quiet tale that gets you caught up in ideas and a setting you rarely get to enjoy in the genre, something contemplative and calm and engulfing like the full moon in the dark sky...give Moon Hunters a try. Once your mind becomes comfortable in the game’s mindset, it’s a very enjoyable experience. You can find it on Good Old Games, Steam, or Humble Bundle. I recommend it, especially if you’re curious to see how a Roguelike can use its writing limitations to its advantage to become something really interesting and special.
* You might also be a moron like me, and play the game from start to finish like 12 times without getting the true ending because it just somehow never dawns on your tiny brain that the first area of each game is telling you exactly what direction to go in.
Here’s a hint for anyone as thick as myself: the goddess is the compass.