Momodora: Reverie Under the Moonlight is a delightful entry into the side-scrolling, action-adventure genre. I play as many as I can, and they are usually bad in one way or another. Having played through so many mediocre titles, I wasn't expecting much from Momodora, but I was happy to have been proven wrong. A "Metroidvania-lite," Momodora makes the case why maybe more Metroidvanias should be this way.
There isn't too much to this game, and that is its biggest strength. Everything about it is simple, but executed brilliantly. It has a retro feel with its graphics and art style. The story is told in very short quips from a small amount of NPCs. It deviates from basically every other Metroidvania I've played, and I welcome it with open arms.
Pixel-style graphics are usually a style choice I don't enjoy, but after the initial disdain, I found myself enjoying it quite a bit. The lack of imperious elements on the screen gave it a quaint spectacle. The inoffensiveness of the art ended up aiding it. The entire game was a masterpiece in its approach to this concept. While you were traveling through rooms and fighting enemies, the rooms were straightforward and gameplay-centric. Then you'd come across set pieces with beautiful design, colorful scenes, and atmospheric environments. The music accompanying each different area was wonderful. I am a firm believer that a good soundtrack can make or break a game. It certainly adds an intangible feel to it, and I found myself idling on certain screens and playing around on my phone because I wanted to listen a little longer. It's different from music in other games in that it treads its own path. Starting with a melodic piano track, it quickly changes to moody and downtrodden ambient tones. There is a large portion of the map that has only an ominous, droning sound with occasional chimes in the background. It was unsettling and added a feeling to the setting of the area that wouldn't have been achieved otherwise. The boss fights and special battles have fast-paced, powerful crescendos. The world was brought alive by the music.
The gameplay was immaculate. You only get two weapons through the whole game: a leaf for melee, and a bow for ranged. There are a few consumable items you can purchase, but only one is required. There are less than a dozen pieces of equipment, none of which are mandatory. The tutorial is achieved in a few sentences across a few rooms where you can test the controls against enemies at the very start of the game. If you've ever played a side-scroller before, you pick it all up quickly and then the game is yours to enjoy. The movement is precise and fluid. It feels good to control, not floaty or slow. You get a dodge-roll and a double jump at the start, both which activate and control effortlessly. These low-item and low-feature ideas should be adopted by every game in the genre. You aren't burdened by a menu, or a long tutorial, or countless menu screens or trivial cutscenes. You are spending more time playing the game. One of my main criticisms of a majority of modern games is that you spend an awful lot of time not playing it. Momodora is the example I will point to in the future to display how it is possible to have a game simply be a game.
This two-weapon system is so successful due to a core function of how the game is designed. There are no weapon upgrades, except for the speed and charge upgrade for the bow. This means that enemies can be balanced across the whole game knowing exactly how much damage you will be putting out. You can find some secret health upgrades to help tank hits for some of the stronger bosses, but the game forces you to master the movement and attacking in order to succeed. It also means that it remains a near-consistent difficulty throughout. The enemies give and take the same damage always. If you don't play well, you won't succeed. It feels fair because every enemy move is telegraphed well. Games that force you to die over and over to learn a boss are stupid, and Momodora bucks the trend by making bosses difficult in a realistic way. There are no arbitrary patterns or guesswork. You learn how the bosses move, and you have to execute a good strategy. You are given an arsenal and Momodora lets you use it without barriers. All of the enemies and bosses felt rewarding to fight, and I beat the game in two short sittings because I was having so much fun playing. There is a traditional save system, in that there are no checkpoints and you will revert back to your most recent save file and location if you die. It adds a sense of accomplishment to your victories in battle and platforming because there is actual consequence to death. Another wonderful feature in this game's design. The story is unadorned and again, this lends to its success. You get short blurbs from NPCs, but not everyone matters and not everything is a gigantic moment. The smallness of the scale ended up making it feel more impactful, because you weren't forced to feel a certain way about these people. It was mysterious and indirect, frightening and hopeful, human and foreign. As far as I can tell, some people you meet have no bearing on what happens at all. They are passers-by or an unfortunate inhabitant, and they can be left to their own devices. The main character, Kaho, is a traveling priestess who wields a Maple leaf against her foes. She is searching for the Queen of Karst to try and purge the corruption from her village. Not having a sword is one of the small beats that adds a lot of charm. If a game doesn't have good gameplay, I often have to force myself to finish it. I don't typically collect all there is to find or search every nook and cranny or give it repeat playthroughs. Normally I'm burned out before the game even ends and I rush to finish it because I want to reach the conclusion. Momodora is so concise and specific in it's design that as soon as I finished it, I immediately began a New Game+ playthrough. I also started a file on Hard because I wanted to play the game again with some added challenge. Momodora's design is a testament to gaming. It's ability to reward you without arbitrary difficulty spikes or modern gaming tropes make it stand amount among a crowd of "nearly theres". A game doesn't need certain length or mechanics to be a good game, it simply needs to feel fun to play, and Momodora has that in spades.