As much as I love the idea of Metroidvania games, I’ve never quite put much time into many of them, failing to grasp with my first experiences leaving me lost and confused. Yet over the last few years, I’ve played and loved the Souls series. It never really clicked just how similar a lot of the design choices and gameplay elements of action platformer games are to the From Software’s, until I played Momodora: Reverie Under the Moonlight. This is a game that celebrates the essence of both of Metroidvanias and the Souls series, doing so in a way that blends both genres masterfully.
Releasing on console a year after it first launched on Steam, this is actually the fourth Momodora game, with the first three having been sold with a ‘name your own price’ model via itch.io over the last few years. Each game shares the basic spirit of animation-inspired action platformers that hide somewhat dark narratives with their bright visuals, but even the developers of the series admit that this latest release is a huge leap above their previous titles in almost every way.
Despite this, the latest Momodora is absolutely accessible as a standalone game, especially because it’s set 400 years prior to the first Momodora game. Reverie Under the Moonlight tells the story of Kaho, a priestess who travels to the ruined Kingdom of Karst to stop a curse that has spread across the entire land and into her village. This is the beginning of the Souls inspiration that feels so central to the experience of the game. Instead of having lengthy cutscenes or walls of text, you experience the narrative through brief dialogue with numerous NPCs, while item descriptions can also help fill in narrative holes.
The plot and Kaho’s goal are so simple, it’s only when you soak in the scenery, pay attention to the whereabouts of NPCs, or their changes in dialogue, that a much bigger picture is painted for you. Some of this picture also ties in and lays the groundwork for moments in other Momodora titles, and whether you’re a long-time fan or fresh to the series, this will surely end up giving you even more questions. Thankfully, the big moments of the game have enough impact and clarity that you aren’t left feeling empty or unsatisfied as the credits roll.
The intriguing narrative goes hand-in-hand with the rest of the game’s presentation. A huge step up over previous games, Reverie maintains a unique anime-esque art style within gorgeous pixel art. The environments of the game are all varied, but each environment is just as beautiful as the last. Sharp character and enemy designs decorate each screen, and the bosses always left me stunned. The look of each area and character can also help flesh out the story, so keeping a sharp eye will do you good in multiple ways.
It’s a shame that the music of the game never quite stands out as much as the visuals, as most area themes are more low-key and atmospheric and only a handful of boss themes really had the punch and bombast that I would have hoped for.
Thankfully, the gameplay doesn’t lack any punch whatsoever. Kaho has a melee combo with her trusty leaf-weapon and a projectile arrow attack that you can charge for extra oomph. On top of that, you’ve got a double jump and a ground-roll. You’ll have to master these simple tools to take on the challenging encounters of the game.
There are no other weapons or attacks, and yet, the game never really feels lacking. Part of that is because there are still plenty of unlockables and upgrades available to you throughout the game, from a speedy air-dash to faster arrows, on top of items that add elemental bonuses to your attacks or boost your strength by sacrificing hit points. You have a lot of tools at your disposal that help augment the basic one-two combo of your arsenal.
You’ll need all the augmenting you can get to take on the bosses of this game. Each boss keeps you on your toes in different ways, utilizing combinations of melee attacks and ranged attacks that will always keep you guessing. Every encounter boils down to watching for signs of an incoming attack, and piecing together the optimal way to avoid and counter it in an almost puzzle-like manner. The handful of encounters with humanoid bosses dial it all up to eleven. These kinds of boss fights are always my favourites in games, and that remains true here. Struggling against a character with the same size and speed as you creates an amazing sense of struggle and desperation, and those fights ended up being some of the best in the game.
When you aren’t tackling the amazing boss-fights of the game, you’ll be navigating Castlevania-style corridors, basements, and castles. Each screen is decorated with enemies, traps, and secrets. I found myself naturally navigating these environments for most of the game, rarely feeling lost or without any sense of progression. At a certain point, though, you will need to back-track considerable lengths to cover untouched grounds or reach areas that you can only access with a newly unlocked ability.
This point of the game rally hampered down on my enjoyment for a bit, as I ended up spending hours searching every corner of the map to try and find the secret area I hadn’t yet discovered. Checkpoints let you save and heal Souls-style, feature a warping function, but you can’t access it until late into the game, and when you do get access, it only lets you warp to a handful of specific locations.
Regardless of my handful of complaints, the fact is that Momodora grabbed me and never let go. From start to finish, I was in love with the world, the combat, the easter eggs, and nearly everything in between. I’ve seen plenty of games praised as “the 2D Dark Souls!” that I never felt deserved that moniker, but where those get lost in the aesthetic and gruelling difficulty, this game captures the sharp level design, engaging enemy placement, and gripping boss fights. It’s the ability for a developer to create a world, and only give the player a tiny window into it, with just enough space for them to crawl through and discover the magic lying beyond it. Momodora conjures up that feeling of magic perfectly, and despite minor shortcomings, I’ll be thinking fondly about this game for a long time to come.
Version tested: PlayStation 4