Moonglow Bay

I so badly wanted to love Moonglow Bay from the moment I saw its trailer at Wholesome Direct 2021. Your late spouse loved the titular Canadian small town until the day they disappeared in its ocean. Years later, it stands on the brink of economic collapse and it’s up to you to combine their passion for fishing with your love of cooking to save it. Teaming up with your daughter, River, who drags you out of widowed depression, you sail the voxel-art seas in search of fish both familiar and fantastical—and then chop them up into meals for the townspeople. Reinvesting their lunch money into town renovations slowly transforms a languishing municipality into a booming tourist location, and people love you for it.

When so many problems in the real world feel insurmountably big, saving a small town by putting homemade fishcakes in a vending machine is exactly the kind of videogame magical escapism I’m here for. Unfortunately, Moonglow Bay plays like my persuasive speech in seventh grade English class: solid for about thirty seconds, and then painfully bad for its long remainder. By over-emphasizing its most tedious gameplay elements, failing to achieve cohesive design, and retaining a shockingly large number of near-game-breaking bugs months after release, this game scores lower than most I’ve reviewed.

Let’s dive right into this (fish) roast. After a brief tutorial, you’re told to get out there and talk to people; make friends! I chatted up the twenty-something techy, Haru. He immediately told me he hoped “that vending machine” was working out. What vending machine? Oh, the one that I won’t actually get for another three hours of gameplay. Cool, cool. I later buy said vending machine, but the game doesn’t register that this happened. I remain stuck on this quest until I later buy another completely unrelated item from Haru.

An identity crisis starts to emerge when my largely nautical experience is disrupted by the ability to disembark and do some light walking exploration. In town, this is painful, as any elevation change results in weird voxel-clipping that makes it entirely unclear when I can safely go up or down steps. Out on the sea, I walk for fifteen minutes along a gigantic ice bluff that’s so tall (and evidently not designed to walk on) that it clips out of the camera’s range. Turns out there’s nothing to find—not even a cool view—and there was no reason for the game to let me come here.

On my way back, I find a research outpost and a cave with a lever mechanism. I try interacting with it, only to be scolded by River saying that I obviously don’t know what I’m doing. She’s never actually animated in the world, but still randomly shows up to yell at me or inch the plot along. As it happens, her scolding is a useful hint for a late-game quest if you’re stuck in the cave at that point, but means nothing for the first 70% of the game where for whatever reason it still triggers. At this point, my feelings as a player are like:

Narrative discontinuity and quest progression issues aside, you’d think that Moonglow Bay could at least nail its core fishing mechanic. Taken in isolation, catching a big one is, in fact, satisfying. There’s a nice balance of reeling in the right direction with timing of strong pulls that makes the minigame feel more like a cartoon simplification of fishing in Red Dead Redemption 2 than a beefed up version of Animal Crossing or Stardew Valley.

But so much of this game is catching specific fish—you need at least 90 species to complete the story and a good variety to cook the more advanced meals—and Moonglow Bay chooses to make that experience deeply frustrating. Listening to townspeople’s tall tales gives hints about possible species locations, but fails to narrow down the numerous combinations of rod type, lure type, bait type, specific fishing hole, and time of day at which to catch said fish at said location (there can easily be over 50 unique combinations of the above factors—per fish!). Some locations aren’t locations at all, but rather regions that take up an entire quarter of the map. Other information is only accessible after bonding with certain friends (fair enough), but come in the form of one-time hints that aren’t recorded in your fishing journal. Either you realize you need to take notes yourself, or you’re resorting to Google later.

Cooking is yet another decent idea turned tedious. Each recipe has some fish ingredients to gather and then a series of steps to prepare. Each step (washing, chopping, filleting, frying, boiling, and baking) is a dexterity-based minigame. While your fellow Moonglow residents simply tell you that the more you cook, the more likely you are to be inspired to invent new recipes, the reality is that you need to cook each recipe perfectly (no dexterity mistakes!) up to nine(!) times to unlock yet another repetitive cooking experience composed of the same minigames. There is an option to “batch cook” multiple meals of the same recipe simultaneously, but wait, those only count as one meal cooked towards the new recipe unlocks. And did I mention there are 60 recipes in the game? You do the math on that time sink.

Then there’s the fact that the boat handles like crap, especially in a certain late-game region, which leads to complete jank like this:


I succeed in suspending my boat in midair, fishing some inanimate objects, and then sending my boat careening off map where a cutscene that I’ve already seen replays, this time with River talking to no one.

Moonglow Bay’s bright voxel art, excellent gender representation, and ostensibly chill vibes should have made it an easy win in my book. Too bad it seized every opportunity to take that vision down with the ship.

Rating

Info

Type
Video Game
Developer
Release Date
October 26, 2021
Joshua J. Daymude
Joshua J. Daymude
Assistant Professor, Computer Science

I am a Christian and assistant professor in computer science studying collective emergent behavior and programmable matter through the lens of distributed computing, stochastic processes, and bio-inspired algorithms. I also love gaming and playing music.