I’ve got a long history – and some very fond memories – of fishing minigames in larger RPGs. From Legend of Zelda through to Animal Crossing, Stardew Valley, Dark Chronicle and all the way to modern games like Yonder: The Cloud Catcher Chronicles and Cozy Grove, I have been sucked in more times than I should have. It’s the ultimate side-quest and distraction. The moon might be crashing into the planet, but I’ll be staring into a pool with a fishing rod. I’ll be exhausting the fishing drop tables, stocking up on food, or hunting for lost treasure. The collectibles suck me in and the meditative gameplay keeps me there.
Boy was Moonglow Bay made for me. It spins everything on its head. The fishing minigame, perennially the sidekick, is the main thrust of the game, and the story is the distraction. It’s my video game catnip.
Sure, it’s a little flippant, as there are other themes in Moonglow Bay that are probably more – albeit not so deeply and personally – important. Moonglow Bay, for all its voxel vibrancy and approachable graphics, is mostly about overcoming grief. It’s about dragging yourself out of a funk and moving somewhere more positive, no matter how hard that journey may be.
It’s a journey that both the main character and the community of Moonglow Bay take. For the main character (you get to choose from an extremely limited number of options), the grief comes from the death of your partner. She was lost in a fishing accident, and you’ve spent the past three years coming to terms with that. Your partner was such a force of nature that it seemed impossible to continue the fishing and street-food business that you had together, so you retired. But with the arrival of your daughter, who is a catalyst to waking both you and the town up, you feel the need for purpose again.
Moonglow Bay, the town, is on a parallel track. Grief feels as good a label to slap on as any. Attacks from giant sea creatures have meant that fishing just isn’t viable anymore, and the town has retreated into its own shell. Houses have degraded, businesses have closed, and people walk around with their heads down. Everyone talks about what was, rather than what the town could be.
It’s a fantastic duality that makes Moonglow Bay sing. As you pick yourself up, you begin to generate an income from the fish. You start putting meals out in a lockbox on an honour system, and then a vending machine as you accrue more wealth. You then spend that wealth on the town, whether by purchasing things, or by ‘investing’ in the impoverished areas. We’re not going to question the economics of the setup: what’s important is that the town levels and glows up with you. And that tension makes progression doubly rewarding.
Playing Moonglow Bay is almost exactly like the fishing minigames of old. You get an increasing number of fishing methods, but the mechanics are roughly the same. You cast your line, you wait for a catch and then you reel that catch in. Hueing closer to Stardew Valley than Animal Crossing, there is a short minigame where you have to pull in an opposite direction to the struggles of the fish, so there’s a tiny bit of interaction in the laid-back gameplay. The fishing net is used more to sweep an area for items or fish, and other fishing methods mix it up delicately.
The simplicity is the point. It’s intentionally repetitive and – to a degree – grindy, so keep that in mind if you were drawn to Moonglow Bay by the promise of a cosy RPG. For someone like me, it’s perfectly possible to lose yourself in the fishing and put the rest of the game on ice. As you would hope, various collection systems and progression tracks hum along in the background, making every catch – and weight of catch – important.
While there is a day-night cycle here, and shops and amenities of the game close or open at certain times, Moonglow Bay is quick to make it clear that there’s no rush. Meals can be cooked and served to people months after they were first made. You don’t need to feed yourself or your little dog, Mutton, so there are no status bars to manage. You’re not punished for failing to complete time-limited quests. It’s all so generous and undemanding, creating an air of calm. Realism be damned.
Once you’ve got a haul of fish, you will often return to your cabin to cook it. This half of the money-making loop is the clunkier of the two. To make each meal, you will be moving through some short quick-time events and minigames, representing ‘boiling’, ‘washing’, ‘chopping’ and the rest. We grudgingly took part in these sections, even though they were essential. They were too intensive to be meditative, too fiddly to be fun, and too repetitive to do in long sessions. You can only make four meals in one go, and when you’re regularly picking up four fish with one single cast of the net, the quick-time events soon multiply to become unwieldy. To Moonglow’s credit, getting the QTEs wrong is only mildly punished, as you dink down on monetary reward but never actually fail.
The main storyline occasionally twinkles into view – when you can be bothered to interact with it. It’s a patchy affair, marred by unintuitive bosses and some irritating bugs. On the positive side, it’s well-written, and has a cast of fantastic fish, some of which are gargantuan and others tiny. You’re looking to scientifically classify these legendary fish and debunk some of the beliefs that have stopped the town from fishing. There’s an emotional climax too, and we’re not ashamed to say we whipped out the Kleenex.
Unfortunately, the structure also means meeting some of these ‘monsters’ and fighting them, in a sense, by using your fishing tools. Except, you’re using your tools in ways that you’ve never used them before, and for our part, it never quite felt clear or intuitive. We fumbled through and only lucked upon solutions. Occasionally, we didn’t know how we succeeded.
It’s where the bugs concentrate, too, and Moonglow Bay has its share of them. We lost objective markers, got stuck in the environment, or had our lines break on invisible voxels. It can create a kind of uncertainty. We were often halted by something, but couldn’t tell if that something was a bug, a weird ruleset, or human error. On land, too, some quests are unclear, without proper information or prompting, and you wonder whether you’re failing to progress because of a bug, or something more prosaic.
But these are all bones in an otherwise fantastic stew. We haven’t even approached the wonderful voxel world that Bunnyhug has created. It may be a touch more zoomed in and chunky than we would have chosen, particularly when on foot, but it’s a wholesome, gorgeous world that quietly demands you both relax and collect. Plaintive guitar music swoons around you as you play, creating a soft sofa for you to fall back into.
Moonglow Bay is not without its flaws. It’s too undercooked, with bugs and knotty boss moments. But its story of fighting back from grief and depression swells the heart, and we could happily spend a half-hour every day in its world. We can feel our blood pressure sink as we play it.
If you’ve ever found yourself procrastinating in an adventure game by playing its fishing minigames, then perhaps you should put down your current game and play this one instead.
You can buy Moonglow Bay from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S