REVIEW: Moonglow Bay serves sizzling seafood with a side of community restoration
Since the dawn of time — and especially since the world became its current flavor of hellscape — life and farming sims have been the purest form of relief.
Stuck inside amidst a global pandemic? Tend to your farm and pet your cows in Stardew Valley. Lost a few hours doomscrolling? Sink a few more into a Story of Seasons game.
Coming to the plate with their feelings-first fishing sim Moonglow Bay, Bunnyhug Games may just have a worthy entry into the cozy pantheon. If you're willing to look past a glitchy experience with more than a few pacing issues, that is.
Just the Facts
Developer: Bunnyhug Games
Platform(s): PC*, Xbox One, Xbox Series S and X *platform reviewed on
Release Date: Oct. 26, 2021
Making its debut at an ID@Xbox event in March 2021, Moonglow Bay was immediately marked by fans of the genre as one to watch.
Most of its contemporaries toss a myriad of systems and mechanics at you. But with a focus on fishing and cooking, Moonglow uniquely hones in on one core game loop to guide you through the 14-20 hour experience.
Moonglow Bay tells a story comparable to others in its genre; one where you're asked to build a home and a life in your new community from the ground up. Others tend to take the approach of your farm, store, or homestead being a new beginning full of hope. Moonglow makes things... a bit more melancholic.
Before the story begins, you're prompted to pick out your character and a partner from a lineup of four beautiful hand-drawn portraits — both will sport the self-fulfilling prophecy surname Fisher. You can also choose from three sets of pronouns for each. Moonglow offers up its first unique perspective in this character selection: they're all older, with grays in their hair and wrinkles on their faces. Playing as an older character immediately readjusts the way you approach the world and explores an underrepresented character type in games.
This life sim doesn't have you pursuing new romance, gifting and chatting your way into a stranger's heart. Instead, it places you in the middle of your character's journey.
"Moonglow's crowning achievement is in its story — one well worth experiencing. Even though the game does everything it can to prevent you from enjoying that story along the way."
If you're averse to story spoilers, go ahead and skip past the image of the main character talking about sustainable fishing to continue our review, because there is a lot to talk about from minute one on that surprised us.
After a touching tutorial and opening that introduces the main fishing mechanic and the relationship between your character and their partner, things take a turn. One minute you're speaking softly about the future with your love. The next, it's three years later and your partner is missing, presumed dead in absentia.
In the time since, your character has marinated in depression. They're only roused out of the stupor by their daughter, Robin, who takes a new job and moves to the bay to support you. She motivates you to honor your partner's life by fulfilling their wish to start a seafood business.
Pretty quickly, you find that your character's gloom is reflected across Moonglow Bay. The city is literally in shambles thanks to a crashed economy, brought on by myths and legends instilling the townspeople with fear of the bay's waters and the fish that inhabit it. Nearly everyone you interact with is held back by some painful mental block, which you'll help them through by sharing lovingly-prepared seafood meals with the community.
As you work through your trauma and piece your life together, the city pulls itself up alongside you. With your reinvestment in your community, once-decrepit buildings and trash-filled beaches shine as memories of a pained past begin to fade. You'll form genuine bonds with the townsfolk that, despite some on-the-nose writing, feel realistic and meaningful.
A lot of life and farming sims feature the idea of reviving a community, but Moonglow Bay feels like one of the best manifestations of the concept. It's about mutual aid and finding healing in your community. It's about moving on and growing with the people around you.
Moonglow's crowning achievement is in its story — one well worth experiencing. Even though the game does everything it can to prevent you from enjoying that story along the way.
Moonglow Bay is all about one core loop: Fish, cook, sell, rinse and repeat. Your goal is getting a fish from the waters to a plate to a hungry neighbor's belly.
If you've played any fishing minigame in a triple-A release over the last decade, you'll be familiar with the fishing system here. Throw out your line, wait for a bite, pull against its directional motion, and reel it in. Even as complexity is introduced with new rods, bait, lures, and fishing methods, Bunnyhug keeps things simple. You'll never really struggle with fishing; and just like in reality, it can become quite meditative.
But as you progress, barreling your way toward an ending and attempting to fill out the game's aquarium with unique species, things start to grow tedious. The randomness makes even your best efforts at catching specific species a general frustration.
Luckily, step two of the process comes along to break up the feeling. Cooking!
In your home kitchen, you'll take those freshly caught fish and turn them into culinary masterpieces through a batch of minigames meant to represent each step of a recipe.
It's all a bunch of simple timing and precision minigames. They're just varied enough that making your way through any of the game's 60 unique recipes never feels too same-y. When you run out of ingredients and need to get back out to fish, you're constantly changing things up in a satisfying way.
Bunnyhug keeps things accessible and pretty friendly. Failing a step here or there merely degrades the final quality of your meal rather than causing it to fail outright.
Similar to fishing though, cooking can grow tedious over time. To make good money (or "shells"), you'll need to cook TONS. That means doing these minigames over and over. As recipes grow more complex, that could mean performing upwards of a dozen minigames again and again.
There are things that smooth out the tedium in both fishing and cooking, as you unlock layers to help streamline both systems over time. But you'll have to grind to get there.
With how simple these tasks are and how often you do them, it shouldn't end up feeling like a chore. Maybe it came with the "rush to the finish" review pace I tried to keep, but after my 28 hours to achieve 90% completion, I found myself grumbling through a few late-game fishing and cooking trips.
Our problems don't stop there though: Some systems are woefully underexplained. The town feels simultaneously fuller and more hollow than others of the genre. Some UI elements are too vague (particularly on the game's map, which makes finishing quests a bit tricky).
It should be noted that we reviewed Moonglow Bay using a controller, not keyboard and mouse (KBM). One major complaint on release was that Moonglow was clearly built for controller play, with lacking key rebinding and with NO mouse support. Since then, patches have made the KBM experience better, but the notion stands. This game is meant for controller play and the KBM experience is lesser overall. Keep that in mind.
But the worst problem for Moonglow Bay by far is its glitches. There are a handful of annoying glitches with disappearing character models, fishing spots that lose their most identifiable signs, and gameplay icons that stay on screen longer than necessary or otherwise grow in size for seemingly no reason. But it's more than that here.
At one point, I hit a glitch that outright stopped my progress. I was effectively locked out of finishing the game in Chapter 4, around the 80% story mark. The only way I was able to progress was by opening the save the file in a text editor, making an edit that freed up my ship and allowed me to bypass an invisible wall. This glitch seems pretty common and I imagine more folks would just drop off the game rather than risk their saves with some editing.
While Bunnyhug has been busily squashing bugs since the launch back in October, there are still a few too many issues that get in the way of the enjoyable experience underneath.
Somehow, despite all of that, Moonglow Bay was endearing anyway. The cooking and fishing loop is genuinely fun for most of the playtime. There's an enjoyable local co-op experience, even with the second player being relegated to a drop-in drop-out helper.
There are "boss fights" that punctuate the end of each chapter that have you face off against legendary fish, using your fishing tools in unique ways to pacify giant beasts. Just as you get tired of everyday fishing and cooking in any chapter, one of these "fights" comes up to show off the versatility of these systems.
"A lot of life and farming sims feature the idea of reviving a community, but Moonglow Bay feels like one of the best manifestations of the concept."
And, of course, it's impossible to overlook just how great Moonglow Bay looks and sounds.
Bunnyhug employs a chunky voxel art style that normally doesn't do much for me but really works well here, especially in conjunction with the hand-drawn art that accompanies most of the game's assets. Fish, important NPCs, and cooked dishes are represented in menus with these beautifully illustrated portraits and distilled back down into chunky blocks in the game world. The comparison works better together than expected and elevates the visual style overall.
And musically? Well, it's a Lena Raine soundtrack. The life of an angler/restauranteur has never sounded better.
Raine employs soft tones and an acoustic vibe to help pitch Moonglow Bay as a calming and cozy escape. Piano and plucked string instruments stand out as the MVPs of the calmer tracks, but Raine also ramps things up with her usual electronic beats and driving cello/violin stings to accompany more tense fishing encounters. It's all beautiful stuff and stands out as one of the best pieces of the game by far.
Moonglow Bay is a frustrating one, mainly because we wanted to love it so much more. It tries a lot of new things with varied success, focuses on a few core gameplay systems that we wish were a little more engaging, all while telling a story about loss and community that's a cut above in its genre. It's just a shame that a few major glitches and pacing issues really hold it back from reaching its full potential. With Bunnyhug still hard at work with fixes, we just hope it gets closer to that apex we wanted to see it reach.
Bunnyhug has a lot to offer, that much is clear. And if you can see your way through the storm to witness the beautiful dawn that waits for you at the end of the game, Moonglow Bay is well worth a visit. Just be warned: The water might be a little choppy in the meantime.
video games are good and Moonglow Bay is . . . GOOD. (6.5/10)
+ emotional story about mutual aid, bespoke cooking and fishing mechanics are relaxing fun, visual and musical styles are top-notch
- game-breaking glitches, poorly explained systems, and general tedium hold it back from greatness
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