Indie Game of the Week 131: Rainbow Moon

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Ever have one of those games where you're not sure if you like it but you find yourself playing it hours later, still nominally ambivalent but also somehow fully invested? Sorta like having a bag of chips with a strange flavor that you're not certain you're into but find you've finished the whole bag five minutes later regardless. Rainbow Moon is that: it is an extremely grindy game, to the extent that the grind is the game, and it's so graphically, narratively, and mechanically simple that the grinding hardly seems worth whatever rewards await at the end. That said, in actualizing itself as a grindfest first and foremost, and designing almost all its features and mechanics to befit that role, it's an oddly compelling RPG on a purely fundamental level.

Created by German developers SideQuest Studios, Rainbow Moon looks alternatively like a phone/Flash game and a Japanese RPG. Its roots, however, lie in the older CRPG models of the late '80s and early '90s where sophisticated RPG storytelling and branching paths hadn't yet reached the bars set by Baldur's Gate and Planescape: Torment (which, debatably, have been surpassed further by the likes of Divinity Original Sin II or the Mass Effect series). Instead, they were mostly about the encounters: the battles between a small party and a massive room filled with enemies that the player had to figure out how to pare down to a manageable number first of all before picking out the most dangerous targets for quick takedowns. In that sense, and in the sense that the game has a relatively quick-paced tactical RPG combat system with the requisite grids and AoE-based skills, it's more akin to a Gold Box game or an early Might and Magic; pick up quests and side-quests, fight encounters both pre-determined (that is, walking around the map ready for you to bump into) and random (which are always optional prompts, popping up in the bottom corner with the list of enemies you'll be fighting), earn vendor trash and cash for equipment purchases as well as materials for crafting upgrades, and make the occasional tactical retreat whenever you need to refresh at the local healer or tavern. The game has a moderately invasive food survival system - the taverns can quickly solve any hunger issues, though you find plenty of food while exploring also - and a number of optional player characters you can cycle in and out of your three-person battle team. And that's really just about it: for all intents and purposes, it's as barebones as an RPG made in this century could get away with being, and it's content to deliver its old-school CRPG thrills in an incongruously colorful and anime-styled presentation.

Sometimes you just want to see how quickly you can demolish an entire throng of enemies, starting with these venomous wasp jerks.
Sometimes you just want to see how quickly you can demolish an entire throng of enemies, starting with these venomous wasp jerks.

What I've been struggling to put into words, however, is why this is all as engrossing as it is. It's certainly not the quality-of-life touches, so often the part of game design I revere most: the game has as many positive ticks in that column as it does negative crosses. You could take, say, the minimal penalty for death (you simply get booted back to the closest healer), the lack of any encounters you're forced to fight (even the enemies blocking your way can be met and fought when ready), the simplified level up system that has you spending an easily-earned currency collected from slaying monsters, or the way curatives are cheap and plentiful (including items that fully restore a character after dying). And yet for every one of those benefits you have something to neuter it. Off the top of my head, the most vivid annoyances include: status effects that have long-term deleterious effects like the huge damage being poisoned causes per round (and won't go away after a battle is complete, at least not for a while), the way characters don't earn XP if they're dead or outside of the main party necessitating a lot of additional grinding whenever new party members enter the fold, the frequency in which you have to backtrack to healers and item vendors after draining battles, or the way bosses always seem to go for your weakest teammates and one-shot them. The game-changing sub-turn system, which allows characters to have extra moves every turn once they reach certain level milestones, is offset by how often a boss will unexpectedly get to move five times on every one of their turns.

In spite of all this, I've been glued to this game for the past two days, trying to pinpoint exactly when and where it managed to get its hooks into me. The action moves quick, despite being turn-based and strategic; the economy is strict enough right now that I'm always aiming for something, whether it's a skill scroll for my new fighter or better armor for my squishy ranger; the music's fairly catchy and the presentation isn't so bad once you've gotten used to it, sort of resembling Supergiant's Bastion with its use of bright colors and an isometric perspective; seeing how the constant, incremental growth of your team takes shape as you fight the same enemies and performing better against them each time; getting the hang of the game's elaborate rock-paper-scissors paradigm and ensuring you never match up a player character to an enemy they're weak against, but to always do the opposite; and to keep exploring, keep fighting stronger monsters, keep upgrading your team and their gear, and keep chasing that carrot on a stick. I've lost my verve quickly with games this nakedly Skinner box-esque in the past, and may well do the same with Rainbow Moon before the weekend's out and I've run out of Waypoint's Neon Genesis Evangelion podcasts to stick on in the background, but for the time being I'm unable to find an off-ramp and I've only got the vaguest ideas how and why. Whether that's the sign of a good game that I and others might enjoy or one well-constructed for its specific purpose of luring in wayward souls with addictive mechanics feels like a purely academic distinction down here in the figurative smoky opium den of low-key grindy RPG gameplay that it has beguiled me into.

Of course, I might be bouncing sooner than I expected if they anticipate that I'll be willing to grind up to level 650 to fight these guys (I'm currently 18).
Of course, I might be bouncing sooner than I expected if they anticipate that I'll be willing to grind up to level 650 to fight these guys (I'm currently 18).

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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