Reviews

Polish until it shines — Rainbow Skies review

At the end of a long five-year journey, Rainbow Skies can finally sit the throne as indie’s king of old school RPGs, mixing together tactical turn-based combat and extensive dungeon-crawling. Scratching that old school itch has long since become SideQuest Studios’ bread and butter, and this follow-up to 2012’s Rainbow Moon makes a fine addition to their ever-growing retro repertoire. The charming yet brutal world of Lunah will take you hundreds of hours to tame, but not everyone will be up for the task. The amount of depth and content packed into this giant beast of a game is enough to satiate any fan, but repetition makes even the most enticing adventure insipid.

This time around, a trio of lovable, loudmouthed numbskulls form the core of your party. There’s Damion, the archetypal bonehead and the first character you’re introduced to. Next up is Ashly, Damion’s more intelligent but equally boneheaded female counterpart. Last but not least is Layne, who rounds out the gang as the all-important straight man of this triple act. Thanks to the walking klutz that is Ashly, the unlikely trio find themselves bound to together by a force even stronger than friendship—amateur spellcasting. The trio embarks on a grand adventure to undo this spell which takes them all across the vast lands of Lunah, only to uncover a sinister plot in the making—one that involves time travelling, flying cities, oddball characters, and a whole mess of dungeons.

The massive, isometric world of Rainbow Skies is loaded with vibrant colors, expressive visuals, and fairly diverse environments. The art, while strikingly similar to Rainbow Moon, is without a doubt more colorful and interesting, and you can appreciate the game’s charming aesthetics uninterrupted thanks to lightning-fast load times with no frame rate hiccups of any kind. Admittedly, the game’s animations are nothing to gawk at, bordering on laughable at certain points. The music, however, is equally diverse, starting off with what sounds like western wind-accompanied strings, moving to erhu-centric tracks and piano highlights, and so much more. The music is undeniably the primary contributing factor when it comes to building the game’s atmosphere, surrounding you with an aura of opportunity and whimsicality, occasionally coupled with this light, lingering sense of immediacy.

Make no mistake, this is one tough game

While the sheer amount of dialogue is shocking to say the least, the main story and accompanying army of side quests take a back seat to the game’s two support pillars: combat and party management. Having learned from Rainbow Moon, combat has been refined and made much less cumbersome. Difficulty can be changed in-game by going to a certain NPC and selecting from five settings (the harder ones need to be unlocked) that will grant you additional currency for winning, as well as unlocking difficulty-specific areas. 4-direction movement via the D-pad (or analog stick) is still present, albeit mildly awkward given the game’s isometric projection. From time to time, prompts do flash to remind you which directions corresponds to which button in the case of uncertainty. New in this game is the ability to move in the direction of an enemy next to you to initiate an attack—a much more fluid method over scrolling and selecting “attack” from a menu. The spells list has also been assigned to a button, which again, prevents the need for awkward menu hopping.

Rainbow Skies features a cast of only three characters, meaning that all three will be involved in combat at all times. To spice things up, a monster taming system has been introduced, allowing up to three monsters of your choosing to join you in battle. The monsters are not nearly as durable, powerful, or have as many turns as your irreplaceable trio, placing them in more of a light support role over an integral one. Like most tactical RPGs, the game operates on a turn-based grid system, with turns determined by comparing speed stats, and sub-turns that allow for X amount of actions per turn (movement, attack, items, spells). Your monster minion crew gets the short end of the stick, lending the spotlight to your human trio and vicious foes. Due to their general lack of turns, I found it difficult to find a solid purpose for monsters that would benefit me more than using them as disposable damage-sponges for when my tank needs a breather.

Buffs and debuffs are the name of the game—freezing, binding, poisoning, dazing, emergency healing, damage sharing, fear, and so many more to both master and avoid. Certain spells cost more sub-turns, so you’re constantly weighing your options and planning out the best course of action. Positioning is just as important, and learning each spell’s grid coverage/ranges—both yours and the enemies—will prove vital if you want to avoid becoming a punching bag for enemy attacks. Upon defeat, enemies will often drop an item bag that adds an additional element to combat. While you could pick up the bag and pray for the potion you need, it’s often wiser to leave it as is. Bags act as obstacles for both you and enemies, allowing you to keep yourself from being overwhelmed by the enemies’ advance, or keeping you out of range of an enemy’s spell. It’s also significant enough to note that each spell has its own special animation. Some are interesting to watch, but many suffer from the stiff animation that plagues the rest of the game. However, the ability to skip enemy spells after seeing at least two during their round of turns is an appreciated addition.

One mistake may cost you the battle

You’ll have plenty of time to hone your skills, but that doesn’t mean grinding for hours. While grinding exists, and is encouraged to beef up your characters, the game is designed to allow progression through the main story with very little grinding. Any boss that was a few levels higher, or gave me trouble, I managed to overcome by using the tactics that the game so graciously taught me. Of course, facing off against the tougher enemies come end-game is a different story. Never did I think the game was unfair, as it was just a matter of adjusting my playstyle or a slight alteration of my current build. The combat is very balanced and I have no complaints. Any time I thought I had a winning strategy or a winning buff/debuff, the game taught me otherwise.

These challenging combat encounters rewards you with experience, money, gear, potions, food, and skill stones which all go back into your characters. Everything has to be unlocked and managed in Rainbow Skies, from skill slots, to the skills themselves, equipment slots, stat upgrades, gear upgrades, skill upgrades, and the same goes for the minions. The skill stone menu is where you’ll spend the bulk of this time developing your party. The three types of skill stones correspond to a variety of different stat bonuses. As you level up, you unlock new opportunities to use skill stones to specialize your character, similar to the traditional skill tree system found in many JRPGs. Unfortunately, this game offers no skill tree, trading it in for an extremely cumbersome menu which lists a long series of stats, including repeats, as each one may provide a different bonus or use a different skill stone. A 25 point health bonus, usable 30 times, and costing 3 blue skill stones finds itself next to a 1 point luck bonus, usable 11 times, costing 2 red stones, in a long list of around twenty plus selections. Though the option to sort by type is present, seeing 7 different options for increasing health per character and minion lined up in a column is messier compared to a skill tree, in which you are offered the luxury of an overview where you can better track progress.

Materials, used for upgrading gear, are thrown into one long tab that lists not one, but two types of upgrades: raw gear enhancement and special properties via gem boost equivalents. Not only that, the materials tab is also home to several types of miscellaneous items that cannot be used for upgrading. Spell scrolls and upgrades can be found in the actual miscellaneous tab alongside unrelated items, while tonics that grant permanent stat buffs can be found in a food tab that’s meant for temporary food buffs. While the sorting options do provide some semblance of organization, the littering of significant and insignificant items in all manner of tabs continues the trend of inefficiency found in the skill stone menu.

Too messy for my taste

With so much to unlock and so many ways to unlock it, it’s easy for an RPG to overload the player information, and that’s not even taking into account the complexity of the combat. I’m pleased to say that Rainbow Skies succeeds where so many have failed. For players like me who oftentimes overlook the intricacies of a game’s more complicated systems, the game always keeps you on track by providing a steady stream of information over the first 30 hours of play. You will benefit from the slow introduction of new buffs and debuffs, occasionally bringing your attention to certain mechanics that you were ignoring, and challenging bosses that force you to break the habits that you’ve formed thus far. Monster taming, one of the main focuses of the game, isn’t even introduced until 15 hours in, but that’s no issue because the constant flow of information and new objectives to complete keeps you engaged. Yet, I can imagine some veterans of old school RPGs may latch on the game’s complexities early on and loath the slow “tutorial phase” of the game.

If there’s one thing that I want to praise SideQuest Studios for, it’s their attention to the fine art of balancing the resistance that players face as they progress through the game—the players’ ebb and flow. The game lets you feel powerful, but soon puts you in your place. Sometimes you’ll feel weak, as enemies pack more firepower or have more turns than you, only to turn the tables on them a short while after. It motivates the player to get stronger, rewards them for doing so, and then reminds them of higher heights and new challenges to overcome that they hadn’t thought possible. The flow of the game from level one to the end has been very carefully designed to keep players wanting to progress and overcome challenges.

The main story is yet another friend that accompanies you on your absurdly long quest, and while it makes a strong case for itself, it just wasn’t meant to be—at least for me. Its quirky nature shines on a surface level, but not long after does the generic, uninspired underbelly make itself known. Above all else, it’s been stretched out to cover a span of time that’s twice as long as it needs to be. Nothing is simple. Find an NPC, sadly they’re not here. Find someone they know, they tell you find the NPC’s associate. Find the NPC’s associate and do him a favor. Receive a tip on the NPC’s whereabouts as a reward, then go clear an entire dungeon to find that NPC. The events of the story really lose their weight once they’ve been abused this heavily. In essence, the main story exists as a means to get you exploring the world. The highlight of that little segment was getting to clear a dungeon, not finding this NPC.

Most dungeons have a boss encounter at the end

Unfortunately, even the dungeons lose their luster. How would they not after you’ve cleared dozens upon dozens of increasingly similar dungeons? Earlier on, when the dungeons hadn’t developed a shared identity, dungeon-crawling was absolutely a blast. The dungeons featured new puzzles that were built atop the foundations laid by puzzles in previous dungeons, and saw new mechanics that spiced up an otherwise mundane experience. Towards the game’s middle, the premise of levers and portals began dominating the dungeon-crawling experience. Any strategies and thought that went into exploring dungeons went straight out the window as dungeons were reduced to nothing more than aimless wandering in search of levers or portals. Levers and portals would lead to new areas that you would proceed to wander around in searching for, you guessed it, even more levers and portals. Somehow, you’d eventually reach the dungeon’s boss and exit—only to do it again moments later.

Whenever I needed a break from what eventually became the tedious cycle of wandering and pulling levers, I’d turn to side quests. In the early game, side quests were what I wanted them to be, quick and simple. Unfortunately, the game had other plans because side quests quickly turned to mimicking the main story. When I wanted a break from talking, fetching, wandering, dungeons, then talking again, I was welcomed by side quests that gave me exactly that. I left countless side quests incomplete because they continued where I thought they should’ve ended. The game has a wealth of content, but everywhere you look, you’re doing the same thing. The only side activities that are even remotely different are fishing and treasure hunting, both of which are limited. For example, fishing can only be done 5 times per day cycle, meaning it’s hardly a distraction.

Sometimes, nothing is better than a long, tranquil trek across a game’s world, and that’s exactly what I did. I rented a boat and set sail, I traversed new areas and attempted 100% map exploration. The music kept me motivated and cheery, but the world itself is far from the most interesting. NPCs deliver line after line detailing the struggles of their land, but when you look around, it’s hard to latch onto these ideas that the NPCs pitch to you. Branching pathways that lead to trouble or treasure, that’s what comprises most of these areas. The music and visuals are what remind you that you’re in a different area, but the layouts are all so similar.

By land or sea

For as lengthy and detailed as this game is, it lacks the variety that I expected from it. This is a game that knows exactly what it is, and dedicates everything towards that core loop. It’s a game that you can jump into at any time and always know what to expect. There’s definitely a comfort in that, but it’s very easy to get burnt out. For fans of Rainbow Moon, this is that with more polish, more flavor, and more improvements.

70

Good

Rainbow Skies

Review Guidelines

Rainbow Skies is an indie old school SRPG hiding a wealth of content behind its charming exterior. Improving upon the Rainbow Moon formula, the game doesn’t skimp out on quality or quantity, featuring extensive party management, in-depth combat, a vast world to explore, and a myriad of foes to conquer. Unfortunately, the hundreds of hours of gameplay are not free from tedium and suffer from a lack of variety.

A self-deprecating, overly sarcastic pair of glasses that occasionally possesses a human host in order to partake in the delightful process of playing video games, then immediately complaining about them. When he is not playing games (a rare occurrence), he can be found either writing about things that no one cares about, or haunting the quiet streets of his Canadian suburb.
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