Rainbow Moon is a crafty beast. It bounces in, all colourful and cute, smiling sweetly and masquerading as a colourful, casual aside. Pry up the corner of that old school veneer, however, and beneath it you’ll find a solid, enduring challenge – even for seasoned adventurers.
Originally released through the PlayStation Network as a PS3 exclusive, Sidequest Studios’ overlooked gem is part-RPG, part-strategy, sharing several mechanics and aesthetic stylings with niche favourite Vandal Hearts. Combat is turn-based, exploration is free-form and the world is huge, but there are a few problems inherent in the formula.
You play as Baldren, a stoic yet ultimately shallow warrior who, for some reason, attends regular planned duels with his age-old nemesis. During one such duel, he is betrayed and forced into a magical portal that transports him to the mysterious Rainbow Moon, whereupon he immediately starts completing quests and generally selling his sword in a bid to return home and take his revenge.
Rainbow Moon’s core game is typical fantasy RPG fare. Quests are doled out by NPCs with exclamation marks above their heads, and carving your way through masses of imps, goblins, golems and sentient goo yields money, loot and XP. Most of the time you’ll be exploring the world, talking to strangers and cracking open chests, and though the environments seem welcoming at first, the fairly rigid design does a good job of funnelling you to where you need to go.
This creates a problem when (more often than not) the game wants you to move on but you’re far too weak to handle a new area. For a seasoned warrior, Baldren is remarkably brittle to begin with, and the only way to survive even the first “dungeon” is to grind a few levels by fighting the monster packs that roam the wilds. Grinding is never as much fun as developers seem to think it is, and forced grinding is just annoying. Unfortunately, so much of Rainbow Moon is nigh impassable when you first attempt it that you’ve no choice but to repeat mid-level fights for diminishing returns until you’re strong enough to chance another shot.
Such tediously circular mechanics aren’t helped by a pointless and petty resource management element that sees Baldren and his companions fall foul to unchecked hunger. The more you walk, the hungrier they get, meaning you need to waste equipment slots carrying food, you need to waste hard-earned money buying food, and you need to waste time and energy traipsing back to town to purchase food. Equally irritating is the need for torches in dungeons: you can’t see without them, they take up the same slots as provisions, and the smallest ones last about thirty seconds so you’re constantly having to go into your inventory to fire the next one up. At times, it borders on rage-inducing because it’s so completely unnecessary.
Yet, despite a catalogue of small annoyances, Rainbow Moon is still a very enjoyable experience, mostly due to the combat and character progression. You enter combat by walking into patrolling beasties, at which point you’ll be whisked away to an arena map until one side is either dead, or has run away. It’s turn-based and tactical, requiring forward thinking and a decent understanding of enemy types and their weaknesses. You first position your chosen character, before selecting either a standard attack, a special skill, an item or a defensive stance – all the time remaining aware of things like flanking opportunities and your dwindling stockpile of curatives.
It’s common to find yourself outnumbered two, three or four to one, and groups of enemies will vary by type, which at least staves off boredom. Skills are bought and learned, and gear can be upgraded with materials looted in the field, so your own party eventually becomes quite diverse, but you’ll rarely win a same-level fight if you’re unprepared or careless with your choices mid-battle.
Sadly, the Vita version uses none of the device’s touchscreen tricks, but instead offers the same game as previously released, albeit with an added cross-play feature. That said, the gorgeous visuals seem even more sharp and vivid on the Vita’s smaller screen. Some of the environments are highly detailed, and vary between cavernous dungeons, rocky crags, snow-draped tundras and forbidding forests. You can’t go anywhere on a given map, and will often find your way blocked by trees, boulders or rivers which, for some reason, are insurmountable to Baldren, but at least it’s not just the invisible edge of the map that bars your progress.
VERDICT: Rainbow Moon’s cutesy style and twinkly audio design cleverly disguise a genuinely challenging, surprisingly sprawling adventure with enough depth and variety to appease even the hardiest strategy-RPG fan. Forced grinding and unexpected dfficulty spikes aren’t all that enoyable, but they’re not game-breaking either.
As with many PSN releases, Rainbow Moon is a perfect fit for the Vita and it’s save-anywhere, pick-up-and-play structure means it’s ideal for five or ten minute blasts during a commute. Well worth a look for fans of turn-based shenanigans and old school RPGs.
GOOD. A game that scores 7/10 is worthy of note, but unworthy of fanfare. It does many things well, but only a few of them incredibly well and, despite a handful of good qualities, fresh ideas and solid mechanics, it fails to overwhelm.
Review code provided by publisher.