US: 10 Jul 2012
Rainbow Moon is the kind of game that would have been a sleeper hit in the PlayStation 1 era, the kind of game that was never heavily advertised, but any RPG fan who played it would turn into an evangelist. And ten years later a rare unopened copy would sell for $100. Thankfully in this modern era of digital distribution, you won’t have to spend that much to play Rainbow Moon, but you do need someone to evangelize it since I don’t think I’ve seen a single ad for it anywhere. It’s not a perfect game by any stretch of the imagination—the story is goofy and unimportant, and the character art looks amateurish—but developer SideQuest Studios has a masterful grip of what makes for good RPG mechanics.
Rainbow Moon is an isometric turn-based RPG that takes place in a surprisingly big overworld. It’s not an open world since trees, mountains, and other landscape features funnel you toward specific dungeons and towns, but there are enough branching paths that exploration is genuinely exciting and rewarding. Hidden caves, a day and night cycle, and special events that only occur on certain days add to the sense of exploratory adventure.
The turn-based combat is rather simple compared to its peers. Movement and actions draw from the same pool of “sub-turns,” which means everything that you do is limited, and it’s doesn’t matter which direction your character is facing when they’re attacked. But this simplicity brings its own challenges because every action feels important. Moving just one tile space forward is a tactical decision when the battle maps are small. At times, you’ll fight up to 30 enemies on a single map, and you’ll have to be especially careful with how you manage the battle space. This all creates an addictive tension that makes the random battles something to look forward to rather than an impediment to progress.
Of course, it also helps that all the random battles are optional. Monsters roam the overworld and if you touch them you’ll have to fight them, but in addition to those fights, a random battle prompt will occasionally appear during exploration. The prompt tells you specifically what enemies you’ll be fighting, and you can choose whether to engage them or ignore them. It’s a clever idea that satisfies two wholly opposite desires: it allows players to skip any tedious grinding, while also allowing other players to grind to their heart’s content.
The one aspect of Rainbow Moon that might cause some to raise a suspicious eyebrow is its economy. This is a heavily item-based economy, and you’re always collecting something that can be used: money to buy equipment, Rainbow Pearls to increase skills, experience to level up, food to decrease hunger, items for crafting, items for recovery, items for selling, or items for boosting. On the upside, this means there’s always something to collect, and your inventory is constantly being rearranged as you use and find new items to evolve your character. On the downside, this allows the developers to easily segment out certain items for sale. There are a ton of microtransactions. An option on the main menu takes you to the PSN store, which is filled with so many dollar purchases you’d be forgiven for thinking this was a free-to-play game. Thankfully, none of these microtransactions are necessary. I played for a good six hours before I even knew they existed, and in that time, I came to appreciate the item-based economy for its addictive qualities.
Rainbow Moon is filled with user friendly tweaks. In the beginning, you can choose the difficulty, and the game defines its difficulty by how much grinding is required. You also get to choose your playstyle, which changes your initial equipment loadout. Do you want to start with absolutely nothing, some strong weapons, a boost of money, or some potions?
The one bad side to this progression system is that new characters come into your party under leveled and under equipped. Only the people in your active group get experience, so leveling up one must come at the expense of another—and it’s simply not worth the effort to level up new characters. I completely ignored half of my team and the game rewarded me for it since I got to focus on my active group and level them up faster. This would be less of an issue if the writing and characterization were better. Unfortunately, they’re very nearly irrelevant.
Rainbow Moon embraces the traditions of turn-based RPGs while allowing us to ignore the worst aspects of them. It’s clearly made by people who understand the genre like the back of their hand, which is good since this is a purely mechanics driven game. With a better story and better writing it could have been a sleeper masterpiece, but as it is, it’s just a great RPG that evokes the same “one more turn” mentality of the best strategy games.