Rainbow Skies is a good role-playing game whose accomplishments are held back by its indie origins along with a few head-scratching design decisions. As a $30 PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, and PlayStation Vita title, there’s a sense that its multi-platform nature severely limits the game’s scope. By extension, what could have been a sell for casual RPG gamers becomes a sell for only the most ardent RPG fanatics. Despite its issues, if you like numbers, progression, and deliberating over stats, Rainbow Skies provides enough enjoyment.
Rainbow Skies‘ story is easily its weakest link. It begins with two friends going about their day in a city suspended in the sky. After an incident involving monsters running loose, a character is seen practicing magic on the mainland. As an excitable mage, she practices magic abilities on her town’s nearby monsters. She accidentally winds up bounding herself to the earlier protagonists as they fall from the sky. The trio then sets off on a journey to undo the spell so they can go their separate ways.
I tried paying attention to every piece of dialogue for the first thirty-five or so hours, but I eventually gave up. I wanted to give SideQuest Studios the benefit of the doubt, but that was a little hopeful on my part. Do yourself a favor and turn your brain off during the narrative segments. With identifiable objective markers and a handy quest book, you’ll never miss out on vital information. The script is a wrung below even typical low-brow, low-budget Japanese games.
At least they have some semblance of humor that doesn’t feel out of touch with its audience.
Its biggest narrative hurdle is its constant attempt at injecting humor where it doesn’t belong. With such a relentless onslaught and no charm in sight, it quickly became embarrassing. As an example of how oblivious its writers are, every single tutorial pop-up feels the need to try and make its audience laugh. Here’s a small excerpt from an early tutorial prompt explaining the turn-based combat’s basics (Yes, I named them Buddy and Guy) :
Buddy: Turn what?
Guy: Buddy, you play a leading role in this game and you don’t even know what it’s about?
This kind of low-effort “humor” is incorporated into every single tutorial prompt, of which there are several dozens because, in true RPG fashion, new and more extensive mechanics consistently open up as you progress further and further. Monster hatching and training, for example, isn’t introduced until several hours in. Every tutorial is introduced through a chalkboard as the main cast shouts banter back and forth while explaining various mechanics and systems. At times, the banter ends up taking more dedicated space than the actual useful description for the player.
The relentlessly flat humor continues past tutorials and into the actual story with boneheaded characters and dry quips. Its egregiousness borders on insulting. It feels like it was written with a seven-year-old’s mental capacity in mind.
Needs Some WORK
Contrast that with Dark Rose Valkyrie, a slightly less poorly written RPG that at least understands when to pull back. The protagonist becomes the new captain of an all-female squad that eradicates monsters. After being given orders by his commanding officer to familiarize himself with each squad member, the following exchange occurs:
Luna: By the way, we had a long and thorough look at your profile, Captain. Height, weight, and also…mmmm…well…
Asahi: I have to stop you right there! That’s beginning to sound suggestive.
It’s clear what Dark Rose Valkyrie is just from this excerpt even if you’ve never heard of it, but it gives you some idea of the gulf in quality between the two. Right after Asahi’s rejection, they immediately move on from the sexually charged joke and say goodbye. If this were Rainbow Skies, they would continue for at least five more text boxes. Rainbow Skies loves to drag out its script.
Gameplay Fares Better
Luckily, once you look past the horrendously insulting script, Rainbow Skies provides a fairly engaging set of systems. It may be filled to the brim with lazy side quests and boring dungeons, but players looking to dig-in to a meaty role-playing experience should easily lose over eighty hours.
At its core, Rainbow Skies is a tactical role-playing game. Each of the three main characters, which can be named, are essentially locked to specific classes/roles with their repertoire opening up during the late-game. When you think tactics, what comes to mind? Fire Emblem? Disgaea? Shining Force? The Banner Saga? Final Fantasy Tactics? Jeanne d’Arc? X-Com? Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars? Advance Wars maybe? While each of these games share a commonality with Rainbow Skies, they differ in two key respects–strategy and environment.
Each of the listed games places a large emphasis on strategic deployment. Various units have strengths and weaknesses that help in specific situations. One unit may not be able to go into the line of fire but can sneak behind the onslaught to plant a charge on an objective. One unit may have a large health pool with limited movement. Another unit might even have very high movement stats and damage, but with little health, works best as long-range support.
DEFINITELY a Role-Playing Game
This is a gross over-simplification as each of the aforementioned games take the genre in their own directions. Tactics used in one may not necessarily apply to another, but it’s a useful baseline for determining how strategy generally works in games like this. All of those games also have experience points and progression systems which lead to definitively stronger units, however, carefully planned engagements generally win out over level grinding.
Stats play such a major role in Rainbow Skies that grinding for experience, gold, and crafting materials is essential to success on all but the lowest difficulty. Even then, though, you’ll have to grind once the monster taming opens up. Many important battles after that point are so routinely filled with roughly a dozen enemies that not having a dedicated monster healer at the very least will lead to failure. It begins simply enough, but by the end, you’ll be able to assign up to three monsters to your team in addition to the main squad.
A six-person team doesn’t sound like much in the grand scheme of things, but Rainbow Skies‘ extensive upgrade systems turn even a four-five person squad into a constant grind. The issue lies with game balancing. The amount of gold acquired after battles combined with the prices of useful equipment doesn’t add up. Sure, you can always increase the difficulty to improve gold drops, but then you’ll have to grind even further.
Grinding even plays a role in adjusting difficulty settings. If you’re finding the game too easy, which you will within the first few hours, you’ll want to increase it.
Unfortunately, Rainbow Skies transforms what should be a simple toggle into a laborious process. To begin with, you’ll need to speak to a specific character to increase or decrease the game’s battle rank. This man doesn’t show up in every town, making the ordeal even more of a chore than it needs to be. Furthermore, once you finally gain access to him, it’s not as simple as turning up a setting. SideQuest Studios loves grinding so much that you need to do exactly that before the new difficulty setting takes effect.
That’s right. After increasing the battle rank, you’ll need to participate in enough battles for the new setting the actually take shape. If you decide to briefly lower the battle rank for a particularly tough section or boss, guess what? Going back to your original setting after turning it down requires going through the same process. You also can’t skip battle ranks. If you want to go all in, you’re forced to incrementally increase the battle rank, fighting several battles in between each rank.
It’s an overly convoluted system that inhibits a player’s desire to test him/herself. The studio probably recognizes how poorly balanced the game is with such a heavy reliance on stats that they figure gating difficulty settings behind battling would be useful. Unfortunately, it barely helps.
Stats, Stats, and More Stats
Skill stones and crafting materials are as vital as base equipment and leveling on its own. Players only touching the surface of the game’s various progression systems will either struggle or simply have to deal with easy but overly long battles on even the easiest difficulty setting. Skill stones, either acquired from battle or found in chests, upgrade various stats ranging from strength to speed.
Individual equipment can also be leveled up through various means, increasing the number of open crafting slots. These two progression systems alone highlight just how statistically driven Rainbow Skies is. That’s not to say that there’s anything necessarily wrong with it. Stats are a huge reason people play games like this, but there needs to be some sort of balance depending on which sub-genre it falls under. Especially in a tactical RPG, I should have to rely more on my wit than my stats, but that’s just not how this game works.
Crafting is Rainbow Skies largest balancing issue. Before you open up any equipment’s max crafting slots, you’ll need to level it up. Weapons are leveled through attacking enemies while armor is leveled through taking damage. Other pieces of equipment level up through more obtuse means such as using items within battle or activating support skills. This creates a constant rift of investing in equipment that’ll soon become useless just so you don’t fall behind in current battles.
By the same token, you won’t want to use the absolute best crafting materials because you know newer and better equipment is waiting on the horizon. Rainbow Skies needs major retooling to make its consistent goal posts more gratifying. It’s never a difficult game as there is very little consequence for death. It simply makes routine encounters drag on as much as its script.
Its poor gameplay balancing incentivizes intensive upgrading and crafting, but its poor economic balancing encourages the exact opposite. This dichotomy is further ham-strung by Rainbow Skies‘ ho-hum battlefields. Whereas other games in the genre may have sprawling fields with cover and environmental hazards, Rainbow Skies has got none of that. Cover doesn’t exist. Hazards don’t exist. Elevation doesn’t exist. Every single battlefield is a single screen, leaving very little room to maneuver.
Early-game scenarios provide just enough wiggle room to make strategic positioning viable. By the ten hour mark, however, battlefields become so cramped that intelligent positioning amounts to nothing more than “Keep the weak guys away from the strongest monsters”. As an example, some random battle space may consist of roughly thirty-five square spaces.
Fill that field with eighteen monsters and a six-person squad. What’s left? A claustrophobic mess.
While Rainbow Skies is a low-budget effort, its scale and tech still befuddle me. To begin with, the home console versions look poorly stretched out on a large television screen. I began the review by playing on a PlayStation 4 Pro, quickly transferring my save to the Vita, whereby I continued playing for the next 60+ hours.
Its ugly 2-dimensional aesthetic appears built for the Vita’s native resolution with all other versions seemingly upscaled from that base resolution. Maybe that’s not the case. Maybe the game does render at a full 1920×1080 frame-buffer, but it certainly doesn’t look like it. With no PS4 Pro support in sight because SideQuest claims their game is “already perfectly anti-aliased, so there wouldn’t really be a big benefit from playing the game at a higher resolution“, it’s clear that the studio might just be a little out of touch with modern-day standards.
I suppose that blurry mess on a 50+ inch television wouldn’t benefit from a higher resolution, huh? It’s a horrendous excuse for the lack of higher resolution support. As it stands, Rainbow Skies is best played on the Vita’s small screen, whereby its low-resolution art and text assets look reasonably sharp, though not the Vita’s sharpest offering.
Rainbow Skies is a messy game. While it may lack the precise strategy that makes tactical games so engaging, there’s still an inherently compulsive nature to its constant progression. While its systems are poorly balanced, I found myself losing many minutes at a time to sifting through menus and pouring over stats. It’s an RPG for RPG gamers that love numbers. Just don’t expect much of the tactics typically associated with this sub-genre. Rainbow Skies was made for people that just want to see a lot of numbers go up. For that, it’s perfectly fine at its budget price.
Disclaimer: Review code provided by the publisher