Nature is like a nervous dog or a piece of gravel on a carpet in that it abhors a vacuum. The departure of anything significant will result in something else rushing in to fill the gap. Look at Prohibition, they tried to take away alcohol and the space all got filled up with crime instead. They ban abortion and the space gets filled up with preventable death and wire coathangers. And ever since Nintendo tacitly expressed they have about as much interest in maintaining the Paper Mario series in the manner in which it was at its peak as they do in industrial-level alpaca husbandry, the indie sphere has moved in to take its place. As was the case with Bug Fables from a while back and today’s subject, Rainbow Billy and the Curse of the Leviathan, from not quite so long a while back. It came out last year, and evidently someone felt it had been criminally slept on with enough passion to get them to gift me it on Steam last week. And frankly that’s as good an incentive as I need at this point. I don’t think there’s ever been a worse post-E3 Summer games drought than this one. I’ve already used up this year’s two ideas for space-filling ZPs. I’m this close to reviewing Microsoft Word and how efficiently it enabled me to type up my suicide note.
Anyway, Rainbow Billy is unashamedly a Paper Mario clone. In fact, you know how in Paper Mario Origami King there was one chapter where you explore an ocean and I said this feels like something that could’ve structured a whole game? That’s what Rainbow Billy is, just with the Mushroom Kingdom replaced with the Land of Make Believe or whatever they called it and with Mario replaced with the weird kid from primary school who refused to take off their teletubby balaclava and had to be physically prevented from shoving felt tips up their nose. It’s also got an art style somewhere between Cuphead and I believe it’s called “CalArts?” You know, that style all the new cartoons use where everyone’s got mouths shaped like beans. And like Cuphead, there’s something unaccountably sinister about the bright, cheerful aesthetic. At the start of the game Billy’s in sparkly rainbow land about to join the happiness parade, but as you take control, he’s standing right next to a wiggling garbage bin with eyes and a huge happy grin that says “I FEEL LIKE TRASH” when you talk to it, and so right off the bat we get this almost imperceptible vein of cynicism running through the game like an earthworm in a tube of lifesavers. Anyway, the happiness parade gets called off when a giant evil dragon plunges the land into darkness.
And I remember thinking “Oh god, this is all gonna turn out to be a metaphor, isn’t it. Like Billy’s dead or in a coma or retreating into fantasy to escape horror in the real world.” And long story short, yeah. It was one of those. Ha, that’s not technically a spoiler, is it. So what we have here is an RPG puzzle platformer Paper Mario type thing that speedrunners would have a field day with because the platforming’s very janky with a lot of oversights. Very few invisible walls, so you’re free to go to town on the terrain. There was more than one platforming puzzle I bypassed because the nearby wall was three degrees off from being completely sheer and as such was as freely navigable as a well-designed airport concourse. Your task is to go from island to island, get to whatever monster is managing the local franchise of Kentucky Fried Darkness and enter turn-based battles where you defeat them with, in a quite literal sense, the power of friendship. The happy-clappy Calarts facade doesn’t crack even for a moment so instead of smacking away their hit points with a big sword you smack away their insecurity points with a big earnest conversation.
Not that there’s much difference in gameplay terms. It’s just words, isn’t it, we could be smacking away their plaque points with our magic toothbrush and say it’s a game about dental hygiene. Except that in each round we pick a line of dialogue and if we pick one that gets through to the target’s bespoke personality disorder it reveals what symbols we have to use to defeat them, and can then choose a friend with those symbols from our existing stable of friends. Once we inflict all the right shapes upon our foe the battle ends, they become our new friend and we immediately imprison them in our basement. So the combat system is a sort of highly simplified Pokemon that visualises health, weakness and damage using colours and shapes rather than numbers in a rather impressively intuitive way, twinned with what feels like an educational game on how to improve your emotional intelligence from the parallel universe where human psychology is really, really uncomplicated. Every monster has a unique personality disorder which they immediately bring across in a single line of dialogue, and which you then promptly cure with a single line of dialogue.
It doesn’t take long to figure out to always say the affirmative, non-accusatory dialog option. “Grr, go away or I’ll stab you because I love stabbing things.” “Wow, you certainly have passion for the things you enjoy. But I bet there’s much more to you than stabbing things.” “Oh my god you’re absolutely right. That’s why no one takes an interest in my stamp collection after I stab their eyes out. What a revelation. Thank you for fixing my brain. Can I come and live in your basement?” After that, we diverge from the Pokemon model in that our relationships with our collection of fighting cocks don’t improve by themselves as long as we occasionally let them tear the throat out of a five year old’s purple kitten. We instead have to ingratiate ourselves in the somewhat typical video game fashion: by handing out gifts like a divorced spouse angling for more visitation hours. Each friend will unsubtly hint at what specific gift they want and then you give it to them whenever it comes up in a treasure spot or fishing minigame. It seems to be completely random what gifts you find, and as such you don’t really pick and choose what friends to upgrade, if, say, the eye stabber endeared himself to you more than the serial kitchen appliance molester.
But then which friends you can use during each round of combat is also random, thanks to yet another indie game combat system taking a big old whiff of the ever-popular deck building industrial solvent, so none of this matters that much. And by the end of the game you’ve been showered with enough upgrades that you draw eight or nine cards at a time like you’re the unpopular kid at an Uno tournament and it matters even less. What does matter is that every attack requires you to do a QTE minigame just like in Paper Mario, and it’s quite remarkable how a few relatively small differences in execution, pacing and soundtrack can take something that was fun in Paper Mario combat and make it irritating and flow-breaking in Rainbow Billy combat. But Rainbow Billy is impressive in a few ways. It’s impressive how you never fight the same monster twice and every single one has unique dialogue, and it’s also impressive how the combat can do that and still somehow manage to feel samey. So I wouldn’t look to Rainbow Billy for the identical but slightly hotter new girlfriend to make Paper Mario jealous. But I do think it deserved more attention than it got. As in, more than absolutely bugger all. I mean, if the industry had slept on it any harder it’d have woken up with banana stickers and glitter all over its face.