Before our GOTY coverage kicks off in earnest, we wanted to shout out a handful of excellent games from 2021 you may yet have heard of. Every game mentioned in this series is top tier, so if any sound even remotely up your alley, it’s an easy recommendation.
For Your Consideration - Rainbow Billy: The Curse of the Leviathan
Rainbow Billie: The Curse of the Leviathan does something I haven’t seen any other game do – be a 100% non-violent video game with a full-blown RPG combat system.
The disconnect between mass murder of creatures/monsters/enemies of all kinds and the plucky band of misfit adventurers is something we don’t often contest within RPGs – “it’s just the way things have always been” – but Rainbow Billie proves that another world is not only possible but engaging and thought-provoking as well.
Confrontations, or battles, in Rainbow Billie are turn-based affairs. “Enemies” are colourless, and you must recolour them by “attacking” them with your friends. Your friends are represented through tokens drawn randomly from a stack, much like your typical card battler. Each friend represents a different colour, with the recolouring of enemies requiring different combinations and amounts of colours to “defeat”.
I place a lot of this in quotation marks as while the language used is the easiest way to interpret the actions taken, they are far from what you are metaphorically doing. Colours in Rainbow Billie generally represent the emotional traits of your friends – dark blue moons aline with depressive natures, red stars for hot-headed streaks, that type of thing. Your “attacks” are the opposite of doing physical damage to the opposition – instead, they are abstractions of reliability with others around them.
(Sidebar for a minute, but I have to point out how brilliant this is – you’ll notice I said “dark blue moon and red star for battle descriptors. For a game with a story and mechanics absolutely based around colour, this game is 100% colourblind friendly. Animations and other indicators – such as idle animations when you’re exploring the open sea – mean you’re never hitting frustration walls if you experience colour differently. Colour is additive, not preventative. It’s wonderful.)
During a “battle”, the creature is lashing out at Billie as they are unable to confront their own character. Before choosing which of your friends will face them, you can talk to them – learning what it is that is holding them back and talking them around to understanding themselves better. Bringing out their True Colours is a conversation – helping them understand their emotional state, and working with them to become happier and healthier as a result.
Every battle in the game is therefore both unique and meaningful. There are no random battles grinding for XP – there’s exploring the world, confronting creatures from all walks of life, and making friends who will in turn help you explore the world and make more friends.
This loop of conversation and growth is reinforced through how creatures “level up”. Initially, each of your friends will only be able to convey a single colour. But talk to them inside Friend Ship (a literal boat, your means of traversal and a consistent level headed mother figure) and you can learn more about their past through a simple gift-giving system. Creatures are after certain types of things to help them open up – an art supplies kit, a teddy bear, even an ice cream. Increasing your connection to them (read: listening to them and becoming closer) in turn increases their colour palette and ability to help you in Confrontations.
Every part of this core is key to simple yet deep messaging behind Rainbow Billie’s journey. The World of Imagination has been drained of its Colour by the Evil Leviathan, and only through making friends and helping people can you overcome the obstacles, obtain the Three Colour Cores and Save The Day. It’s all very straightforward in its presentation – making it a wonderful game for kids and adults alike – but there’s so much more to it than a simple 12-20 hour hero’s journey.
The Confrontations you’ll face don’t just come in all different colours, but also many different emotional issues that will vary from “I see what you did there” to “yep, that emotionally devastated me” depending on your own walk of life and experience. Heady topics like self-isolation, over-protectiveness, toxic masculinity and so much more are the root at which all of the character’s problems lie. The game deftly navigates all of them, being considerate and thoughtful every step.
Crucially, it doesn’t necessarily “solve” every issue either. Some have problematic traits that are just straight bad (full blown narcism, compulsive lying) with the results of their self growth being less completely changing who they are and instead focusing on how to channel that into positive outlooks (leaning on experience to teach others, playing fun pranks that everyone – including the pranked – enjoys). There are even a couple of characters where the conclusion to their arc are more focused on accepting that while friendship and open discussion has helped them so much, they now will seek professional help.
Rainbow Billie makes it abundantly clear that this is a metaphorical journey from the outset, but that doesn’t make its background narrative any less impactful or important. There’s something about Billie being a non-binary character, yet that never being the focus of the story, that feels absolutely freeing. Of course, so much of the game is wrapped up in identity, but the fact that gender is never even a question is one of the game’s greatest understated achievements.
One of the biggest hurdles for those who are… let’s say, less accepting… of queer identities is that they think they can not relate. They do not understand, so fear is their response, with so much more negativity flowing from that. But at the root of all of it is something so core and fundamental – we’re all just people. We all have emotions and troubles, face difficulties and trauma. Rainbow Billie understands this, and most importantly, showcases how this is universal. Billie is queer, and while that is a part of who they are, that doesn’t mean they are any different in having to face the world.
I don’t want to spoil anything, but it’s important how all this ties into the main through-line of Rainbow Billie. All the way through the game, there were times when I might’ve thought this storyline or that character arc was simple, where there were a few others that pulled on a few heartstrings. But it all coalesced toward the end in one of the more satisfying endings I’ve witnessed, to the point that while it was obvious to me how it would end, and had me filled with anticipation. The final battle did not disappoint emotionally, for me at least.
Maybe I’m just a Big Baby these days or something, but in the final phase of the final Confrontation, I absolutely lost it. Even now, writing this a week later and thinking about that moment, I’m getting a bit choked up. If you tend to get emotionally attached in games (and this is something you enjoy) Rainbow Billie: Curse of the Leviathan is one criminally overlooked game you should be paying attention to.