We had a whale of a time playing Rainbow Billy: The Curse of the Leviathan. But every step of the way, we knew that people would be seething at it, loathing it with a passion. Recommending it to our friends is going to be minefield: every reason to like it is a reason to hate it.
Rainbow Billy: The Curse of the Leviathan is either kaleidoscopically colourful or impossibly twee. It’s either a confident exploration of wellness or a barrage of motivational slogans. It’s either a lightweight RPG or a non-challenge. We tend to land on the positive side of each, but we can fully recognise the counterpoints.
You play Billy, a non-gendered character in a colourful town. There’s a party about to start and you have to collect some fireworks in a thinly veiled tutorial. People seem to like you; you’re a mainstay of the town, and there’s some acknowledgement that you have a dark past. And then a giant dragon, the ‘Leviathan’, attacks the town, removes all colour from it, and coalesces that colour into three Colour Cores, which he squirrels away with three bosses in three different worlds.
Oh boy, Rainbow Billy: The Curse of the Leviathan looks fantastic. Or garish and knowingly quirky, depending on taste. This riffs on the same early Disney reference points that Cuphead did, as everyone has big, black-button eyes and simple character designs. Like Cuphead too, it contrasts the cartoon world with dark themes. For our part, we loved the hell out of it: everything is so crisp, and Rainbow Billy: The Curse of the Leviathan really sings when a character or area gets its colour back. There’s a level of production value here that’s way above and beyond your conventional indie.
To get the Colour Cores back, you’re hopping on a characterful tugboat called the Friend-Ship and doing a bit of Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker. The boat can only travel so far without colour, so you’re managing a fuel bar as you try to make it to islands in the distance without sinking to the depths. Not that you’re punished if you do: you just reappear back where you started.
Being given the full run of an ocean and dotting the horizons with big and small islands was a real highlight. Although, we can see people dunking on it for not being Zelda. But the loop of spotting an island, clearing it out of secrets, and then watching it ‘glow up’ is an endlessly satisfying one. The loop’s not too far off Adventure Time: Pirates of the Enchiridion: both are RPG-lite, aimed at older and younger players alike, and surprisingly fun.
The islands tend to show off the game’s platforming, which is the weakest of Billy’s three core gameplay pillars. It’s not taxing or punishing at all: you’re most often presented with a series of separated platforms, and there might be some timing involved, as the platforms furl and unfurl, or a shadow plays across them that you have to dodge. It never gets particularly ambitious, which might be a saving grace as it feels a little sloppy. It’s not particularly clear where you are going to land thanks to a lack of depth in the environment (and a too-small shadow underneath your character), which means you frequently tumble into the drink.
And then there are the bugs and camera issues. On the bug side, Rainbow Billy: The Curse of the Leviathan has trouble with a couple of Billy’s gained abilities. One of them is a kind of grapple-rod, which hooks onto balloons that propel you to the next platform. But Rainbow Billy ties itself in knots trying to understand which one is in focus. We even hooked onto a balloon that was on the other side of a large island – a full ten seconds away – when there was one directly opposite us. It was fascinating to see Billy fast-rewind through an entire level.
But the camera’s the bigger migraine. Particularly when it moves into fixed mode, rather than one you can control, all sorts of problems rear their head. Pilot your tugboat into a narrow area and the camera does backflips, and you’d be forgiven for feeling seasick. It happens a fair amount, and you wish that Rainbow Billy: The Curse of the Leviathan would trust the player enough to manage the camera themselves.
Every so often, you encounter drab, grey characters who have had their colour sapped from them by the Leviathan. What happens next is combat in the loosest sense of the word. It certainly presents itself initially in a familiar manner: this is JRPG-style and turn-based, with you on the left and the enemy on the right, and you both take turns to chip away at a health bar.
But Rainbow Billy: The Curse of the Leviathan does something fascinating with that format. It’s a battle of wellness, as you ‘Listen’ to your opponent to learn more about their state of mind. There are narcissists and misogynists; the depressed and anxious. Having listened, you can then ‘Talk’, choosing dialogue options that prod at their issues, and you’re rewarded for choosing sensitive approaches and punished for the insensitive.
Choose well, and you flip over cards and reveal symbols above their heads. This gives you the information needed to chip away at their resolve. You might play a card that has stars on it because you’ve just revealed that the opponent is hiding stars. And then the fight begins, which plays out as a series of minigames that echo Undertale – sometimes you are playing a game of Pong, another time you are doing some rhythm-action.
We’ve got a complicated relationship with the combat in Rainbow Billy: The Curse of the Leviathan. It could fill a review on its own. If we had to summarise, it teeters on monotony as there are slightly too few minigames and enemy styles (outside of bosses, which are varied and wild) to hold up the experience. And the focus on wellness – to our tastes – is both noble and wearing. It’s absolutely fantastic that it’s so core to the themes of the game (too few games stray into this territory), but they’re a series of short stories about other people, when the story that most people will be interested in – Billy vs the Leviathan – gets neglected. It’s telling that the best parts of the story play over the end credits.
But the combat is so unusual and unexpected, a hybrid of card games and turn-based battling, that we gave it a pass. It just about carried us to the end.
The final of the three core gameplay pillars is puzzling, and this is where Rainbow Billy: The Curse of the Leviathan absolutely sings. In the three lands of the game, there are some sublime island-wide puzzles. They may sit firmly in some gaming cliches – you have sliding block puzzles and light puzzles – but the designers have the wherewithal to add interesting layers to them. In one standout, you push snowballs, and those snowballs get bigger when you push them across snow piles. So you’re making sure they’re a certain size before they reach their goal. They’re familiar but with cracking twists.
Rainbow Billy: The Curse of the Leviathan is absolutely a kitchen-sink RPG. On top of everything I’ve mentioned, there’s fishing minigames, an elegant little levelling system for each of your characters, and more collectibles than in your average Far Cry. It’s stuffed, and fills its eight-to-ten hour runtime with things to do.
But yet, there’s no easy way to recommend Rainbow Billy: The Curse of the Leviathan. It will delight just as much as it grates. It’s an extremely lightweight RPG, in the realm of Paper Mario, and that won’t be anywhere deep enough for enthusiasts. It’s approach to wellness will be bold to some and cloying to others. It’s shallow and stylish, colourful and twee.
But we’ll go to bat for it. Rainbow Billy: The Curse of the Leviathan is a platformer, RPG, puzzle game, pet-collector and Wind Waker-style exploration game, all rolled together and spraypainted in glorious technicolour. It may be knowingly kooky, it may occasionally sound like a cat motivation poster, but we forgave its failings. Rainbow Billy is greater than the sum of its parts, and the developers have absolutely overloaded it with parts.
You can buy Rainbow Billy: The Curse of the Leviathan from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S