Review: Rabi-Ribi (Sony PlayStation 4)
Review by Clark A.
You generally know what you’re signing up for when you step into a Metroidvania-style platformer. You’ll explore vast, interconnected environments as you enhance a character’s abilities and survey every cranny. Being a doujin game willing to wear its niche appeal upon its sleeve, though, Rabi Ribi slips in a delicious extra ingredient: bullet hell madness. While this added tang is enough to shake up the formula on its lonesome, Rabi Ribi goes on to make similarly resolute tweaks. So although not every design choice here is guaranteed to enamour the masses, being a labour of love rather than a concoction formulated for commercial viability enables Rabi Ribi to resonate with its audience like little else can.
For starters, this is a game of many influences – the chief among them being Touhou, the king of bullet hell shooters. Several character designs and personalities are inspired by the anime and manga Is the Order a Rabbit?, mostly notably that show’s affinity for bunnies. Heck, there’s even a chocolaty sampling of Nekopara in there for good measure. There’s no express need to be familiar with any external material obviously, but knowing them provides a richer appreciation for this game’s delightful mishmash of styles. Rather than coming off as derivative, it feels like a respectful smorgasbord of mainstream and obscure properties worthy of recognition. Spotting every little reference is practically a game in itself.
The creators’ affection for classic games is also made apparent through its design (and not just through clear homages like smiley foes that act suspiciously like Mario’s Thwomps). This is very much a title designed with that old-school mentality, yet soothed by modern sensibilities. By that I don’t merely mean it throws pity bonuses and those who can’t succeed, although this is sometimes the case. Rather, the developers have stewed over what makes Metroidvania games gripping to replay ten times over and arrived at conclusions that, sadly, precious few others have.
For those of us who grew up mastering low item per cent runs on games such as Super Metroid, Rabi Ribi is an absolute dreamscape. The game features possibly the most intelligently designed world I’ve seen in its subgenre. Don’t get that statement twisted; it’s possible others won’t find it as atmospheric or as clever in terms of dropping hints at player as the games of yore, particularly because it’s quite intentionally goofy. Even so, it has one of my favourite features ever.
Typically Metroidvanias lock progression behind items or abilities, but in Rabi Ribi, it is fully possible to complete a legendary zero per cent run. These runs are so fascinating because the game is seemingly built around a sense of growth, yet subverts it entirely here through clever manipulation of systems. These are possible because protagonist Erina comes equipped with advanced jumping techniques and the game’s world physically changes in order to add little boosts like springs depending on the play style used. Should you botch and accidentally scoop up an item, the game is quite generous in allowing you to revert to a previous state of progress using several means. This is a game that champions and pushes what it really means to explore, acknowledging the achievements of speedrunners and openly playing to their sensibilities. There are a few areas that cannot be accessed until the game tells you, but then again, it’s possible to power your way through some of them using skill and experience if you’re willing to put up with being badgered, so it’s no blow to the Metroidvania design.
If it sounds like I’m jumping into the thick of things rather than focusing on the fundamentals, it’s because Rabi Ribi seems geared towards established players who seek novelty from the genre. Rabi Ribi’s fundamentals are familiar, yet they’re the result of DNA from many sources. While protagonist Erina is perfectly capable of running and jumping her way around, her primary attack output comes in the form of her piko hammer. A melee weapon that racks up damage at a brisk pace, its potential for combos becomes more and more observable with each upgrade. By the end of the game you’ll be lunging and spinning though the air in a manner reminiscent of Metroid’s iconic screw attack. Seeing as this game has bullet hell elements, however, Erina is soon joined by her fairly pal Ribbon, who functions as a magical “gun” of sorts. While most upgrades augment Erina’s hammer or Ribbon’s shooting capabilities, others like the carrot bomb function similarly to Metroid’s morph ball bombs, allowing you to find secrets usually hinted at by visual cues. My favourite is the slide dash, providing both combat potential and utility for exploration. Like any good Metroidvania, Erina’s ever-expanding arsenal is compelling, granting players not just new ways to traverse the environment but options to engage in combat or avoid it altogether.
Oftentimes what makes Rabi Ribi tick isn’t even the weapons at your disposal but how you juggle them all at once. Unlike some games where weapons are rendered obsolete by more advanced iterations, most artillery here remains handy. Your ability to ward off wayward adversaries may well hinge on how you manage items behind the scenes such as badges. Scattered throughout the world are these handy tools that come equipped with their own effects, such as one that prevents collision damage from female bosses. They’re potential game-changers but balanced by the fact that you can only equip a few at a time. There’s also the matter of how often you’re swinging your hammer versus firing bullets, since stamina is a limited resource and you’ll want to level up weapons by using them frequently. There’s a little Mega Man Zero, there’s a little Metroid, but most importantly, every gear is nuanced and turns in tandem.
Despite the potential for making players rip out their hair to the point of baldness, Rabi Ribi is still quite benevolent in design. The number of difficulty settings is through the roof and there are various restrictions players can impose on themselves to make things lively. The world is full of save points and warp points properly placed to simplify exploration without negating it (given that save points also replenish health). Talented players won’t need to buy many items, but for those struggling, acquiring currency through grinding can allow them to live longer and fight harder. Finding the many health upgrades naturally hidden in the environments encourages that extra special attention to detail. The world and characters do a solid job of hinting you and directing you towards objectives without explicitly demanding you go there. Oftentimes, you’ll be handed multiple objectives to pick as you see fit.
While traversing the overworld is infinitely enticing, the game’s boss brawls are where the prior sprinklings of bullet hell elements come to a head. When squaring off against common foes, you’ll occasionally find grandiose explosions, but oppressive situations have more to do with enemy numbers and placement. When it’s time to focus on that single target, fireworks can explode for minutes straight. Bosses are uncharacteristically complex for the genre, demanding players adapt to intricate attack patterns rife with more bullets, explosions, and beams than the human eye was designed for. These bullet formations are more often than not unique despite the dozens of bosses throughout the game. Some even have attacks that literally cannot be dodged, but that’s not to say players can’t counter them through items or ingenious exploitation of invincibility frames.
As potentially lethal as the bullets themselves are, there’s also the ever-present threat of debuffs and status conditions attached to them. Mericfully, the game provides players with one of the most rewarding aces in the hole I’ve seen in the genre. Erina is granted an attack bonus for dodging enemy fire and accruing combos. Dynamically ranked based on your performance in the heat of the moment, stringing together a streak of consecutive hits can cause you to dish out absurd damage far sooner than normal. It’s fleeting and intense, making every last hit count. Best of all, these confrontations are even more exhilarating when tackling a zero per cent item collection run. If you find it hard waiting for a foe to come within smacking range of Erina’s trademark piko hammer, imagine not having that hammer at all at all.
For all that I’ve lavished Rabi Ribi with praise, it’s disappointing that the game’s story feels like a bit of an afterthought compared to its meticulously orchestrated corridors and intense bouts. That’s not to say it doesn’t have its highs, but the scriptwriting does not live up to the intrigue of its premise. Our adventure kicks off when protagonist Erina, once a fuzzy little bunny, awakens inside a box with an appearance more reminiscent of the playboy variety. Puzzled by her exterior and unsure of how to proceed, she heads out in search of her human master, bumping into dozens of friends and foes every step of the way. Most amusingly, she bumps into a cultish band of human bunny-fanatics who serve as the game’s perverted antagonists. This later expands to include stout, glasses-wearing otaku from the big city who are similarly entranced by her new appearance. There’s some commentary on otaku culture in there, but it’s not particular nuanced and often obscured by comedy that will either hit home or fall flat.
In a cosmic sort of way, the thinly veiled storyline excuses for all the boss fights are humorous. We’re talking scenarios like “I know we’re buddies, but I pretended to be possessed so I could test my new weapon on you”. Some of the character personalities are endearing enough to shine through as well, possibly because they ape the style and mannerisms of similar characters. The issue is this: I wholeheartedly embrace even visual novel-tiers of dialogue in games when meaningfully leveraged, but so many of Rabi Ribi’s verbal exchanges are longwinded while accomplishing little in terms of characterisation, comedy, or the central plot. Yet while the script writing did not blow me away in and of itself, there is a lot to love in terms of the raw underlying concepts. Some lore and background details –events that occurred before Erina’s adventure – are interesting and mysterious enough that you’ll ponder them beyond completion of the game’s final chapters. With writing that cut down on fluff, I do think this tale could have been elevated from serviceable to legitimately great.
Thankfully, Rabi Ribi remains a charming adventure from start to finish. This is in part due to a simplistic pixel art style and daringly intense colour choices that make every area positively pop. Cutscene images and dialogue exchanges wonderfully portray the, um, flashier side of the characters. With a wonderfully cheery and innocent soundtrack that livens up each region, wandering through the world of Rabi Ribi actively elevated my mood.
Rabi Ribi has so much more going on under its hood than mere screenshots can contain. What some will invariably dismiss as a cash-in on cute anime girl aesthetics is actually designed with greater foresight and craft than many AAA titles. Thoughtful world design meets bullet-hell mechanics in this endlessly endearing hotchpotch of ideas from all across the spectrum. Not everyone will appreciate Rabi Ribi’s more hardcore tendencies, but those who do may will be swayed into making this game their life.
– Clark A.
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