Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle Review
When, at E3 earlier this year, it was announced that Ubisoft’s largely forgotten franchise, Raving Rabbids, would be teaming up with Nintendo’s mascot Mario the collective eyebrow raising could’ve lifted the Titanic. How would the slapstick humour of the Rabbids merge with the rather straight-laced Mario? There were also misgivings about having the inhabitants of the Mushroom Kingdom toting weapons and blasting their enemies into digital oblivion. It was so un-Nintendo it had some fans worried. Could Mario, as versatile a character as he is, and his friends, meld with a zany turn-based tactics game involving crazy rabbit-like creatures? We weren’t sure at first but the more we played Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle the more we were taken aback at just how good this game was.
The premise is as crazy as you’d expect. A genius inventor has created a VR-style headset that can merge two objects into one. However, it suffers from overheating and after deciding to down tools for the night The Rabbids turn up in a time travel device in the form of a washing machine. Mayhem ensues and one of the Rabbids dons the headset and proceeds to start merging things at random. This includes what we can best describe as cosplaying Rabbids, which is how we end up with Rabbid imposters of Mario, Luigi, Princess Peach and Yoshi. They all bundle back into the washing machine which malfunctions and everyone ends up in the Mushroom Kingdom. With the merging headset going crazy and creating monstrosities at random, Mario tasks himself with clearing everything up. It’s a setup that befits the craziness of the Rabbids and acts as a convenient way to explain just how these two franchises can interact with each other.
The story merely serves as a backdrop to the battles and as a setup for mid-boss and end-level boss battles. It’s funny, engaging and as abilities and skills unlock as you go they’re neatly woven into proceedings. Each of the four worlds is divided up into eight levels and they generally have two or three battles in each. They’re not always a straightforward fight, some require you to escort someone to an end zone, another might require that you defeat a certain number of enemies or it may simple just require one member of your squad to reach the end zone. All of them require a different approach and often requires you to rethink just who you have in your squad of three. Taking a leaf out of some more well known turn-based tactic games such as XCOM your team makeup can make or break a mission. Get the wrong mix and, even if you succeed, because health carries over, if you take too much of a beating the next mission could well be a mission too far.
Thankfully there are two different mechanics which can make even the most difficult mission winnable in the end. Firstly, at the start of every battle, you have the option of “Easy Mode.” If you decide to choose this your team will have all their health back plus fifty percent. This can be a lifesaver should you reach a mission with most if not all of your team low on health. Alternatively, in cases where you’re repeatedly dying in a mission, you can change the membership to better suit the terrain and your foes on-the-fly. Each character has different abilities and it’s important to consider this just as you would in any other turn-based tactic game. We often found ourselves making sure we had one with long-range weapons as well as one who could heal. Mario is the defacto leader and will always be included so it’s down to who you pick as his two squadmates that can make all the difference.
As for the missions themselves, let’s get this out in the open straight away as, despite appearances, Mario + Rabbids is no walk in the park. Like its stablemate XCOM there are times where Mario + Rabbids is brutal and unyielding in the AI’s pursuit of victory. The latter levels in particular, can be very unforgiving if your approach is just a touch naïve. Make the slightest of errors and your foes will punish you and then some. Whilst there’s no permadeath, this is Mario we’re talking about here, Mario + Rabbids can be as demoralising as any other turn-based strategy game out there. We found ourselves on many occasions turning the air blue with frustration as, yet again, we were bested by our rabbit-eared enemies. It never got to the point where we questioned whether things were too tough and we always felt we were just one right move away from victory which enticed us to keep playing.
The enemy variation is also rather good and incorporates both franchises nicely. You have your basic drone style enemies who are fodder even from the very start. As you progress, newer and more versatile enemies arise. There are brutes who will go after anyone who fires a shot at them as well as healers and foes that can transport themselves to any point on the map. These are mostly from the Rabbid arm of the pairing but there are also environmental hazards such as a Chomper who, if used wisely, can cut down the number of turns used to victory dramatically. At the end of each level your performance is graded depending on how many turns it took and the number of squadmates still alive. Perform well enough and orbs and coins will rain from above allowing you to buy cool new weapons and, with orbs, level up your character. The skill tree, like in any game of this kind, is a key tool to adequately building your team in a way that best fits their abilities - though if this is a bit too much you can just ask the game to do it for you.
Moving around and guiding your heroes to victory will be instantly familiar to any XCOM veteran. Each character has a set number of cells they can move within and their weapons have a range and a percentage chance of hitting. However, you can team-jump which involves one of your team members giving the other a boost and launching them up into the sky. This increases the range of their movement and, in the case of Mario, opens up another avenue of attack. Cover is identified by using half and full shield icons very much in a homage to XCOM and some can be chipped away and destroyed entirely while others are impenetrable. It is therefore key to factor in these variables when planning your attacks and the Tacticam is a great tool to use. Activating it gives you a top-down view of the battlefield and will show you the movement reach of each enemy and their firing range. It’s an immensely useful tool and when used correctly it can really tip the balance of power in your favour.
Beyond the battles there is some exploration to be had and doing so can yield chests that contain everything from 3D models that you can view later to newer and better weapons for your heroes. A few involve solving puzzles though some of these require certain skills to be unlocked first before you can complete them. This is all well and good but honestly, we never really found ourselves going back over old ground just to complete puzzles we couldn’t do previously. Still they’re challenging and it’s nice to see something implemented to break things up between encounters with the enemy rabbids. There’s also a game mode allowing you and a friend to team up and take on various challenges. They’re fun and can help you get to grips with all the different tools at your disposal so worth doing if you’re struggling with the main campaign.
Everything about Mario + Rabbids is a fun and entertaining way to pass the time. When combined with the portability of the Switch it’s a great game for on-the-go gaming. The battery life, when off the dock, was around three hours and the length of most encounters was short enough that we often found ourselves completing one or two missions during our commute to and from work. The only real negatives are relatively minor with one being the Rabbids and their humour. To some, they will be hilarious, to others, after a while, the humour will become grating and obnoxious. Other than that we found the difficulty curve ramps up rather dramatically and for us this happened in world three where we had to repeat more than our fair of missions before advancing.
Given what we know now we needn’t have worried when Mario + Rabbids was announced. It is another huge win for a company that, post-Switch launch, can seemingly do no wrong. It’s a fantastic resurgence for Nintendo and one that we hope continues. The shackles of old have come off and what we’re seeing now is a braver and bolder Nintendo - one which isn’t afraid to experiment with its IPs and take them in new and different directions. On paper this pairing was one heck of a risk and could’ve cost Nintendo dearly. However, in reality, it has done them the world of good and brought more success to a company which after everything the Wii U had cost them was sorely needed. Mario + Rabbids is an excellent turn-based strategy game and easily one of the Switch’s top titles.