Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle shouldn’t work. It’s a frankly implausible idea, placing Ubisoft’s comedic agents of chaos inside the Mushroom Kingdom. It’s especially jarring, given their genesis in a spinoff game from another venerated platforming hero: Rayman. That it blends both of these worlds into a genre that neither has really appeared in before just compounds its folly. Yet somehow, it does work. And it works well. Ubisoft has managed to merge, expertly and convincingly, two disparate universes together to create one of the biggest surprises of the year.
In the real world, a Mario-obsessed enthusiast scientist has created a bit of technology that adheres to Arthur Clarke’s infamous adage that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” This particular bit of techno-wizardry is called the SupaMerge, and it can take any two items and combine them. A time and dimension-travelling washing machine full of those blasted raving Rabbids invades and as you’d expect, chaos ensues as the Rabbids get their paws on the SuperMerge. Their world-hopping washer, stuffed with Rabbids and stowaway Mario paraphernalia, give us a more whimsical version of The Fly.
Instead of a grotesque abomination, we have the Mushroom Kingdom invaded and infested with Rabbids that are under the control of some nefarious, nebulous entity. The SupaMerge itself becomes anthropomorphised, merged with a Rabbid to become “Spawny” who under Bowser Jr’s administration is a weaponised agent of destruction. It’s up to Mario, his pals and Rabbidised versions of themselves to catch the critter and restore equilibrium to the Mushroom Kingdom.
As a narrative device it’s contrived and silly, but Mario + Rabbids embraces its absurdity and basks in its silliness. It also offers some genuine laugh-out loud moments that play on the incontrovertible tenets established over decades of what makes Mario, Mario. The melded world that Ubisoft created is inviting, interesting, and inventive.
That sort of ingenuity carries through to the gameplay. Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle is a turn-based tactical game that despite its vibrant colours and Plasticine cartoon aesthetic, immediately draws comparisons to games like XCOM. In the semi-open world, you’ll move through stages themed and numbered as you’d expect in any Mario game, collecting coins, operating simple (usually) lever-based environmental puzzles and making your way through to the end of the level. Once you pass through a set of flags though, it’s time to ready for battle. It’s an improbably clever battle system that manages to be welcoming and accessible, but at the same time is deep, complex, and rewarding.
Each stage has a win condition – usually requiring you to defeat all enemies, escape to the other side of the map or escorting smaller, defenceless saps like Toad to the end. You’re afforded a simple and small team of Mario plus two other characters, at least one of whom needs to be a Rabbid. During turns, you’ll move your heroes over a grid, attack and take cover. Stats dictate how far characters are able to move. Each hero has primary and secondary weapons along with unique abilities, whose effectiveness
Each hero has primary and secondary weapons along with unique abilities, whose effectiveness is also guided by their stats, and the strength of the weapons you have equipped them with. It differs from the usual fare in that running and jumping are key battle mechanics. Characters can “dash” through enemies during their move phases to dole out extra damage, and can use team jumps for extra mobility. With upgrades through the skill tree, some characters can even dash through multiple enemies in one turn, adding up to some necessary but “free” enemy damage.
By moving on to an ally, your movement range is extended, so it becomes vital to keep your team within movement range of each other, instead of splintering off to flank as you would in XCOM. Mobility is incredibly important here. Thanks to the inclusion of warp pipes, it’s possible to traverse huge sections of the map in a single turn. While it offers up great tactical benefits to the player, they also enable enemies to move about, making positions you thought were secure open to attack. There are different “Super Effects” that influence how you play too. Some attacks might have a chance to inflict extra damage and status effects. You might hope that your next shot “inks” an enemy, so they’re unable to use their weapons on their next turn, or “honey” them so that they’re stuck in place for a round.
A clever cover system is in play that simplifies how damage works. Distance from a target doesn’t degrade your damage (provided you’re in reach, of course). Instead, you know that you either have 0% chance to hit when the enemy is in cover, 50% chance to hit if they’re in partial cover, or 100% chance to hit if they’re idiots and are out in the open. There are different cover types though. Some are permanent while others can be worn down with repeated attacks. Some blocks of cover may even reveal super effect boxes when they’re damaged, opening up other tactical options.
A battle might see you move Luigi (The team’s sniper, and one of my favourites) through an enemy to deal a whack of damage, then through a pipe, into another and emerge on the other side of the map where he might get a boosted jump on Mario to land at an elevated position. Being on higher ground gives you an attack advantage, where unleashing his sniper shot critical hits an enemy who was in cover. You might then use his ability to provide cover fire during the enemy’s turn, mitigating whatever risk the now angered Rabbid buffoon poses on Rabbid Peach, who’s still on the other side of the map.
When it all comes together, it’s unbelievably satisfying.
New passive and active abilities are obtained through Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle’s skill tree, which refreshingly allows you to inspect your character before battle. If the battle arena tends to favour verticality, putting extra points into a high ground advantage could tilt victory in your favour. The coins you collect in exploration and through battle go towards newer, shinier weapons for the entire crew.
As cute as it all is, it’s surprisingly challenging, and halfway through the third world there’s a bit a spike in difficulty that had me questioning my value as a human being. This usually boiled down to team composition, which you’re free to switch between and before battles. The right characters with the right attacks can swing momentum heavily, making each battle feel a little like a puzzle that needs solving. Whatever damage you’ve taken carries through to the next battle within a stage, so you’ll often have to juggle characters for the best outcome. Thankfully, for those in a pinch there’s an easy mode you can trigger when you’ve failed a battle. It gives you full health plus a 50% increase, making things a little less frustrating. It’s especially handy when it comes to the game’s delightfully irreverent, tongue-in-cheek mid and end-of-world bosses. Once you’re done with the game, there’s a bit of explorative backtracking and a challenge-based co-operative mode that lets you play as two-man teams.
Last Updated: September 4, 2017
It shouldn’t work, but Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle coalesces into something that shows a reverence to Mario and the Mushroom Kingdom, but isn’t afraid to challenge its ideas. It’s a wonderful game in its own right, and a bit of magic for Nintendo’s Switch that’s far better than it has any right to be.