Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle
A sensational strategy hybrid that’s anything but a bwaaah- d idea
Mario’s got a gun! Apparently when those pesky Rabbids invaded they triggered the Mushroom Kingdom’s second amendment rights.
With hindsight, the appearance of Shigeru Miyamoto at Ubisoft’s E3 conference was a clue. The sight of Mario’s creator standing back-to-back with Ubi president Yves Guillemot, both wielding Kingdom Battle’s curiously Mega Man-esque arm cannons, made it clear this was something more special than your average collaboration. The pride of its publisher, and the approval of Miyamoto, were well-placed: somehow amid this collision of wildly different worlds, the pieces slot together quite beautifully. More miraculously still, it may have sold us on the Rabbids as a force for good. No, really. At first, you might not be quite so convinced. The opening sequence is a well-realised bit of CGI tomfoolery which sees a young scientist tinkering with a headset that can combine two disparate objects into one. Unwisely leaving her office unattended for the night, she’s not present to witness the arrival of the Rabbids, who burst onto the scene in a TARDIS-like washing machine, creating their usual brand of noisy havoc. (If you’re not familiar with them, think Despicable Me’s Minions, only with longer ears, more gormless expressions, and even fewer brain cells.) One of the Rabbids dons the offending gadget, which, along with a nearby Mario poster, results in the Mushroom Kingdom and the world of Rabbids merging.
It’s not a smooth blend, but part of the joy of this strange hybrid is seeing the wonky contrast between Mario’s world and that of these clumsy interlopers. You’ll see 80-foot bubble wands, hand mixers whipping up lava into soft, fluffy peaks, and statues of Rabbids reading on the toilet – the latter prompting a poo gag that’s surely the most crudely hilarious thing in a Mario game to date.
You’ll witness dozens of these bizarre juxtapositions as you explore Kingdom Battle’s four sprawling worlds, each split into ten large and often labyrinthine sections. Along the way, you’ll solve a variety of simple puzzles: a handful of these are mandatory but many more are entirely optional, tucked away down paths that splinter off from the route to the next zone. Each of these yields collectibles and other unlockable secrets, so you’re always rewarded for your curiosity. The puzzles themselves may be relatively straightforward for the most part, whether you’re placing statues on plinths to open stone gates, chipping away at stone blockades, or nudging blocks onto pressure plates, but they’re well put together and act as useful pace-breakers. The exception to these are sporadic mini-game challenges, which can be awkward to complete against the strict time limits given that you’re not actually
“You’ll see 80-foot bubble wands, and statues of rabbids reading on the toilet”
controlling Mario himself. In fact, you’re led by a coaster-shaped AI assistant named Beep-O, who handles the bulk of the exposition and text dialogue, while guiding you throughout the adventure. Still, Mario’s the de facto leader of the group, and indeed must be in your three-strong team when you pass through the gates that introduce each of the game’s battle zones, where you’ll face off against squads of Rabbids gone bad.
While Mario gleefully spreads his arms wide as he scampers around between skirmishes, it’s here that the game really stretches its legs. If anything, the ‘Mario XCOM’ observations we made when previewing the game undersell it: this is a turn-based strategy game boasting ideas that give it a very different feel from its peers. That’s not to say it doesn’t embrace a few genre standards: the very idea of a Mario game featuring an overwatch mechanic might be hard to get your head around, but it’s here, and you’ve got cover, high-ground attack bonuses, and the dreaded RNG besides.
Kingdom Battle folds these familiar elements into a mix that’s spiced up with a host of fresh ingredients – and others that have been smartly repurposed. Until now, the Mushroom Kingdom’s pipes have been little more than a quick way to get from A to B – or sometimes Q or V if you’re lucky. Here, however, they factor hugely into how you traverse the battlefield. They’re so important, in fact, that ‘pipe exit distance’ is not only a genuine stat, but one you can upgrade. When pipes are positioned close to one another, that means you can chain them, offering you a useful escape route when you’re backed into a corner, or letting you flank a shielded enemy to attack them from behind.
Brick blocks, meanwhile, are scattered across each arena, handily providing cover – albeit temporarily. If they’re partly buried, you can fire over them, but you’ve got a 50 per cent chance of being hit. You’ll need to peek around the larger ones to fire, but they offer total protection from incoming attacks. But against such mobile enemies, protection from one side rarely means protection from all sides, and they’ll naturally look for a better angle of attack on their turn. Switching to the top-down tactical view lets you highlight enemy range, which covers a disturbing amount of the map. When most grid spaces will see you get hit, you have to work out which enemies are the biggest immediate threats and try to take them down quickly.
Alternatively, you can set up an ambush and wait for them to fall into your carefully laid trap. You have three actions per turn per character: you can move, fire either your primary or secondary weapon, and use one of two abilities bound to cooldowns. Leave someone temptingly exposed – but beyond an opponent’s range or sight lines – and if you’ve activated Hero Sight for Luigi, Mario, or Peach, they’ll stumble into trouble, as your chosen units automatically open fire. You can even trigger it on your own turn, by aggroing
“a mario game featuring an overwatch mechanic might be hard to get your head around”
the lumbering Smashers who’ll immediately stomp towards anyone who’s fired upon them. Then again, they’ll be further enraged by the second shot, so you’ll need to be careful that your second unit’s at a safe distance before trying it. Or it might be time to deploy Rabbid Yoshi’s fearsome roar, which will scare them into retreating a few spaces.
If you prefer to mix it up at close quarters, you’ve got plenty of options, too. Dashing into an enemy’s space lets you slide-tackle them, and with the right upgrades you can repeat the trick three or four times per turn. Pass through an ally’s space, and they’ll give you a boost: in Mario’s case letting him deliver the kind of head-stomp we’re used to seeing in his more traditional outings. Instant responses are all the more likely with this kind of strategy, of course, so it’s often best reserved for characters with shields that can split damage, cushion blows for a turn, or completely absorb a single attack before breaking.
Then again, if you land a critical hit, you might not need to worry. A range of status effects can be triggered with a lucky die roll: honey binds an enemy for a turn, letting you tackle them and duck behind nearby cover without fear that they’ll return the favour. Obscure their vision with ink and they’ll be able to move but not fire. Weapons with the Push ability can nudge units back – with a domino effect if they’re lined up. Bounce sends them flying backwards, sometimes launching them into position for a Hero Sight shot or two. Boost the ability’s damage and number of shots per turn, and even a powerful enemy can see their HP obliterated within moments. Finding new combinations of skills is a genuine thrill: this is the kind of game where you’ll restart a stage not because you lost a unit, but because you’ve figured out a more efficient (or just plain satisfying) way to take down your opponents.
It helps that the camera lends an exciting dynamism to each turn, widening the view to let you see Mario fire off a shot that bounces an enemy Rabbid out of bounds, or zooming in tight as Luigi sends a sentry down a pipe and pulls off a celebratory dab. It’s a game full of visual treats, though a few take their toll on an otherwise-robust transition of Ubi’s Snowdrop engine. The resolution downshifts in places when there’s a lot going on, and there’s the occasional bout of slowdown. It’s nothing too troublesome, but it does mean Kingdom Battle falls just short of the technical perfection we’ve come to expect from Nintendo: it’s one of the few things (along with the ugly typeface) that remind you this was developed in Milan and Paris, not Kyoto.
Yet the fact that you’ll often forget speaks volumes. True, the whims of the RNG can occasionally screw you over, though compared to XCOM it’s rarely quite so random or so brutal in its punishment, not least as there’s no permadeath here. But even that’s not new to a Mario game: anyone who’s ever been hit by a blue shell will know Nintendo’s fondness for fortune as a leveller. Its humour is cheeky and self-referential, yes, but no more so than the Mario & Luigi series. The further you get, the more you understand Miyamoto’s endorsement. This is a game with a spirit of playful creativity at its heart; it looks and sounds great; it’s funny and clever and accessible, but with plenty of genuine depth and challenge, particularly in its later stages. It may be a Ubisoft game in Nintendo clothing, but like its mixed-up Rabbid stars, it’s a surprisingly successful hybrid.
Health meters refill at the end of each zone but not between battles, so you may need to switch out a party member or two, or hunt down a healing mushroom.
Format Switch Publisher Ubisoft Developer Ubisoft ETA Out now Players 1-2
If enemies are clustered around a special block, you can sometimes hit it to trigger a localised explosion.
You’ll unlock Rabbid Mario at the end of the second world. He serenades enemies to lure them out of cover.