When Ubisoft announced that it was teaming its bizarre bug-eyed, gap-toothed rabbis characters with Nintendo’s (NTDOY) iconic mascot Mario for a turn-based strategy game, I was less than hopeful. In fact, when the news broke that the companies were working together at E3 2017 and showed a demo of their game, I figured it was going to be awful.
Sure, the game isn’t quite on a level with Nintendo’s best Mario titles, but “Kingdom Battle” is the kind of game that catches you off-guard and pulls you in with its intelligent combat and genuine love for the Mario universe.
The messed up Mushroom Kingdom
The story behind “Kingdom Battle” is almost secondary to the actual gameplay, but it’s there. The rabbids, which come from Ubisoft’s “Rayman” series, have been transported to Mario’s Mushroom Kingdom and have turned the place upside down — thanks to a specialized helmet called a “SupaMerge” that merges objects and rabbids to create new monstrosities.
Your job is to defeat the rabbids running amok in the kingdom, recover the SupaMerge and return Mario’s home world to its former glory, presumably so Bowser can attack it … again.
The rabbids won’t go down easy, though. See, there’s not inherently evil, they’re just, well … dumb. And after being crossed with everything from paintbrushes to sunflowers, the rabbids have been corrupted into creatures that attack you on site.
Ubisoft could have made Mario, Luigi and Princess Peach as crazy and untethered as the rabbids themselves, but instead they play it straight throughout the game, which plays up the rabbids’ insane behavior making for some genuinely funny encounters. It’s not exactly the kind of humor that makes you think — there’s literally a scene where a rabbid pulls a rubbery duck from its hindquarters — but it made me chuckle.
Battling in the fields
In case you haven’t picked up on it by now, “Kingdom Battle” isn’t your normal Mario game. And that carries over into the combat. Rather than jumping onto enemies’ heads and crushing them under your ample posterior, you fight rabbids via a turn-based battle system using a three-person team.
You start out with Mario and two rabbids who haven’t been impacted by the SupaMerge’s corruption: Rabbid Peach and Rabbid Luigi. Yes, they’re pretty much rabbids cosplaying as the gaming legends, but it works.
As you progress through the game you unlock new characters that you can add to your party, but you’ll always need to include Mario, because, well, he’s Mario.
You travel through the world of “Kingdom Battle” in a group of three with a rabbit-eared robot that looks like a Roomba leading the way. But this navigation is little more than a way to move between different battle areas. There are a number of simple puzzles to solve here, but you’re not going to be scratching your head trying to figure them out.
When you enter a battle you’ll have the chance to survey the field to see how you can best approach situation. Some battles require you to defeat all enemies, while others see you escort a character to a safe zone. A third kind of battle requires that you get at least one of your characters to a safe spot on the map.
Of course, there are also boss and mini-boss fights that have you have to contend with, which require completely separate tactics.
Every fight you enter gives you the ability to hide behind cover and shoot your enemies — yes Mario gets a kind of gun in this game. Each character gets their own type of weapons and play styles. Mario, for example, is a beastly tank who can soak up and deal out damage. Luigi is a sniper with little health, but a powerful blaster. Rabbid Peach, on the other hand, is a healer who can restore other characters that have take too much damage.
If you don’t play to each character’s strengths, you’re destined to fail. Move Luigi too deep into the fray, and he’ll quickly pass out and become unusable until you either complete the battle or have to restart the round.
In addition to a main weapon, Mario and company get secondary weapons and abilities that can be used to boost your team or perform more powerful attacks. Luigi can give your teammates a movement upgrade so they can travel a greater distance each turn and Rabbid Luigi gets a protective shield that prevents a portion of damage from special attacks from getting through.
The first few battles you take part in come and go rather quickly and make the game seem a bit too easy, but as you progress through levels you’ll quickly realize that you can’t simply rush into each fight without a least some planning.
While a continuous stream of fights might sound tedious, Ubisoft tosses in enough enemy variation to keep later battles interesting. What’s more, you can upgrade your team’s abilities over time and purchase newer more impressive weapons that add a spark each time you add a new blaster to your arsenal.
That’s not to say every battle is enthralling. I started to feel a bit rundown after extended gaming sessions and needed to take a break. Other, more engrossing Mario titles, can keep me hooked for far longer.
I also would have liked to see more variation when it comes to traveling between different battle stages. Running around a mashed-up version of the Mushroom Kingdom is fun, and Ubisoft has done a great job of making the work come to life, but it can become tedious over time.
Should you get it?
Nintendo’s Switch still has a relatively small library of must-have games, so any even mildly impressive title is bound to capture the attention of gamers starving for something to play besides “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild” and “Splatoon 2.”
And while it’s not without its own issues, “Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle” should be on the short-list of Switch games every player should own. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some butt-scratching rabbids to beat down.
What’s hot: Beat down rabbids with a slew of weapons; a wonderful mix of two worlds; tons of customization
What’s not: Battles can feel stale at times; navigating between fights could use more action
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Email Daniel at email@example.com; follow him on Twitter at @DanielHowley.