By rights we shouldn’t even be here. Very little about Ubisoft and Nintendo’s crossover title makes any sense Why would Mario, savior of the Mushroom Kingdom, and wacky Rayman critters the Raving Rabbids ever exist in the same universe? if you were going to pair Mario with a Ubisoft character, surely Rayman himself would have been a more logical choice. Why would you then hand over development duties of Nintendo’s most cherished mascot to the French developer? Why would the resulting crossover game be a turn-based shooter, and not take the form of a platformer or party game? And why, oh why, would the game actually turn out to be… whisper it… really good?
But here we are, with a game that has clearly been a labour of love for its developers. The whole aesthetic from the minute the game opens is beautiful; vibrant colours and softly rendered environments and characters boast a Pixar-like quality, with a tilt-shift depth of field and subtle animation touches lending Mario + Rabbids a style all of its own. Grant Kirkhope’s delightful soundtrack is the perfect accompaniment to the surprisingly easy alliance of Nintendo charm and Rabbid wackiness.
The first few battles really serve as an extended introduction to Kingdom Battle’s take on XCOM inspired turn-based strategy. You’ll take your team of three into combat, and during each turn your characters can move, attack, and use a special ability, in any order. It starts out simple enough, and the game employs a very basic cover system that makes planning your attacks initially straightforwards – you have a 100% chance to hit an enemy in the open, a 50% chance to hit an enemy in half cover, and a 0% chance to hit an enemy in full cover. Of course, the reverse is true for your opponents as well. This might seem off-putting to strategy veterans (I came from playing XCOM 2: War of the Chosen to this, so the transition was a little jarring) but the inclusion of destructible cover, random critical effects from weapons (like Honey, which renders a target unable to move, or Push, which catapults them backwards) help spice things up, and do weapons like bombs and remote mines which can target enemies behind cover. Some special abilities will force enemies away (or closer to you), and the huge range of moment options that open up as the game progresses make fights more about how to use your skills and positioning to circumvent well-concealed enemies. Each character has their own specialities and traits; Mario can perform powerful jump attacks, Luigi snipes enemies from afar, whilst Rabbid Peach can heal her allies.
The movement options are especially satisfying, and make Kingdom Battle a very agile game, so even though you’ll only control 3 heroes you never lack for traversal options. Characters can slide-tackle enemies as a free part of their movement, use pipes to quickly hop around the battlefield, and springboard off allies (and enemies) to perform hero jumps. As some of the mission objectives require you to reach a target area on the map, mastering these options can make a huge difference to your progress.
Once the game is done with showing you the ropes, the difficulty does ramp up, especially by the third of its four worlds. Simply completing a level is rarely too challenging, but if you want to achieve a ‘perfect’ rating – and thereby earn more gold and skill points to spend on weapons and power ups – you’ll need to complete the map with all three team members alive and under a certain turn limit. Doing so can be pretty tough – most stages consist of a couple of battles with limited ways to heal between then, and your enemies are pretty punishing, but it’s the slightly finnicky control scheme that will be your undoing more than anything else, as there’s no confirm option for movement and no way to ‘undo’ a move. It’s not uncommon to just miss the square you wanted your character to move to thanks to a slight wiggle of the analog stick, leaving Rabbid Luigi stuck in the middle of nowhere and giving every enemy a free shot at him. There’s no mid-battle saving, so when this happens you’re pretty much forced to start the fight over if you want that perfect score. Thankfully, you can opt to replay missions once you’ve completed the chapter, so you can always go back and re-do any maps you didn’t do too well on first time around.
When you’re not battling Rabbids, you’ll be exploring the regions of the mushroom kingdom. It’s a pretty light and mostly linear path through the handsome environments, with a bit of light puzzle solving thrown in. There’s a faint Zelda-like quality in that some areas can’t be accessed until you’ve acquired new skills further into your adventure, which coupled with the inclusion of new challenge missions on existing maps gives you a reason to revisit older places, but for the most part the exploration is pretty straightforwards. It does offer a welcome break from a constant string of battles, though, and the surprising inclusion of a co-op mode makes for a similarly fun diversion.
The zany Rabbid humour doesn’t always mesh well with the Mario sensibilities – it’s weird to have roomba-alike character Beep-O talking about Hell and seeing things like a Bullet Bill stuck in a pair of underpants, and the less said about the rabbid perched on a rubber duck, in a giant toilet, wearing a bondage collar the better. By the same token, it never quite feels right to have Mario shooting things with a facsimilie of Mega Man’s blaster, or Peach gunning enemies down with a shotgun (though parents can take some solace in the fact that our heroes aren’t killing the enemies – they’re actually just freeing them from the strange melding of the Mario and Rabbid worlds). And yet – amazingly – it works.
Once you do manage to get over the strange fact that this hybrid creature even exists, it proves easy to love. It’s friendly, approachable, and whilst it has its quirks, they don’t detract from its sheer charm. It’s a perfect fit for the Switch, even if the Mario and Rabbids franchises don’t initially seem like a perfect fit for one another.