MARIO + RABBIDS: KINGDOM BATTLE Game Review: Ubisoft’s Minor Miracle

XCOM, but for kids! And it works.

When word got out that Ubisoft was making a game mashing up its Rabbids characters with Nintendo’s Mario franchise, reactions were muted: surely, this would be the sickliest of sickly sweet family games. When the game - Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle - was announced at E3, they were baffled: nobody expected it to look more like XCOM than Super Mario. And now that the game is out, reactions are glowing - my reaction, anyway. Kingdom Battle is more than just an XCOM clone: it’s a cute, surprisingly deep turn-based combat game wrapped up in a Nintendo-esque adventure, and it’s way better than it has any right to be.

Kingdom Battle achieves its mashup of two worlds via an in-game device, co-opted by the wascally Rabbids, that literally takes two objects and combines them together, producing a somewhat shonky hybrid. The machine goes haywire, teleporting the Rabbids into Mario’s Mushroom Kingdom and launching a fully-fledged story campaign. While the plot essentially boils down to “Mario, Luigi, Peach, and the gang clean up this mess,” it’s presented through charming, funny writing and animation that miraculously doesn’t even begin to grate. I’m not sure I could handle the Rabbids by themselves, but alongside Mario and company (whose antics are a drier flavour of clowning), they work impressively well.

The Rabbids aren’t just alongside Mario, either: thanks to the game’s core conceit, half of the player characters and many enemies are Rabbids more or less cosplaying as the core Super Mario characters. Your party of three (which can be changed at any time, but must contain Mario and at least one Rabbid, presumably due to licensing agreements) traipses around the various open-ish worlds of the Mushroom Kingdom - a garden world, a snow/desert world, a spooky world, each with great music and detailed scenery - exploring the newly Rabbid-strewn landscape, solving puzzles, and engaging in grid- and turn-based combat.

Yes, Mario has a gun in Kingdom Battle, and the combat, which comprises the game’s core gameplay, is really really good. Objectives mostly involve defeating all or a set number of enemies, but also include escort missions, boss battles, and levels where the characters must simply reach a certain point on the map. Each character can perform up to three actions per turn - movement, an attack, and a special ability - and those actions can be mixed in order between characters. The range of abilities on offer cleverly mixes traditional tactical options with more Mario-esque moves, with jumping a prominent feature. Luigi, for example, is cast in a sniper role, while Mario can springboard off a team member to stomp on an enemy’s head, and Peach can grant damage reduction for a turn. Enemies? They've got a similar range of abilities, and you are going to grow to hate them, like, so much.

Though the game brings you into its systems gently, it gets really hard around the halfway point. Your characters won’t permanently die, as they do in XCOM, but they will get knocked down a lot - the AI is that fiendish, the systems that complex, that you’ll often kick yourself for missing tactical opportunities or granting them to the enemy. There’s a line-of-sight cover system that can offer total or partial cover, encouraging flanking and clever team positioning. Status effects - fire, freeze, ink, honey, bounce, stone - add extra offensive options and defensive requirements, while high ground grants damage bonuses and warp pipes can transport characters around maps quickly. There’s even an equivalent of XCOM’s Overwatch reactive-attack ability, though it’s only available for certain characters.

Most players in the target demographic probably won’t touch the vast array of customisation options on offer, but the array truly is vast. As you play, you’ll earn coins and other currencies that allow you to level up weapons and characters, making spec sheets and party selection into powerful tools when facing certain enemy types. Weapon selection is expansive, with some granting status effects or bonuses against particular enemies; the skill trees are even more so, requiring that players make choices as to how characters specialise. It’s not quite XCOM - most notably, chance-to-hit ratios are all either 100%, 50%, or 0% - but it’s significantly closer than anyone could have expected.

But Kingdom Battle isn’t all tactical combat. A good third of the game is made up of exploration and puzzle-solving around the various visually impressive worlds of the Mushroom Kingdom. Coins, collectibles, story vignettes, and upgrades can be found scattered about the map, often behind puzzles and even in warp zones (!). There’s even a degree of Metroidvania to the exploration, with certain areas gated by ability type, encouraging later revisits (at higher difficulties, optionally) to get the most out of an area. Incredibly, the kingdoms of Kingdom Battle play more or less contiguously, with barely a loading zone in sight and vistas stretching out into the distance. It’s as highly-polished as I’ve seen a game on the Switch.

One feature Kingdom Battle has over its tactical-combat big siblings is one I desperately want from those siblings: local co-operative play. Two players can control two characters each in a special co-op campaign that plays more or less exactly like the main game. It can even be played with a single Joy-Con each, with slight control remapping, making this another Switch game that does local co-op out of the box. Co-op in a game like this feels incredibly natural, given the genre’s roots in tabletop gaming; the addition of communication with another human being makes gameplay a slower-paced but altogether more joyful experience.

With Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle, Ubisoft has pulled off a minor miracle. Not only does the game combine two franchises in a way that feels natural and fun, it brings a complex genre to a new audience that’s likely never seen it before. That it makes tactical combat accessible, while not compromising on the genre’s depth or difficulty (aside from the optional, health-boosting Easy Mode), is astonishing. Yet another quietly ingenious title for the Nintendo Switch, Kingdom Battle is a game far greater than the sum of its family-friendly parts.