A mash-up with Mario, gaming’s biggest icon, and the Rabbids, an annoying species of screaming, slapstick Minion precursors, should have been a disaster. But Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle is another excellent early game for Nintendo’s Switch (it comes out on August 29).
And the success comes from the actual gameplay having little to do with either Mario or the Rabbids. Kingdom Battle is a turn-based strategy game like the XCOM series. But you’d expect something like XCOM to appeal to an older, more hardcore crowd, while Mario and the Rabbids — although certainly popular with all ages — attract younger fans.
The brilliance of Kingdom Battle is how it manages to give players a satisfying tactical experience without ever feeling like “XCOM for babies.”
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What you’ll like
The XCOM comparison does fit. You order your characters around a battlefield, taking turns with the enemy as you try to flank them to get off the best shots possible. Yup, Mario has a gun, but don’t worry. It’s a cute arm cannon that shoots energy. Think more Mega Man than Call of Duty.
Every turn, a character can perform multiple actions. You can move, shoot, and do a support ability (like heal your allies or scare away nearby enemies). But unlike XCOM, you have a smaller squad to take care of. You usually only control three characters, so it’s relatively easy to keep track of them. Also, while XCOM’s weapon accuracy can fluctuate wildly based on multiple conditions, you only have three odds of hitting people in Kingdom Battle: 100 percent, 50 percent, or 0 percent.
That all makes this a more manageable tactics game, but it’s not just some always-on-easy-mode version of XCOM. You still need to make use of cover and be smart about your team’s placement if you want to get kills while staying alive. And Kingdom Battle has some of its own complexities, particularly concerning movement. If you run across an enemy during your mobility phase, you’ll deal a little extra damage to them. If you run to a square that an ally is on, you can jump off them to help you reach high areas or faraway cover. You do need to think before you act if you want to win.
It reminds me a lot of how I felt when I played Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars for the Super Nintendo as a kid. It was a simpler turn-based role-playing game, but it still had all the trappings of one. It was a great introduction to the genre, just like Kingdom Battle is for tactics games.
It looks and sounds great
Outside of all the planning and thinking, Kingdom Battle has the advantage of taking place in the colorful and charming Mario world of the Mushroom Kingdom. It’s strange that in 2017 HD Mario is still a bit of novelty, but I enjoy seeing Mario and other recognizable characters look so great as they run around Kingdom Battle’s detailed worlds.
The world design itself deserves some recognition. Not only does every area have something interesting to see, but I also love how the sections between battles often give you a chance to perform puzzles to earn some extra goodies (like new weapons). It’s also neat how the battlegrounds for each fight are seamlessly placed into this world.
The music also stands out. It’s not a traditional Mario score, although you’ll recognize some familiar songs. It’s a more orchestral soundtrack (kind of like Super Mario Galaxy, but without the space motifs). The music’s excitement grows during boss fights. These are also some of the game’s best fights, as these encounters introduce unique enemies that sometimes require unorthodox tactics to beat.
A great fit for the Switch
Kingdom Battle proves that the Switch is made for tactics games. It’s convenient to be able to go from playing on a couch and a big TV to handheld mode in bed or on the go. The nature of the game, four worlds each made up of about 15 battles or so, makes it easy to find stopping points or commit yourself to playing a few fights (or even turns) wherever you are.
Kingdom Battle has a cooperative mode that features its own maps. It plays similarly to the main game, except you and a friend each control two characters. Having to communicate and coordinate with another player adds another layer to Kingdom Battle’s complexity, and having the multiplayer component gives the game a boost in staying power.
What you won’t like
The Rabbids don’t contribute much
I’m still not sold on these Rabbids. They’re amusing enough, more silly than laugh-out-loud funny. At least Ubisoft toned them down. They aren’t running into the screen and constantly screaming as they’ve been prone to do in past adventures. But I don’t think they’re contributing much. If you replace the Rabbids with original characters or more Mario cast members, Kingdom Battle would not lose anything (it may even be better).
As good as Kingdom Battle looks and plays, some of the less significant parts of the package suffer. Menus are dull and look boring, and the game has some awkward and harsh transitions between cutscenes and gameplay. You’ll learn new powers or abilities with no narrative explanation. You just beat a boss and the game bombards you with a series of splash screens telling you all of the things you’ve earned. It’s a little unsophisticated.
Earlier, I compared Kingdom Battle to Super Mario RPG. It’s not quite as good as that classic RPG, largely because its original characters (Rabbid Peach is no Geno) aren’t as likable as Mario RPG’s unique heroes. Nor is the story as memorable. Kingdom Battle’s plot is serviceable but bare.
But its tactical fights are a lot of fun. Ubisoft managed to turn a complex genre into a Mario-friendly experience that never insults the intelligence of its players. Instead, Kingdom Battle can offer a sturdy challenge. The Switch has had a great debut year, and Mario + Rabbids is another excellent, if unexpected, addition to its software library.
Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle comes out for the Switch on August 29. The publisher sent us a code for this review.