Reviewed on Nintendo Switch
Copy provided by publisher
Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle may just herald a new age of Nintendo games.
When the concept of the game was leaked at the beginning of 2017, it was met with outright bafflement, only to be cautiously lauded as one of the more interesting titles to come out of E3 later that year. Handing over the keys to the Mushroom Kingdom to another development house this early in the Switch’s life cycle is a daunting concept, especially so when you give Mario a gun. As such, it comes as a welcome surprise that the unholy hybrid of Nintendo’s iconic plumber and Ubisoft’s less than beloved Rabbids results in another must-play title for the Switch, even with some notable flaws.
The manner in which these two franchises collide is suitably ridiculous, and Ubisoft leans into the premise hard. Seeking a means to solve a global energy crisis (no, really) a young inventor creates the SupaMerge, a helmet which can combine any two objects into one. Her basement laboratory is plastered with Super Mario merchandise and, with the assistance of her AI helper, Beep-O, she is closer than ever to realising the helmet’s full capabilities. Late one evening, the Rabbids crash-land their time traveling washing machine (yes, really) into the laboratory, before naturally wreaking havoc on the toys they find inside. Amid the chaos, a portal to another world rips open as Rabbids and Super Mario toys are merged into one, creating something else entirely.
It’s a bizarre melding of IP to be sure, but through confident execution, it will leave you grinning like an idiot at the utterly ludicrous events unfolding before you. Ubisoft should be applauded for crafting a non-Nintendo Mario game that feels right at home with other entries in the series. The results are disarmingly charming, thick with cutesy humour and a surprising amount of wit imbued in the writing. The plot may not quite live up to its premise, but it serves its purpose, complete with the Mario tropes. While the jokes do land, I imagine I would be doubled over if I were about 15 years younger, as opposed to the wry smile I had plastered on my mug during most of my playthrough.
Still, it was a smile well-earned, as the kingdom players are invited to explore is overflowing with bizarre reworkings of Mario imagery and music. Like most adventures featuring the little plumber that could, you’ll find yourself in familiar landscapes, like arid deserts and frosty snow-covered peaks, but the freedom afforded by the premise allows for entirely new places to explore. A giant tower built entirely from toy blocks sways unsteadily as one of the more inspired Rabbid-Mario crossovers rules the top of it. The music also riffs on the familiar, with undertones of classic Mario tunes reworked by the genius Grant Kirkhope. His original score gets the blood pumping with a battle theme you won’t soon grow tired of. If you’re looking to nerd out, Youtuber Good Blood has done a wonderful profile on Kirkhope, so be sure to check it out below for a window into the kind of magic being worked on this game.
There’s an inescapable joy to each of the worlds you explore, harkening all the way back to childhood afternoons spent with your entire toy box spilt out onto the carpet. As you use Beep-O to guide your misfit team around, you really do feel like you’re playing with toys from different sets, held together only by the strength of your imagination. A Bullet Bill is perplexed and dismayed at being trapped in a giant pair of underwear, island size question mark boxes drift lazily in the ocean, Bowser Jr. is berated by his father through text messages on his smart phone. It’s all kinds of strange, but when approached with an open mind and heart, it’s easy to slip right into its feel-good vibe.
That whimsical humour ends up being a spoonful of sugar, as Ubisoft have cleverly disguised a seldom explored genre of gameplay usually reserved for the most hardcore of titles.
For the uninitiated, like yours truly, Ubisoft do their utmost to ape the style of gameplay popularised by veteran developers Firaxis Games, while adding their own particulars to the formula. The titular battles take place in isometrically-viewed gridded arenas, played out in turns between you and the opposition. Kingdom Battle blessedly allows for several actions per turn, including up to two movement phases with both standard and special attacks. Utilising all available moves and quick assessments of the field is crucial to success; positioning behind cover, destructible or solid, greatly alters your hit percentage as well as maintaining a balance between projectile weapons, drones, grenades and special abilities. The team jump manoeuvre allows your teammates to spring off each other deeper into the field, adding another layer of tactical mobility and freedom. These systems work seamlessly with one another, never overwhelming newcomers to the genre, though longtime fans may find the stripped-down simplicity a little too bare-bones.
There are skill trees present for all characters, as well as a generous helping of points to spend on them, but while these options allow for a degree of customisation, they never really feel all that unique. Certain characters can specialise in weapon varieties or healing abilities, but by the endgame, most of the powers available to you will all seem very familiar. This is somewhat mitigated by way of weapon variety, with a bevy of incredibly cool looking tools at your disposal, each with unique power or damage types, such as Honey (sticks your opponents in place) or Bounce (pushes enemies around, with a chance of hitting them out of bounds causing massive damage).
The game also contains some severe difficulty curves. Players familiar with the genre will undoubtedly not find this too taxing, but for those who are new to it, especially children, the ramp up between regular battles and boss fights can feel extremely unfair at times. In an attempt to offset this, the game allows for the enabling of “Easy Mode” before each fight, which replenishes health and gives some mild boosts, but even with this option, the intensity of boss fights can be a little daunting. As you progress the game will also add more layers to combat and enemy design; melee heavy brutes and healers force you to reconsider battle tactics and variants on battles, such as wave-based survival or the God-forsaken escort mission, drastically alter the flow of a fight.
The spaces between battlefields offer up some variety to the gameplay, typically through puzzles and coin challenges. Reminiscent of Zelda dungeons, these puzzles start off relatively simple and grow increasingly complex over time, usually involving some combination of pushing and pulling blocks and hitting switches. Two kinds of time-based coin collection challenges are also worked into the worlds; ripped straight from the Mario games are the Red Coin races, while hopping into a gaudy blue cannon will shoot your team into an alternate reality with more elaborate coin collection challenges. Completion of these challenges rewards players with new weapons, collectibles, or healing items. These collectibles aren’t exactly ground-breaking though, as they are merely a variety of character models, artwork and soundtrack clips.
In spite of an aggressive difficulty curve, Kingdom Battle sparks joy from the very beginning and rarely lets up. This successful melding of two unique IP with a genre of gameplay foreign to most kid-friendly titles challenges and delights in equal measure and belongs up on the shelf with other essential Switch titles. Its financial and critical success will hopefully encourage Nintendo to continue to allow other developers to infuse new life into its iconic franchises, bending creative boundaries just enough that you may just find yourself playing with two toys you never imagined joining forces.