Welcome to the gun show!
Developer: Ubisoft Paris, Ubisoft Milan
Format: Nintendo Switch
Released: August 29, 2017
You know what? Even after finishing Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle, I still find it amazing that it even exists. If you told me not even 5 months ago that Ubisoft would be developing a Mario game that was not only a Rabbids crossover, but also a tactical RPG in which our favourite members of the Mushroom Kingdom wielded guns, I would have thought you were just spouting oddly specific words in the middle of having a stroke. And yet here I am near the end of 2017, playing a Ubisoft developed Mario game that’s not only astoundingly lacking in their usual swaths of stereotypical glitches, but one that serves as a fantastic example of what can happen when Nintendo is actually willing to share their toys with others; even if under an intense watchful eye that would make Sauron think you have control issues.
The story as to how this unexpected crossover even happens isn’t all that important, but since you asked, it all begins when a rejected Overwatch character and obsessive Mario fan-girl invents a headset that combines the properties of two objects together. Such a dangerous and untested device, of course, ends up falling into stumpy mitts of the Rabbids, who in a development that is completely news to me, are apparently travelling around in a time and space hopping washing machine. As you might expect, chaos ensues after the inventor’s Mario memorabilia gets combined with the Rabbids’ time-washing machine, causing the two worlds to violently collide. And so, with two cosplaying Rabbids and a smart-alec rabbit-eared Roomba in tow, Mario sets out to find the headset and the Rabbid that’s become attached to it before a mysterious butthole in the sky destroys the now Rabbidified Mushroom Kingdom.
Huh. After re-reading that last paragraph I have a sudden urge to ask the game’s writers for their dealer’s contact information.
What ended up surprising me the most about the crossover is just how natural the combination of the two franchises feels. The lack of personality of the Mario characters plays the perfect straight man to the insanity of the Rabbids, allowing them to bounce off and influence one another, resulting in some of the game’s best comedic moments. It’s a charming development to see Peach’s Rabbid doppelganger wordlessly diss her over her “tacky” clothing choices at the start of the game, only to see the real Peach later on floating gracefully down from the sky with a novelty shotgun behind her back before happily kicking a troublesome boss’s head into the distance like a field goal.
Even the usual Mario level formula of deserts, forests and lava-drenched castles has been Rabbidified by almost literally smashing pieces of classic Mario levels with weird, if slightly immature visual gags in a way that I can only describe as “gorgeously chaotic”. I especially loved how every one of these environments would change and evolve the further you went into them, somehow transitioning seamlessly between dusty deserts and Egyptian ruins to artic tundras decorated with frozen food products. Not to mention it’s all tied together with an epic soundtrack composed by Grant Kirkhope that brilliantly combines bombastic and bouncy tunes with whimsical reorchestrations of nostalgic Mario themes.
The end result serves as a great introduction to the tactical RPG genre for younger gamers or those like myself who don’t have a single strategic bone in their body. Daunting and complicated mechanics from games like XCOM: Enemy Unknown have been simplified and streamlined in order to focus more on delivering a tight and easy-to-understand combat system, along with some basic character customisation and puzzle-solving exploration peppered in for good measure.
But just because you won’t be worrying about complex mechanics like fluctuating hit chances or permadeath with every single combat encounter doesn’t mean that Kingdom Battle is lacking in any sort of depth or strategic elements. In fact, you’ll find its difficulty spikes pretty intensely not too long after its opening tutorial. The game will be constantly throwing new enemy types and brutal bosses at you as it progresses, forcing you to constantly change up your strategies as you figure out their abilities and weaknesses.
As a result, you’ll be taking advantage of every single mechanic the game offers to have any chance of surviving its many skirmishes. Besides finding safe cover to hide behind, you’ll also be using other characters as springboards in order to extend your range of movement as a method of flank shield-bearing foes, or sending out mobile mines as handy drones to draw away enemy fire. Before you know it, you’ll be stringing together your team’s various abilities in order to create satisfying and devastating combo attacks. Coincidentally, one of my personal favourites involves sending an enemy flying into the air with a critical hit, while Mario and Luigi light them up in a manner I can only describe as “slapstick skeet shooting”.
But while Kingdom Battle’s combat is certainly enjoyable, I do have some personal gripes with how it handles its RPG elements. For starters, despite having eight different characters to choose from, each with their own unique abilities and weapon types, you’re severely limited in how you can construct your three-man team. Not only does Mario have to be a permanent team member, but your squad also needs to include at least one Rabbid. This means the game can end up forcing you into sub-optimal team compositions early on if, like myself, you enjoy a particular sort of playstyle. For example, I would have loved to have comprised a team with the long-range sniper abilities of Luigi, along with the offensive healing abilities of Peach. But due to the squad building restrictions, I was forced to swap out Peach for her Rabbid counterpart for the sake of keeping the ability to heal while also sacrificing a chunk of that offensive edge.
You’re also given access to a skill tree which, by using “power orbs” earned at the end of successful battles, can upgrade and unlock new character abilities, including access to secondary weapons and other passive abilities like Mario’s patented butt stomp. Unfortunately, it’s been designed in such a way that it doesn’t offer much variety in the way of character customization due to the previously mentioned streamlining. Since every character unlocks their small handful of abilities very quickly, most of your orbs will more or less go towards buffing their effectiveness. As a result, it feels like every character already has their tactical roles assigned the moment you unlock them. And while I understand that it’s been designed that way for the sake of simplifying things, it does make that team composition problem a lot more frustrating when you aren’t even able to slightly modify characters you’re forced to use in order to fill in necessary roles your squad might be missing.
But these problems really only amount to minor issues that barely dampen the overall experience. At the end of the day, Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle is a solid RPG with a silly and charming world that will leave a dumb grin on your face when you aren’t scrunching it in concentration. Even with its cutesy appearance, it manages to deliver deep and engaging tactical combat that’s been simplified enough to make it approachable for genre newcomers, while still keeping it challenging enough for veterans looking for a brutal challenge. Despite its confusing premise, it’s one of the biggest surprises of 2017, offering up a crossover nobody expected, but also one I didn’t realise I wanted.
A hilarious and solid tactical RPG perfect for genre newcomers and switch-owning veterans looking for something different.