Everything's better with a cool little hat.
There are times when good games come with caveats; qualifiers that indicate “this is a worthwhile experience…but…” In the first Kingdom Hearts, it’s a combination of half-baked combat and overly complex level design. In No More Heroes, repetitive minigames slog down what’s otherwise an absolute banger. For those who perceive Ubisoft’s Rabbids as the Minions of gaming, Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle might carry major trepidation regarding the titular bundles of chaos. Even our coverage of the initial, easily leaks used language such as “unfortunate,” and “a nightmare already.” Thankfully, I’ve been made to eat those words, and you shouldn’t worry. The presence of these crude, ‘tude-toting lagomorphs helps make Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle a fun and rewarding strategy game which deserves to become one of the Switch’s breakout titles.
The plot of Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle is essentially irrelevant, and, like most of the game, extremely silly. A tech wiz creates the “SupaMerge,” a helmet which can fuse objects together. The Rabbids appear in an interdimensional washing machine to steal the helmet, cause chaos, and teleport away – but not before a Mario poster is sucked into their contraption. Through time and space shenanigans, the Rabbids transport into the Mushroom Kingdom. The SupaMerge’s virtual assistant, Beep-O, comes to life, and the helmet fuses to a timid Rabbid who now controls god-like powers of fusion. This Rabbid, dubbed Spawny by Bowser Jr., provides the ultimate goal for Mario and company: find him, and return the Mushroom Kingdom to its status quo. Easier said than done.
This is all quick and dirty justification for the real meat and potatoes of Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle: its constant, fast-paced, turn-based strategy encounters. To claim the core of Kingdom Battle is a simplified take on the mechanics of XCOM is accurate, but such statements are reductive, and disservice Kingdom Battle’s intricacies. While Kingdom Battle shares basics such as tile-based movement, cover, and hit chance percentages, it places more of an emphasis on unique environmental factors, status effects, skill-building, and changing your strategy beforehand instead of blindly jumping in. Whereas the battles of XCOM: Enemy Unknown were anxious journeys into the unknown, Kingdom Battle’s encounters give you everything up front. They’re puzzles, waiting to be solved.
The solutions come through deft planning, skilled gameplay, and just a little bit of luck. You start each encounter by surveying the battlefield for its layout, enemy placement, and possible hazards, such as tornados or mischievous Boos. Then, choose your fighters. Mario is always included, but you have the freedom to add any one Rabbid character and one Mario character, or two Rabbid characters – but never two other Mario characters. This is, assumedly, to make sure things stay “Mario + Rabbids.” Regardless, there’s enough variety between the eight possible brawlers (Mario, Luigi, Peach, Yoshi, and their Rabbid counterparts) to ensure you have the right squad for any situation.
For example, Rabbid Luigi exploits the game’s “Super Effects,” such as draining enemy health with vampirism, or freezing enemies to lock their abilities, but classic Luigi is a sniper who boosts ally movement and stays out of the battle’s heat. Kingdom Battle ensures that each selection has their own advantages, and that the Rabbids aren’t simply their human companions with minor differences. The variety continues in each character’s extensive skill tree, which can be tricked out to your taste by spending orbs garnered from chests, chapter completions, and challenges. It’s a system that allows for mixing and matching for any encounter, whether it’s an elimination mission, or ensuring that a squad member escapes to a designated area. Ultimately, you’re provided with all the tools you need to succeed in a gauntlet of Rabbid-induced terror.
The taste of victory in Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle is sweet, but that’s partially because the game can be laughably, supernaturally difficult. For the first half of the game, health is constantly at a premium. Rabbid Peach can heal a minor amount with one of her abilities, but if you’re seriously injured, you had better hope for a full refill from finishing a chapter, or find a super mushroom between battles for a small heal. This is especially heinous when you run into enemies who can boost themselves to deal over half a character’s health with a single strike. The situation eases as you boost Rabbid Peach’s abilities and unlock another healing character, but if you’re struggling, there’s also an “Easy Mode” which will fill out your party’s HP and add 50%. There’s no penalties, but this surplus swings encounters too far in the “cakewalk” direction.
This is perhaps Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle’s largest issue. On the whole, it’s appropriately challenging and certainly conquerable by practicing with the mechanics provided, but occasionally, Kingdom Battle stumbles to strike that balance. In particular, the second world contains a series of poorly conceived escort missions which require such a wealth of pitch-perfect play and incredible luck that they become a convincing argument for outlawing escort missions in games entirely. It’s the most egregious example of a problem which is reflected in, thankfully, less noticeable and more forgivable places all throughout the game. It’s certainly not so towering as to detract from the rest of the experience, but it’s surprising to see a game which will ostensibly be played by children to require such a high skill level at times (no offense to children).
For the most part, Kingdom Battle keeps its more demanding difficulties in the unlockable, optional battles. After beating all the chapters in a world, players can trek through again and use learned traversal abilities to find new challenges on familiar maps. Even though you’ll win more gold for buying weapons or the aforementioned orbs for skill customization, the unique challenges are worth playing through if just for the sheer satisfaction of Kingdom Battle’s tactical gameplay. These repeat visits allow you to hunt for chests containing new goodies, but they also let you find each world’s hidden chapter of all new maps and battles. It’s a system that encourages replay, and it’s easy to dive back in when the core gameplay is so much fun.
It doesn’t hurt that the world of Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle is an absolute treat to spend time in. The puzzle-filled traversal between battles is elevated by rich, whimsical environments, which utilize the wild “fusion +chaotic Rabbids” premise to deliver one of the most visually imaginative game worlds in recent memory. Bizarre pieces of detritus litter the Mushroom Kingdom, with colorful pollution such as giant toilets and rubber ducks becoming just as common in the landscape as rocks and trees. When drawn near, objects such as trumpeting flowers and harp-like vines play to accentuate Grant Kirkhope’s wonderful score, which often provides a Disney-esque take on familiar themes from the Mario world. It’s a joy to listen to, especially when it kicks into high gear for symphonic mayhem on tracks such as “Mid Boss Mayhem.”
With such a rich auditory and visual template, it’s a shame Kingdom Battle doesn’t engage with the Mario universe on a deeper level. Sure, it challenges our expectations of Mario games with a left-field concept and Luigi dabbing, but the boss designs in particular are one of the scant areas where the game falls flat. After a strong showing from the much touted Pirabbid Plant and Rabbid Kong in the first world, Kingdom Battle seems content to fall back on a less-inspired, Rabbid-based template: subsequent bosses include a pair of Rabbids with fire and ice powers, and, uh, a plain old ice golem. Some of the later bosses are better, but it’s a shame, because Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle is at it’s best when it’s a truly equivalent exchange of ideas between the properties, and not simply paying lip service to Mario through setting and characters.
As strange as it might be, Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle is a great step forward in terms of evolving and stepping outside of Mario’s comfort zone, and not just because a character says the phrase “industrial hellscape.” It’s a genuinely fun and routinely challenging experience that should be considered essential for anyone itching to play a strategy game on their Switch, and it proves that willingness to experiment on the part of Nintendo can yield incredible results. In a year filled with revitalizations of classic properties, such as The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle is another whiff of fresh air; an unexpected but not unwelcome triumph which lights the way towards a promising future for the Switch. I never thought I’d say this, but I’m ready for more Rabbids.