Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle is like a bizarre fever dream.
Stick with me here: You’ve got Mario and a host of Mushroom Kingdom mainstays rocking guns and squad tactics to take down hordes of Ubisoft’s insane Rabbids. It raises the question how this game even came to be.
And yet, contrary to any sense of logic, it all works. Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle brings all these disparate pieces together in one of the most unlikely success stories of the year.
The set-up for Mario + Rabbids is weirdly complex. A mysterious programmer has designed a VR helmet capable of merging two objects together. In an early example, a lamp and a flower combine to make, er, a lampflower?
Meanwhile, time-traveling Rabbids in a washing machine (because sure) stumble across the helmet before finding themselves in the Mushroom Kingdom. One of the Rabbids dons the helmet and begins merging everything it lays its eyes on. The end result? A Rabbid dressed like Luigi, one dressed like Donkey Kong, one combined with a piranha plant, and so on and so forth.
While most of the Rabbids are unhinged and troublesome, those dressed as heroes join forces with Mario to stop the chaos from spreading. And we’re off.
The story is mostly delivered through the dialogue of a friendly AI and various familiar faces you come across, and it’s cute but nothing special. There are plenty of attempts at humor, but most of it seems aimed at kids under 10, rather than trying to reach for more challenging gags that adults would also appreciate.
However, that kid-friendly tone makes Mario + Rabbids the best introduction to the squad-based tactics genre I’ve ever seen. Simple presentation and a clean UI help to demonstrate concepts like cover, chance to hit and status effects.
Most tactics games are incredibly daunting because the player is constantly presented with new choices and failure points. Mario + Rabbids cuts most of that out, focusing instead on just core combat mechanics, minor character customization and some basic puzzle solving. There’s no permadeath, no base building, nothing to distract you from figuring out the absolute core concepts of the genre.
And yet, despite the mask of simplicity, the combat in Mario + Rabbids is tremendously strategic. Mobility is king in this game, and units combine forces in fantastic ways. The team jump maneuver allows you to launch a unit across the map with the help of a squadmate, reaching adorably colorful sniper towers with ease. While most of the heroes utilize jumping to get vertical, Mario is able to butt-stomp enemies when he lands on them for extra damage. A common tactic would be to send, say, Rabbid Luigi ahead, acting as a springboard for Mario’s eventual death-from-above attack.
These decisions play a large part in whether you’ll succeed in the game’s skirmishes. Mario + Rabbids’ difficulty spikes dramatically as it goes on, with new enemy types constantly being added. Knowing when to taunt melee-heavy brutes to give your sniper some breathing space, or to go straight for the enemy healers before taking down a boss, is crucial to victory.
Don’t worry, though. Mario + Rabbids remains friendly to children and tactics-deficient adults. While there are no difficulty settings to choose from at the outset, before every battle you’re able to activate “Easy Mode” for that single fight. Turning this handicap on gives your team bonus health to make things more manageable.
While the accessibility is nice, some of Mario + Rabbids’ features feel a little too basic for their own good. There are unique skill trees for all 10 playable heroes, but there’s not much variety in hero builds. Just about every Rabbid Peach is going to play similarly to every other Rabbid Peach toward the end of the game. Weapons, too, feel pretty rigid and samey.
Offering up some more variety, there are simple puzzles scattered throughout the Mushroom Kingdom, designed to break up the action between battles. These usually involve flipping switches and pushing boxes, but it’s nothing super riveting. Small bonus stages allow you to unlock more weapons, but clunky movement controls paired with a locked camera angle make them more frustrating than fun. Normally the stiff movement controls are passable, but toss in a time-based objective and their failings become obvious.
While moving around the world doesn’t feel great, at least the environments you’re exploring are lively. Common Mario locales like deserts and lava fields are filled with visual easter eggs, usually of Rabbids in various states of shenanigans. For example, one simple box puzzle ended with the discovery of a hidden disco ball in an ice cave, surrounded by frozen dancing Rabbids. These touches help add life to otherwise sterile sequences between battles.
Mario + Rabbids manages to walk a narrow road, offering up a legitimately challenging squad tactics experience without alienating the family-friendly Mario audience. While it doesn’t quite have the full layer of spit and polish of an in-house title, Ubisoft’s game comes damn close to capturing that Nintendo magic.
Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle was reviewed using a final “retail” downloadable Switch code provided by Ubisoft. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.
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