by Laura Kate Dale
Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle is one of those game concepts that on paper simply should not work. Rabbids are essentially the late 2000’s equivalent of the Minions – screeching, vulgar, nondescript vehicles for fast-paced slapstick aimed at children. Mario is one of the most iconic video game characters of all time, who goes on focused and goal-oriented quests to save the world.
Neither use guns.
Putting both into a turn based strategy RPG shooter setting together simply doesn’t sound like a good idea on paper.
The weird thing is, 30 hours deep, it really does work. It’s basically X-Com with a simplified cover system (You can’t hit an enemy behind full cover at all, 50% chance behind half cover, and an enemy in the open is always hit), and a colorful lighthearted comedic aesthetic. It’s a strong strategy RPG, which somehow manages to make Ubisoft’s infuriating Rabbids not only tolerable, but genuinely endearing.
Yes, you read right, I actually like the Rabbids in Kingdom Battle.
Here’s the problem with the rabbids as characters before now – the whole concept behind them was to make one irritating hyper energetic chaos creature and duplicate it without any personality or visual alterations. They were a mass of “lol so random” creatures, with one individual indistinguishable from the other, trying to be funny through an overwhelmingly sheer quantity of loud slapstick.
Without a straight man, and the fall guy irritatingly duplicated ad nauseum, the Rabbids were hard to see as anything but horrid.
Mario Plus Rabbids makes individual rabbids recognisable by dressing them up as Mario characters, gives them personalities other than simply “Rabbid” by using them as twisted mirrors of the Mario team, and channels that exhausting chaotic energy into exaggerating the character traits they’re trying to parody within their Mario counterparts.
Oh, and each Rabbid has a Mario character playing the straight man, reminding the audience that these Rabbids are acting in an exaggerated manner unbefitting of humans. As part of an ensemble, the rabbids are actually pretty lovable.
The result is a game where I actually kind of love the Rabbids. Rabbid Peach makes everything she does seem simultaneously effortless and a huge deal, a juxtaposition that reminded me of Ocarina of Time’s Princess Ruto. Rabbid Mario takes charge just to show he can, walking a fine line between sincere hero and attention starved braggart.
Rabbid Luigi is just as scared as his counterpart, but hides it behind exaggerated humour and slapstick. Rabbid Yoshi is animalistic, reminding us that Yoshi is an animal at heart. They even managed to make a genuinely sympathetic heartbreaking accidental villain out of a Rabbid, showing that behind the energy and screams they’re still capable of nuanced emotion.
Despite its colourful comedic exterior and simplified percentiles, the turn-based combat and puzzle solving in Kingdom Battle is a real challenge.
Levels introduce concepts like shooting from the high ground for additional damage in simple introductory levels before ramping up the challenge and quickly expecting players to combine their new tricks with old ones.
It starts easy, but it really does nicely ramp up to a very challenging peak. It suffers from some occasional difficulty spikes, and at times I found myself beating my head against a level until I worked out how to improve, but overall it does a really good job of ramping players from beginners entry level right up to expert play.
Between fights, you run around an overworld collecting coins and exploring optional environmental puzzles while working your way down a linear path through each of the game’s four worlds. Every so often you’ll reach a turn based strategy mission where you’ll be given an objective, ranging from escort missions, missions where you simply need to reach the end of a map alive, to killing a set number of enemies before time runs out.
Each turn you can move a set distance, attack with your primary or secondary weapon, or use a special move that takes a few turns to recharge. Attacks from above do extra damage, moving to the same space as an enemy will perform a sliding melee attack, and moving to the same space as an ally allows you to be thrown across the map.
The specifics of each character’s abilities vary on party build and how you level them up on a skill tree, but the core of combat remains fundamentally easy to grasp. There are only a small number of core techniques to learn but the challenge is found in working out how to effectively use them.
My number one tip, remember to do sliding attacks every single time one of your party can move if possible. It’s usually totally free damage you’re leaving on the table.
While the difficulty overall is satisfying, X-Com players may find themselves upset about the lack of permadeath. It’s a compromise you have to make when working with the cast of Mario, but one worked around by scaling rewards in response to how many of your party survive each encounter. Letting your party die costs you reward coins, and limits your ability to buy new weapons, incentivising retrying maps you scrape your way to the finish line on.
That all said, I do have one major problem that’s a real bother during combat, which is present throughout the bulk of Kingdom Battle. The camera in game is infuriatingly inconsistent.
When you’re running around the world exploring, you have full smooth fluid camera control left and right which feels fantastic. Sometimes, areas in the overworld just won’t let you move the camera at all without explanation, usually to make you look at some nice scenery or to deliberately obscure a hidden collectable from your view.
It’s unclear when these moments will come up, usually only becoming apparent when you try to look around and a big red shaking camera icon flashes at you. In battle, you can move the camera 90 degrees at a time, left and right, but you’re set at an unalterable isometric height.
This is okay on flat levels, but sometimes on maps with varied elevations it can be near impossible to see enemies you might want to attack without switching to a tactical overhead view, in which you cannot enact in game actions. The inability to just tilt the camera up and down at times really infuriated me. Not enough to make me hate the game or anything, just often enough that it really stuck in my head as a disappointingly poor design choice.
It really is disappointing the camera is such an issue, because in every other regard Kingdom Battlefeels like it has the polish of an in house Nintendo developed release. The world is gorgeous, the soundtrack stunning, the character designs inventive and memorable, it’s just that damn camera.
Nintendo worked out 3D camera controls in Mario 64, surely Ubisoft could have asked them for a hand?
Overall, I must say, I was really impressed by my time with Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle. It’s a polished X-Com style game that removes some of the obtuse layers to ensure the early gameplay curve is accessible, uses humor very well, and kept me coming back for more.
The camera control issues are a real common point of frustration for me, like I consistently was just a liiitle bit annoyed by the camera from start to finish, but overall I am really pleasantly surprised by how well these properties mesh together.
More of this please Nintendo, letting third parties do interesting things with your properties could be the beginning of a decent renewal in interest in your brands. If the Switch is doomed to not receive modern “AAA” ports, at least make sure we get to experience gameplay from other publishers via these kinds of development partnerships.
Oh, and because people have probably been waiting for me to acknowledge this, yes it feels damn good to be vindicated after nine months of people saying “No way that there’s a Mario and RabbidsRPG coming to Switch called Kingdom Battle with music by Grant Kirkhope”. Suck it nerds, it was a real thing all along, and a pretty good thing at that.