Seeing the first rumours of a Mario and Rabbids crossover game put more than a little bit of concern and worry into many Nintendo fans’ minds, which will only have been worsened with the leaked promotional artwork from before E3. Was that Mario with a gun? Is that a Rabbid dressed up as Princess Peach? Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle looked like it could only be an abomination… and yet it turned into one of the biggest surprises of E3. It looked good, and having now gone hands on with the game, I can tell you that it plays fantastically well too.
If you’ve played one of the recent XCOM games, you’ll have a firm grasp on the basics of Mario + Rabbids’ turn based combat, but boiling it down to such a simplistic comparison is unfair to how far Ubisoft Paris have taken the game. This isn’t just an XCOM clone, it takes those foundations and speeds them up dramatically. There’s a wonderful fluidity to the game that many others in the genre lack.
It all comes down to the movement system, which lets you layer multiple moves on top of one another in a single turn. You ideally want to move your character from cover to cover, but how you do so can take numerous detours and extend your movement range well beyond the initial coloured area that you see on the map. For one thing, moving to the same square as another of your characters lets you use them as a jump pad, as they spin round and help propel you up into the sky, and that lets you move even further than usual. Then there’s the ability to perform a quick slide attack on enemies if they’re close enough, and be given a degree of extra movement after doing so to make your escape, and using pipes and other features let you dart around the map at a crazily high pace.
In a single turn’s move, you can dash into a pipe, come out alongside an enemy, slide into them, dash into another pipe, run and jump off an ally and into cover… and then you can still perform an attack move! That’s the case with all of your characters, so even with just Mario and Rabbid versions of Peach and Luigi, there was a frenzy of motion and follow up attacks each turn. There’s still the tactical thinking behind it, but where XCOM has you weighing up each possibility with the fear that you might lose a soldier, the battling here feels more open and carefree.
Of course, a lot of that feeling will also come from the bright and colourful art style and the world of the Mushroom Kingdom, which is simply gorgeous on Nintendo Switch – it actually uses the Snowdrop engine from The Division. As the two worlds collide, Rabbids are now everywhere in land of Mario, creating all kinds of havoc, or simply standing around slapping each other – they’re not exactly the most intellectual of creatures.
Running around the overworld has a hint of the Mario & Luigi RPGs, with a line of characters following the leader, which in this case is the Roomba with rabbit ears known as Beep-0. What Beep-0 actually is isn’t exactly clear at the moment, but it seems to be able to talk to the nonsensical Rabbids and act as a guide through the adventure. Truthfully, Beep-0 kind of feels like a weak link in the game, like a concerned parent who’s dismaying at the craziness all around, instead of really engaging with the vibrant silliness. Interactive points in the world have Beep-0 cajoling Rabbids for not helping restore order, and they just come off as flat instead of humorous.
There’s plenty of other things to do in the wider world as well, focused on helping you unlock new weapons and abilities. One section featured a maze of walls that raise up as you get near to them, as you try to not just pass through, but also collect the eight red coins, while another secret area tasks you with grabbing all the blue coins within the time limit, both of which reward you with a chest and a new type of weapon to unlock.
These feed into adding further depth to the turn based combat. Regardless of how far you move, you always have an attack action and a special action that you can use. There’s hundreds of different weapons in the game, many of which can have special effects like pushing enemies or sticking them in place, while character abilities can make them immune to special attacks, let them have higher accuracy and so on.
It’s not always just straight up combat either, and the final battle in the demo featured an interesting scenario with a Chain Chomp on the loose, happy to bounce around and attack whoever was nearest. Not only that, but there was one of the larger Rabbids up ahead able to smack characters with a huge block it was carrying, and the ominous sprouting of Rabbid ears from the ground behind Mario and his pals. Instead of being about winning, this was now about survival and getting at least one character to the exit safely.
While there’s definitely a feeling of culture clash in the game, and I’m sure there’s still plenty of people out there disappointed by this mash-up, Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle is looking great. The teams at Ubisoft Paris and Milan look like they’re creating something really quite special here, and I actually can’t wait to see and play more.